Thursday, May 29, 2014

Show me the data...

It's about time the pushback for cramming Big Data down our throats got some more attention.  For this farmer, it is not, as the general media seem to think, rooted in obstinacy and ignorance.

But the story of prescriptive planting is also a cautionary tale about the conflicts that arise when data entrepreneurs meet old-fashioned businessfolk. Farmers might be expected to have mixed feelings about the technology anyway: although it boosts yields, it reduces the role of discretion and skill in farming—their core competence. However, the bigger problem is that farmers distrust the companies peddling this new method. They fear that the stream of detailed data they are providing on their harvests might be misused. Their commercial secrets could be sold, or leak to rival farmers; the prescriptive-planting firms might even use the data to buy underperforming farms and run them in competition with the farmers; or the companies could use the highly sensitive data on harvests to trade on the commodity markets, to the detriment of farmers who sell into those markets. [More]
I'm not buying into precise seed-by-seed technology because there is no data to prove it consistently pays off, especially on my farm. The reasons are obvious and ignored in the rush to sell the Apparatus of Big Data to us.

Just off the top of my head, here are my objections:
  1. ALL of the ideas are based on predicting the growing season weather. This overriding factor of production hath made fools of us all too often.
  2. There are no definitive differences between hybrids sufficient to accurately attach them to soil types and conditions. How do you know there wasn't another hybrid you could have selected which wouldn't have boosted your profits far more? We are dealing with a system of enormous complexity and more variables than even this gadgets can begin to demonstrably manage.
  3. The non-trivial costs of multi-hybrid, variable population, and other planting gimmicks are seldom if ever added into the cost/benefit calculations.
  4. Hybrid turnover is now so rapid, there is no possibility of proving claims of site-specific benefits over a range of years and conditions. Besides your choice is limited to whatever seed Monsanto, et al. produce the previous season, so you're not really choosing between thousands of hybrids - you're picking whatever is in the warehouse.
  5. The premium for more uniform soil-type fields should become more pronounced as the need for site-specific solutions would be less.
  6. Knowing what is going on at every inch in the field is a far cry from being able to remedy any problem at the inch level. Other than lower your yield projection what will knowing there is a 20 acre patch of fungus or bugs in your corn field in August do? Are you going to pay for and aim a plane/highboy with that degree of specificity?
By the way, here is how the Economist article cited above understands what Monsanto is doing.

The Climate Corporation planned to use these data to sell crop insurance. But last October Monsanto bought the company for about $1 billion—one of the biggest takeovers of a data firm yet seen. Monsanto, the world’s largest hybrid-seed producer, has a library of hundreds of thousands of seeds, and terabytes of data on their yields. By adding these to the Climate Corporation’s soil- and-weather database, it produced a map of America which says which seed grows best in which field, under what conditions.FieldScripts uses all these data to run machines made by Precision Planting, a company Monsanto bought in 2012, which makes seed drills and other devices pulled along behind tractors. Planters have changed radically since they were simple boxes that pushed seeds into the soil at fixed intervals. Some now steer themselves using GPS. Monsanto’s, loaded with data, can plant a field with different varieties at different depths and spacings, varying all this according to the weather. It is as if a farmer can know each of his plants by name. [More]
I suppose it is possible producers who load up on this questionable and technology will blow the rest of us out of the water. But it could also be they will fall behind because they become high-cost producers during a period of volatile prices. Nothing will stop this false precision in its tracks faster than $4 corn, IMHO.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

We don't understand jack...

About China.  I read this on MR recently:
In just two years, from 2011 to 2012, China produced more cement than the US did in the entire 20th century, according to historical data from the US Geological Survey and China’s National Bureau of Statistics. [More]
That quote itself is from the FT, but I used this pointer so you could see the comments. Most of the but-that-can't-be-right arguments are noted and dispensed with there with good links.

