One reason supermarket meat prices have lagged well behind inflation is the nation's livestock shows. From California to Virginia, farmers compete for prizes showing that their cattle, hogs, sheep, or poultry put on more weight more quickly with less feed.
The million-plus visitors to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, ending its 16-day run March 7, may go mainly for the Astrodome's rodeo events. And the sophisticated city of Houston may love the show largely because it now generates more than $140 million worth of business. But the heart of the show is unchanged and perhaps even more important for today's recession-battered beef industry than it was during the depression days of the 1930s.
Houston's livestock show, now the world's largest, began 50 years ago when a Texas stockyard owner wanted to give cattlemen an incentive to breed better cattle. Today all animal-breeders are under tremendous pressure to improve their stock because of their industry's traditionally heavy borrowing requirements. High interest rates not only blurden the livestock industry directly but have cut sharply into both domestic and export demand.
So elbow past the ranch-smoked-jerky stands and the burritos stalls. Pass up the temptation to be photographed riding a wildly rearing bull (which fortunately is stuffed and solidly anchored). Beyond the cordon of customized four-wheel-drive pickups and plush cattle trailers, all under one Texas-size, 22 -acre roof, you finally meet the show's stars: 27,000 animals.
This Noah's ark of prize beef and dairy cattle, hogs, sheep, poultry, and rabbits is gathered and judged with a purpose: to select livestock that can put more meat on your table a little more efficiently.
For instance, Moon Lake Ranch's continuing effort to breed better quality cattle last year resulted in more than $1 million in cattle sales. This year David Doherty and his father expect even better returns from their 250-head cattle-breeding operation - particularly if their Brangus bulls are prize-winners in Houston.
Along with cattle-breeders and buyers from the United States, Canada, and Latin America, the Dohertys are in Houston for serious business - along with enjoying a party that has everyone from bankers to secretaries going to work in jeans and boots.
Mr. Doherty explains that his father's 300-acre ranch 30 miles south of Houston is ''part of the hub which can make the giant wheel of the cattle industry turn better.'' During the year, the Dohertys work at improving their herd. With a close eye on bloodlines, they mix the ''good calving and mothering and meat qualities'' of Angus cattle with the Brahman breed's hardiness and larger size.
The next step, says David Doherty, is selling his cattle to cattlemen whose commercial herds will then begin to put on more pounds more quickly at lower cost. The ultimate benefit from making the nation's beef cattle more productive , breeders here explain, will go to supermarket shoppers.
Key to breeding improvements, says Doherty, is the annual round of livestock shows, culminating in Houston. Here, he says, ''We can measure ourselves against the other breeders, with their best cattle from Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and California.''
If David Doherty's Brangus cattle take top prizes this year, he'll have proof his breeding experiments are headed in the right direction for the industry. He may also head home with a great deal of money from a show where last year's grand champion steer sold for a world record $112,000. But the more important payoff will be that more buyers will be looking for Moon Lake Ranch cattle.
Lewis Bingham hauled one bull and one heifer to the Houston show this year from his Justin, Texas, ranch because ''if you win here, everyone in the business knows about it and you can demand a lot more for your feedstock.''
Cattlemen around the country are suffering from low beef prices. But, Mr. Bingham explains as he watches the cattle judging from under his Stetson's wide brim, ''Our buyers get paid back very quickly for what they spend on my bulls because their cows will weigh more going to market.''
Bingham attends livestock shows across the country as part of his business. But Houston is his favorite, he says, because ''everybody here puts on a cowboy hat and boots and makes it fun for all of us.''
The show includes fun for the 7,000 youngsters who have spent the past year raising their own animals. Like the nation's top breeders, the teen-agers can compare their results with the competition. Along with perhaps selling their cattle or hogs at top prices, they are also here to try for the livestock show's 100 four-year $6,000 college scholarships awarded each year.