As I drive across the state talking with producers, feed dealers, veterinarians and Cooperative Extension educators, the message is the same: “There are beef herds popping up all over the place.” With the dairy industry relocating to lands more suited to crop production, these once former dairy farms are again supporting a larger beef population.

The graph illustrates that beef cow numbers peaked in 1976 and declined through the 1990s. This followed a national trend. Beginning in 1991 beef cow numbers in New York increased nearly 70 percent. With adequate rainfall, excellent forage quality, relatively mild weather and strong markets, beef production is poised for continued growth.

A recent CattleFax survey asked its producer members about their annual cow carrying costs. The Intermountain West was highest at $637/cow, with the Southeast lowest at $565/cow. The upper Midwest through the Northeast U.S. was intermediate at $590/cow. Our abundant forage is a resource that gives us a competitive advantage and one that deserves our focus.

One challenge that northeastern beef producers face is marketing feeder calves from their small cow herds. To attract buyers, health risk on these cattle must be reduced and then aggregated into larger load lots to increase procurement efficiency. Two groups, one in central New York and another in southwest New York, have addressed this by offering calves weaned for a minimum of 30 days and vaccinated utilizing a uniform program to reduce risk of respiratory disease. The producers have been rewarded with premiums over cattle not presented in the same way.

The potential to increase economic development of our former dairy lands is evidenced by the financial support of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. Through Harvest New York, they have funded the work of Livestock Processing and Marketing Specialist MacKenzie Waro. She has already had an impact through facilitation of several processing workshops and is currently conducting an extensive evaluation of processing and slaughter plants in New York and New England. The New York State Department of Agriculture has also funded the Stocker Initiative, which is focusing on increasing awareness of this enterprise as well as training would-be entrepreneurs. Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball sees the resources available and wants to revitalize rural communities. Stocker cattle are one key component to that revitalization.

Markets for grass-finished cattle are growing. Most farmers like production but are not too keen on marketing. There are an increasing number of organizations that are facilitating getting grass-finished beef to the large consumer base just hours within our reach.

Another specialty market that our savvy producers have begun to fill is “natural.” These markets do not allow added hormones and feed-delivered antibiotics. The connection between cattle that are coming off grass as stockers and the natural finisher is a natural. These stocker cattle are older, have an improved immune system and in general are healthier. This makes a perfect fit for the two production and marketing systems.

Direct-to-consumer sales is a key component to the marketing landscape. Matt LeRoux, marketing specialist, Cornell Cooperative Extension Specialist in Tompkins County, New York, has worked to make it easier for consumers to find locally produced meat. The Meat Suite is a region-wide website connecting consumers to farmers. The Meat Locker project provides freezer space for consumers to store their locally sourced meats.

The future is bright for the beef industry in New York and New England. With reasonable cost of production and a consumer base that is the envy of all, producers can proceed with confidence. However, no matter how you slice it, agriculture is not a “get rich quick” scheme. To provide a reasonable level of family income the producer has to be diligent in keeping costs down and never become complacent in a given production or marketing practice.

May is Beef Month – let’s celebrate what beef has to offer to consumers and Northeast farmers alike.

Read more: Checking the Beef Checkoff