In fact, to buttress this mind-blowing fact, consider this previous CFOTD:
Before the Communists came to power in 1949, China had only 22 dams of any significant size. Now the country has more than half of the world’s roughly 50,000 large dams, defined as having a height of at least 15 meters, or a storage capacity of more than three million cubic meters. Thus, China has completed, on average, at least one large dam per day since 1949. If dams of all sizes are counted, China’s total surpasses 85,000. [More]
I mentioned this factoid on the show and the incredulity was uniform.  I'm still unable to wrap my intuitive thinking around it. The unavoidable suspicion is if I can't come to grips with this solid evidence of the enormity of Chinese construction activity, what makes me think I have any feel for their food industry?

Since I had been pondering "whither farmland prices?", oddly enough the two strands intertwined. I came up with these working theories:
  1. The economy of China is not just bigger than we imagine, it is bigger than we can imagine.
  2. We are most probably underestimating Chinese demand for ag products in the future.
  3. By a lot.
Just like we totally missed - as in NOBODY called it - the incredible run-up in farmland prices in the last decade, I think we're about to do it again. China can drive the demand for protein especially to support routinely higher grain prices for the foreseeable future.

Bottom line, I see much lower odds of success by getting bearish on farmland simply because some bankers want to be the next Nouriel Roubini. They were wrong in 2009. I think they are short-sighted now.


Just like I did, the enormity of this disparity has some groping for a clearer picture.  So:

It's not heavily influenced by imports/exports.  The US only in the last few years have imported much more than a few percent.  China is currently producing about 25 times ( 2.2Btons vs. 74Mtons) our output and exporting. It exports ~17 Mtons. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Putting the pun in pundit...

About a year ago I appeared on the Willis Report on Fox Business Channel.

Rave reviews (I assume) because they asked me back this evening to offer cogent, incisive analysis of the farmland bubble bursting.

Am I the only farmer tired of hearing these Cassandra pronouncements from people who don't know squat about how the farmland market works?

Of course, I like to think my extremely rugged good looks left an unforgettable (no matter how hard she tried) impression on the host, Gerri Willis. But then, I also like to think my hair is getting thicker, too.

Anyhoo, I'll be trying to throw some cold water of reason on the doomsaying about farmland prices.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Keep an eye on this...

Perhaps the biggest coup for farm subsidy supporters in the last farm bill was re-establishing the "Cone of Silence" for farm subsidies.  Ever since the EWG got access to direct payment info under the Freedom of Information Act, farmers have been gritting their teeth as friends and family casually looked up how much they were getting from the government.

By shifting to insurance subsidies, the obscurity of who's getting what is back. It seems to me vulnerable to the same court challenges for the same reasons, but not getting a 1099-G will really complicate it.

Anyhoo, that's the reason I'm watching what's happening in Maryland.
Under that law, the Department of Agriculture is required to shield from public disclosure any information about a specific farm's "nutrient management" report. Lawmakers granted that confidentiality in hopes it would encourage farmers to support the legislation, said Maryland Assistant Attorney General Thomas Filbert.Because nutrient management plans are private, it is difficult to track which farms are letting the most fertilizer into the state's waterways. Though the state makes public broad information about agricultural pollution and environmental compliance, it does not single out growers.Blocked from getting current reports, environmental groups such as the Waterkeeper Alliance are suing for access to older files. The groups say the older reports will give the public a better view of how agriculture contributes to bay pollution.In addition, the lawsuit challenges the state's refusal to provide farms' state inspection records, which also monitor fertilizer use. The state says those are confidential under the same state law because they measure compliance with the nutrient management plan. [More]
 No idea on the timetable, nor on the odds of entering the federal appeal process to end up at SCOTUS. However, the overall trend seems to be toward more transparency, whether voluntary or not [see also: NSA]. It's really, really hard to keep stuff secret anymore.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Maybe it is the media...

