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Sustainability claims need evidence to back them up

"Just thinking or saying you're sustainable isn't good enough." That's what McDonald's Corp. executive Bob Langert told cattlemen last month. Consumers want proof. It might be hard to define such an abstraction, let alone prove what you've always...

"Just thinking or saying you're sustainable isn't good enough."

That's what McDonald's Corp. executive Bob Langert told cattlemen last month. Consumers want proof.

It might be hard to define such an abstraction, let alone prove what you've always done. Developing wells, practicing responsible grazing, protecting wildlife habitats -- maybe that's just part of who you are as a rancher.

But Langert is determined to push the envelope: "It's not just saying, 'trust us.' It's proving it," he says.

The next year or two will tell how or if that can be done. Creativity and system-wide support of objectively defined sustainability could satisfy this consumer demand.

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In today's market environment, where value differentiation is more than just a catchy phrase, consumers are not the only ones saying "prove it."

Cattle are worth more, so any buyer is making quite an investment.

Phrases such as reputation cattle, good black cattle, preconditioned used to carry some weight, but when you're operating in 2014, you've got to do better than that.

"Prove it," say the cattle buyers in the salebarn bleachers armed with specific orders. "Prove it," say the feedyard managers who are paying more for feeder calves than ever before.

Of course, reputation is still part of it, as information is shared and stored very quickly. Oftentimes those buyers might know more about the post-weaning performance of your calves than you do. You want to do all you can to ensure what they know is good news; such a reputation is bound to help your sustainability in the market.

Perhaps raising "good" cattle is a given for you. It's not out of the ordinary or a new focus, just part of you doing the best job you possibly can and fulfilling your duty as a rancher.

Calves look like the high-quality type that any buyer would want to own. Beyond that, it might be hard to come up with ways to prove that they're worth more.

How can you arm yourself with data that corroborates your quality claims?

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Records might provide the best evidence. Document your genetic selection, your health program and nutritional management. Commercial DNA tools that allow a sneak peek at what's under the hide can provide marketing ammunition.

Find ways to gather data after weaning. State or regional feed-out programs typically let you learn how some of your cattle work in the feedlot and in the cooler, starting with a small group. Many feedlots offer partnerships on retained ownership that share at least half the risk. Some that specialize in quality will buy full interest in your calves, but still share information to help make your cattle better next time.

When all calves are selling at a premium, this might all seem like a moot point. Yet, the nation's cowherd will rebuild and prices will respond. Now is the time to start building up that body of proof.

It might seem uncomfortable or difficult at first, but it'll be worth it.

He was talking about the McDonald's business philosophy, but Langert could have been talking about the beef business as a whole when he says, "If we didn't change, we'd be a withering and dying business. The customer is our primary business driver. "

And your customer, the next buyer in the production chain, wants proof.

Editor's note: Reiman is assistant director of industry information for Certified Angus Beef LLC.

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