I have commented on several occasions about my bafflement over the strength of the GMO labeling movement. (I still think this is a war we could "lose" with little damage). Reading this analysis of what is really bugging people about the issue offered some reasons for the power of the pushback.
But I suspect that the substance of the issue are incidental. Ball writes about the fact that the anti-GMO movement is cross ideological, but then so surely is the pro-GMO contingent. And what unites them is not so much support for genetically modified food but rather contempt for what they perceive the anti-GMO movement to be. Ball quotes an organizer, “I talk to Tea Party people, Occupy people, churches, everybody. Everywhere I go, people want labeling.” What unites the Tea Party, the Occupy movement, the religious? They are all groups that are typically treated with derision by media elites. They’re too grass roots, too passionate, too uneducated, too defined by cultural and social signifiers that are anathema to the bourgie, educated, arty-but-not-pretentious-about-it, smart-but-anti-academic types who write the internet. The anti-GMO movement ticks the right boxes: associated with both crazy Christian homeschool types and crunchy Whole Food liberal types, conveniently labelled as anti-science with all of the pretenses to objectivity and intelligence using that label brings, and generally not a threat to your professional or social standing if you criticize them. They’re an easy target and a risk-free one, if you’re a professional journalist or political writer.If anything unites the presumed readership of our national newsmedia, it’s not ideology, but rather cultural and social positioning– the ideology of the elite. And the anti-GMO labeling position unites liberal journalists and writers, conservative journalists and writers, and libertarian journalists and writers in a shared distaste for the political machinations of those who they don’t deem up to their cultural standards. You can have whatever stance you want to about abortion (to pick one example) and function as a media elite, but you cannot, by definition, be a non-elite media elite. That is the underlying, tacit bias that pulses within our media.What makes all of this dangerous is that our  media has no vocabulary for talking about this. However useless it may sometimes be, there exists a long and passionate conversation about partisan and ideological bias in media– complaints about our liberal media, complaints about Fox News, complaints about coziness between foreign policy journalists and the governments they cover. We have people like Jay Rosen to write and think about bias and neutrality. But there’s far less conversation about what it means that essentially everyone who writes for prominent national publications went to college, likes the same kinds of music and movies, has the same attitudes towards food and fitness, and speaks with the same vocabulary, the same codes. And since proving you can write for one of these publications typically means proving you can use that vocabulary and those codes, it’s hard to imagine a lot of people getting into the conversation and forcing a real discussion about this type of bias. [More]

Now that I think about it, the ideological lines are kinda blurry on this issue. It's not a Fox/MSNBC split. DeBoer might be on to something.

Another thought that occurred was the defense that you shouldn't have to label stuff that's not harmful - that labeling automatically stigmatizes GMO ingredients. But we label all ingredients now. Doing so hasn't stigmatized lecithin or soy flour. Possible harm is not the issue, full disclosure is. 

Color me more convinced we're going to make this a bigger headache for ag than it needs to be.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Not neutrality...

This is a complicated one.  The very term "net neutrality" is loaded with baggage and preconceptions, but I think those of us in the hinterlands have a big stake in this perplexing debate. Here's some background that helped inform my not-so-firm decision.

  1. As is becoming the usual case, Vox has a great beginner's course on net neutrality.
  2. Gaming the Title II rules. The shifty way Verizon alternated between rules for broadband and telephone service when it suited them.
  3. What's at stake today in the FCC announcement.
Hurtling to my bottom line: The FCC should treat broadband as a common carrier, not as broadband. In other words, they should disallow fast lanes and continue to regulate this industry.

My reasons:
  1. I no longer believe there is any concept of "the common good" in the boardrooms of America. What traditions we used to have of serving the public and moral responsibility have been eroded by voracious investors wanting immediate results in next quarter's results. This is a rule with exceptions, but is the safest assumption to begin with. I have no doubt Verizon/Comcast would screw the consumer in a heartbeat without looking back. Wall Street doesn't care about Rural Route 2.
  2. Rural Americans have the most to lose here. It is only because of admittedly inefficient and costly regulations we have stuff like electricity and roads and phones now. De-regulating carriers would allow them to ignore us more than they do currently. I realize I have campaigned for free markets in our industry, but dairy and sugar don't need infrastructure to deliver them to our homes, so I consider them apples to the Internet orange. There are some few services and products that cannot withstand increasingly rapacious unfettered profit-seeking freedom.
  3. Verizon, et al will doubtless find their way around any net neutrality rules to offer fast pipes to those who pay anyway.With rules in place I think consumers have a better chance of getting at least workable service while they do build out for big content suppliers.
  4. Our Internet is national embarrassment. Why reward the people who have made gazillions constructing this mish-mash service by allowing them to rack up even higher profits for no value to most consumers? I would entertain some compromise that would address telecom concerns in exchange for them meeting performance benchmarks and dates in the future. Why not offer to allow fast lanes if we can be in the Top 5 instead of #35, for example, or some other measurable parameter of Internet quality by specified dates?
  5. The Internet is one great "equalizer" that doesn't need redistributive taxes or any other horrors that inflame the hard right. Indeed the far right has built its conspiracy industry on the Internet. Of all the things to leave to the tender mercies of Big Telecom I should think this would be the last in conservative eyes. [OK, this is snark, but there is some truth in it] There is a hidden cost to regulation but I think it is almost always exaggerated and once baked into business plans can be mitigated by shrewd management decisions.
  6. Google has given me enormous amounts of free stuff and changed my life. Verizon gives me expensive and sluggish broadband. Whose side should I be on?
I will revisit this post after I dope out the announcement today. But tragically enough, the above reasons are the best I can come up with to inform the debate for those of us in rural America. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Economic engineering...

Although back in the day I had a minor in economics. (I could have gotten a double degree if I could I could only have gotten my head around linear algebra, but alas...I was allergic to it). Anyhoo, I've always rooted around in popular economic thought when I could.

But two things have changed this radically. First of all, economics turns out to be ideal for bloggers. In fact, some of the best econoblogs may be replacing economic journals as a way of exchanging ideas and debating.

But bigger than that, I think is the conversion of economics into something!
As an econ blogger, I get the sense that this is exactly how many Americans still think of economists—as self-appointed defenders of the free market, spinning theories to show that greed is good. Watching those old Milton Friedman videos, I wonder if that picture might have been accurate in the 1960s and 1970s. But some big things have changed in the field of economics, and America should know about them. Three big changes stand out in particular: Econ today is more data-driven, far less politically conservative, and in general much more like engineering than it used to be.
From theory to dataIn a 2012 interview about the future of energy, Nobel Prize winning physicist Robert Laughlin exclaimed: “Economists are idiots!… They just sit around making theories!” And as recently as the mid-1980s, he was right. As economist Dan Hammermesh found in a recent study, the majority of the papers published in top econ journals in 1963, 1973, and 1983 were theoretical papers. But in recent decades, the digital age has dumped a torrent of new data on the economics world, even as new theories have become harder and harder to think up. The result is that, as of 2011, the percentage of theoretical papers had fallen to under 30%. In recent years, the hot technique has been “structural estimation,” which is a sort of blend of theory and empirical work.
What this means is that, more and more, economists are demanding of each other “Oh yeah? Prove it!” Back in the age when economic data was very hard to gather, all you could really do was sit around and philosophize about how people might behave. A lot of useful stuff came out of that philosophizing, but a lot of non-useful stuff came out of it too. Now, thanks to the information age and the tidal wave of data, it’s becoming possible to see what works and what doesn’t in many arenas.
In fact, data has probably made an even bigger advance than those numbers suggest. A lot of the “theory” these days is pure game theory, which resides in econ departments but could just as easily be regarded as a branch of math. The kind of subjects someone in the 1960s would have probably called “economics”–things like tax policy, trade, industrial organization, or finance – are much more likely to be data-driven than in years past, at least in the top journals.
From laissez-faire to liberalWhen people say “Econ 101,” they probably mean a world where free markets work perfectly and government intervention is always bad. But open an actual Econ 101 textbook—say, Greg Mankiw’s Principles of Economics—and you’ll find a whole host of reasons why markets fail. Economists have always known that “negative externalities” (like pollution), “public goods” (like research), and “incomplete markets” could clog up the plumbing of the free market. But since the 1970s, economists have also explored how information problems like “adverse selection” and “moral hazard” can do the same. Game theory, which has become more and more popular, shows many cases in which even perfectly rational people can reach a bad equilibrium that leaves plenty of “free lunches” uneaten on the table. Behavioral economics has documented a host of ways in which humans might not be rational, and institutional economics has shown how even rational individuals can act stupidly en masse.
In other words, the simple story of perfectly oiled markets that was created by pioneers like David Ricardo and Kenneth Arrow turned out to be only a base case–the interesting stuff that went on top of that has made everything a lot more complicated.
Maybe that’s one reason why econ is slowly losing its reputation as the “conservative science.” Or maybe it’s the end of the Cold War, meaning that economists no longer have to serve as a bulwark against the threat of communism. But whatever the reason, the facts speak for themselves. A 2005 survey by economists Dan Klein and Charlotta Stern found that most economists favor government intervention in the economy in a wide range of areas, including income redistribution, minimum wage laws, environmental regulation, anti-discrimination laws, and others (and that was before the financial crisis!). They also found that economists are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican by a margin of 5 to 2. But even the Republican-voting economists tended to favor some amount of government intervention in all of these areas.
And let’s not forget that the most famous and widely-read economist in America, Paul Krugman, is also a liberal pundit. The days of Milton Friedman “schooling young idealists” are long gone. [More]

Other factors are much clearer writing and the proliferation of amazing graphics. Add in easily and rapidly accessible data from industry, government, etc. and economics has definitely gamed up.

The result is many more laymen like myself are struggling through economics explanations that would have sailed over our drowsy heads in college. More importantly, we're finding out it helps us understand our world and our businesses.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Numbers you didn't see...

From the recently released 2012 Census of Agriculture.
The response rate for the 2012 Census of Agriculture CML is 80.1 percent as compared with a response rate of 85.2 percent for the 2007 Census of Agriculture and 88.0 for the 2002 Census of Agriculture. [More] 
These numbers are buried in the Methodology section and surrounded by scary math so I don't think many ag reporters bothered to dig them out. 

As near as I can tell (the math scared me a little bit too) the response rate for was pretty even across farm sizes. 

Still, we're down to 1 in 5 taking of us a pass. Maybe in 20 years NASS will wonder why, so I can tell them: Too slow, too irrelevant (c'mon - $1000 = farm??)

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Junkbox, Episode MMXIV ✤...

All done, 'cept acres tiled needing a rain first.

Some rain perhaps, and then some rest.

Friday, May 02, 2014

When farmers die...

I was puzzled by the fact that farmer ownership of land is actually dropping after hearing for years about how they were the major buyers in the market.
The 2012 Iowa Farmland Ownership Survey from Iowa State University Extension shows 62 percent of Iowa farmland was owned by non-farmers last year, up from 60 percent in 2007 and 55 percent in 2002.The survey, compiled every five years by ISU Extension, is mandated by the Iowa Legislature.While the high percentage of farmland ownership by non-farmers might appear to be unusual, the cost of land, equipment, seed, fertilizer, crop insurance and other expenses related to planting and harvesting a crop is a major contributing factor.“With the amount of capital required today for a farming operation, we need the partnership with the landowners to bring that capital to the table,” said Kirk Weih, vice president of Hertz Farm Management in Mount Vernon.“About 40 percent of Iowa farmland is cash-rented, where the landowner gives up control of the farm, but receives rent by the acre. The farm operator makes all the decisions regarding what will be planted and provides all the capital required for the crops.”Weih said Hertz Farm Management, which manages farmland for non-farmer owners, also sees about 40 percent that is custom-operated. In that case, the landowner hires a neighboring farmer to do the planting and harvesting, but the landowner makes the capital investment for everything from seed to tiling.“There’s also a crop-share arrangement where the farm operator receives 20 percent to 25 percent of the crop for his contribution of labor and equipment,” Weih said. “The landowner receives 75 percent to 80 percent of the crop for their contribution of the land and all the expenses to plant and protect the crop.”[More]
How could farmers be the major buyers of farm land and end up owning a lower share?

Well, duh, John  - they die, and non-farming children inherit. I had forgotten we aren't immortal. Also farmers become non-farmers, as I am gradually doing. 

There is no good way to truly capture how much land is closely held by non-farming family members. We count that as "famer-owned*" - a sort of virtual farmer ownership.

Meanwhile, we're back to great alarms about outside investors jumping in to buy up farmland.
The report notes that over the next 20 years, nearly half of US farmland—about 400 million acres—will be up for sale as our aging base of farmers moves into retirement. So far, Wall Street cash is moving onto US farms like a stream; financial firms own just about 1 percent of total acreage, and most farmland is still bought by farmers, not institutional investors, the report states. But as more prime land enters the market, the hot money could soon flow like a gusher. By mid-2013, farmland was such a hot commodity that institutional investors werecomplaining of a tight market for prime farmland—that is, they had more money committed to buying farmland than they could find attractive deals for. But the supply of prime farmland for sale will expand as farmers retire in the coming decades, and Wall Street looks poised to move into the market.And of course, you don't have to take on the risk of farming when you buy farmland; you can also collect rent checks from the people who take on that risk. According to this USDA report, nearly 40 percent of US farmland acres are rented, and in the ag-heavy regions of farm states such as Iowa, Illinois, and California, the number tops 50 percent. The Oakland Institute report points out that one of the biggest players eyeing US farms is UBS Agrinvest, an arm of the Swiss banking mammoth UBS. UBS's strategy: "Rather than gambling its profits on commodity prices that could rise or fall, Agrivest prefers the predictable income that comes from renting to tenants, usually through lease agreements that last one to five years." That strategy is looking pretty good right now, because corn and soy prices have fallen while land rents remain stubbornly high. Between 2010 and 2012, the value of UBS's US farmland portfolio jumped from $192 million to $415 million. [More]
Philpott is noted for his agrarian proselytizing, but that doesn't excuse the dude from doing some math.  The normal turnover for farmland is 3-4%, so "half in 20 years" noted above is strangely below normal. And just because it changes hands doesn't mean it goes up for sale. In fact, very little does - it's mostly inherited.

Here's a serious effort to tease out actual farmland sales, not just in-family estate settlements, etc.


This is one of the most thorough efforts to measure the farmland market, and I expect it is still high. There are too many sales that happen before you know about it to be truly called open market transactions (buying out a long-time landlord, for example). 

The bottom line is these Cassandra-ish warnings about outside investors are perennial sensationalist drivel. Besides, how can the over-predicted farmland crash happen if all this hot money is wating to pounce?

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Change is possible...

Some forward-thinking minds in animal agriculture are figuring out there is gold in higher welfare systems for protein production. Higher welfare eliminates stresses of various kinds that in turn can allow few or no antibiotics to be fed.

The Dutch company started its patio system experiment to solve a persistent problem in chicken-raising: How to keep just-hatched broiler chicks healthy. A meat chicken’s life breaks down like this: 18 days incubating in the shell; three days to hatch; and 42 to 47 days growing to marketable size. Incubating and emerging take place at a hatchery, and growing takes place at a farm—and the transport between the two puts so much stress on the new chicks that a certain percentage either die or become permanently frail. Giving antibiotics, especially during the chicks’ first week, solves that problem, but the Netherlands and EU bans make that impossible now.Vencomatic’s innovation was to hatch the birds where they will be raised. The company’s first step was building a rack that positions ready-to-hatch eggs above the barn floor. When the chicks pop out, they tumble off the rack into their growing area and can eat and drink immediately. That might seem unremarkable, but it is actually rare. Broiler chicks aren’t fed at a hatchery; they don’t eat until they reach the farm where they will grow to chickenhood. The trip is supposed to happen soon after they emerge — but since chicks are hatched in large batches and don’t all emerge at the same moment, some can wait two days for their first meal.“That’s 5 percent of a chick’s life,” Vingerling points out. “The industry has always said that chicks recover from that, but it turns out not to be true.”
Changing when the chicks eat strengthens the birds’ immune systems, so fewer die or fail to thrive. Armed with that discovery, the company re-engineered what a “barn” represents. They created ventilation systems to suck out fumes and exchangers that scavenge heat, to save energy costs while keeping barns at a uniform temperature. The most radical step was housing the birds in the shelf-like stacked units. It keeps them at eye level for easy inspection (a structure like a library ladder slides along the outside) and permits a substrate of plastic under the bedding, which is more sanitary than the dirt or concrete of traditional barns. The attention to welfare extends to the end of the birds’ life. Traditionally, chickens going to slaughter are grabbed by the legs by “catchers” who walk through the barns. In the Vencomatic system, the plastic under the birds’ feet rolls slowly forward on a conveyor belt, dumping the litter and sliding the birds into crates untouched. [More]
Watch it in action. I like the part where the chicks take headers off the egg tray.

With beef consumption plummeting here, and chicken becoming what's for dinner, these expensive solution could become more mainline than many expect. All it would take is a McDonald's or Walmart to endorse them, I would guess.

Meanwhile, speaking of beef, guess what milestone it passed recently - going the wrong direction?

I wonder what is going to happen to our beef industry. With the drought,  and crop insurance reducing pasturage, does it really matter how cheap corn gets for herd rebuilding?
To recap, the market drivers for US domestic lean beef at present include:
  • US Cattle prices have surged to record highs, jumping 16pc compared to a year ago and now 80pc from the five-year average. This was a function of very low placements on feed last summer and cold northern hemisphere weather conditions this winter that slowed down feedlot rates of gain.
  • The surge in cattle prices has pushed up overall beef prices and stimulated retail demand for less expensive beef options, such as ground beef
  • Retailers are constrained in the supply of lean beef they use, with most using only fresh domestic product. Imported lean beef use at domestic retail in the US is very limited, with the bulk of it being used in pattie formulation for quick-service restaurant chains. Further reducing the supply of lean and extra lean product was the removal (and subsequent very slow recovery) in the use of Lean Finely Textured beef from pattie formulations in 2012
  • Sharply higher prices for chuck and round cuts also have increased the overall value of lean beef and reduced the supply of whole muscle cuts going into the grinder.
  • US cow slaughter in the first quarter is expected to be down 10pc, and the second quarter slaughter forecast is down 12pc, assuming normal spring moisture.
“So far there is a strong demand and a notable shortage of domestic lean beef,” the Steiner report said. [More]
Having performance standards imposed upon your business by customers is less irritating than by government, but the results look much the same. 

No - on reflection, I think market-driven criteria are much more likely to be met.

Stop the presses...

OK - we've done that. Newspapers (remember them?) have touched an ominous milestone.

The decline in print newspaper advertising to a 63-year low is pretty amazing by itself, but the sharp decline in recent years is stunning. Newspaper print advertising revenues decreased more than50% in just the last five years, from $37.6 billion in 2008 to only $17.3 billion last year; and by almost 70% over the last decade, from $56.9 billion in 2003.Here’s another perspective: It took a half century for annual newspaper print ad revenue to gradually increase from $20 billion in 1950 (adjusted for inflation in 2013 dollars) to $65.8 billion in 2000, and then it took only 12 years to go from $65.8 billion in ad revenues back to less than $20 billion in 2012, before falling further to $17.3 billion last year.Even when revenues from digital advertising and other categories described by the NAA as “niche publications, direct marketing and non-daily publication advertising” are added to print ad revenue (see red line in chart), the combined total revenues for print, digital and other advertising last year was still only $23.56 billion in 2013 dollars, which was the lowest amount of annual ad revenue since 1954, when $23.3 billion was spent on print advertising alone.The introduction of digital advertising starting in 2003, and the introduction of “niche publications, direct marketing and non-daily publication advertising” in 2011, have helped to slightly increase total ad revenues (print + digital + other), and the red line in the chart shows the contribution of those other revenue sources. But those sources are relatively small in comparison to print advertising revenues, and haven’t stopped the continuing, overall decline in total ad revenues. For example, digital advertising increased only 1.5% last year, the niche/non-daily category fell by almost 6% and direct marketing increased only 2.4%. Print advertising fell last year by 8.6%, and overall total advertising revenue fell by 6.5%. Those new revenues sources are certainly helping to stop the revenue decline from being even steeper, but won’t likely ever be high enough to reverse the precipitous overall decline in ad revenues in the coming years. [More]

I real the Chicago Trib online, which works great for us ruburban subscribers. But I would never consider an actual newspaper subscription. I'm with Mark - the speed of this transition was stunning.

There are some unsettling implications for reportage. Local coverage seems to be in big trouble.
The gradual erosion of local news can be glimpsed in a new report from the Pew Research Center’s Project on Journalism. The Washington-based organization says in its annual “State of the Media” report that digital news continues to grow, but that the strongest gains have been among sites with a national focus, not those covering city hall or the local high school team.The report found that just 30 national and international news sites — Vice, Huffington Post, Politico, Buzzfeed, Mashable, among others — accounted for about 60 percent of all the new digital journalism jobs created over the past five or so years. [More]
Going further into the gloom, can local TV coverage be far behind?
Among the findings:• 2011's ratings gains for network news evaporated in 2012. An average of 22.1 million people watched one of the three evening newscasts on ABC, CBS or NBC, a 1.9 percent drop from the year before. "CBS Evening News" was the one broadcast to increase viewership but it was still in third place.• Viewership of morning news shows dropped 4 percent during the same period. NBC's "Today Show" ceded the top spot to ABC's "Good Morning America."• The signs were even more grim for local TV news, which lost audience in every key time slot - morning, early evening and late. The average loss was more than 6 percent.Cable news didn't fare much better. Total median viewership rose only 1 percent across the three main news channels in 2012, even though it was a presidential election year. CNN was hardest-hit, shedding 4 percent of its prime-time audience. Fox News still led the pack in prime time but even it was flat, while no. 2 MSNBC was up 6 percent.• In print journalism, total daily newspaper circulation, buoyed by paywalls, stayed even in 2012 with 2011. But four of the five black newspapers studied lost circulation. And in an a year when Newsweek published its final print edition, the major news magazines saw drops in readership, on average 16 percent.The loss of audience seems to go hand-in-hand with a decline in the quality of news coverage. On local TV news, government coverage has been cut in half since with 2005, while sports, weather and traffic account for 40 percent of the content, the study found.(As I've written before, local TV news, by and large, consists of a steady diet of crime, helicopter shots of building fires, hysterical weather forecasts and cheerleading sports coverage.) [More]
We're reaching the point where commenters like me are getting a little nervous about incoming blog fodder. If we're all waiting for some other institution to do the grunt work of gathering news (and sniffing out corruption, etc.) won't we just be batting the same paltry fact inventory around?

For all the scorn heaped on the mainstream media, what exactly would even the critics work with when it dries up?