Black Ink: Too Much of a Good Thing? the Beef industry 

( Certified Angus Beef® )

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. 

Are we there yet?

The thought ran through my mind several hours into a long drive. The talk had worn thin, songs on the stereo now felt stale and both my husband and I were beyond ready to reach the final destination.

No hard feelings, these trips are often full of fun, quality time together. But we’d passed the tipping point of good times and were steadily sliding down the other side of the bell curve.

Have we reached that point in the quality beef ride, too? We rounded out 2019 with 72% of the harvest reaching the Choice grade and 8.6% Prime. There’s more premium beef on the market than ever before. Could we be approaching our destination, maybe even delivering too much of a good thing?

For decades the National Beef Quality Audit tried to find out if there is an ideal quality grade mix, only for the market to tell us it’s determined by evolving economic signals from consumers.

As we’ve gotten better at consistently producing more premium beef, consumption and demand have grown. Our product today is worth more and that value flows back to producers. CattleFax estimates that if demand had not grown in the last 20 years but remained flat, fed cattle would be worth $20 per hundredweight (cwt.) less. We’d be out $270 per head there, and calf prices would be $50 per cwt. lower than they are today.

Premium Choice qualifying carcasses can earn up to $50 per head above the bottom third of the category — totaling an added potential value of $90 above the cash market. For those grading Prime, it can mean as much as $200 above cash on value-based packer formula, grid and contract markets.

But not every consumer can afford premium quality beef, right?

Well, let’s look at the other side of that coin. The Select grade category gets smaller each year, rounding out 2019 at only 16% of the mix. In 2018 the Red Angus Association published a white paper on its disappearance, predicting by 2025 Select will be merely a shadow in an industry that’s moved toward higher quality.

In practical terms, it already is. The marketability of Select grade beef keeps sliding. As restaurants and grocery chains have learned to appreciate a more highly marbled, consistent product and the value it drives in their business, fewer are willing to accept anything less. We’ve transitioned away from the days where packers had a short list of where to send their limited supply of Prime product to now only a handful of customers that will take the cheaper, lower end.

Those who see this boost in quality as the offramp — a chance to drive away from that long journey toward higher carcass quality — may have a bumpy road ahead.

The drive is far from over and there’s much to be won by keeping a focus on genetics with that “taste fat” premium potential.

As the bar for average rises, we may see the quality grades shift. Opportunity on the premium end could mean a segmented Prime category, similar to graduated Choice today.

We haven’t reached a tipping point. For cattlemen, more of a good thing is a great thing.

The drive toward carcass quality isn’t over yet.

Next time in Black Ink®, Miranda Reiman will cover stockmanship. Questions? E-mail nerceg@certfiedangusbeef.com.

New green technology generates electricity ‘out of thin air’

Renewable device could help mitigate climate change, power medical devices

February 17, 2020
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Electrical engineers and microbiologists have created a device they call an ‘Air-gen.’ or air-powered generator, with electrically conductive protein nanowires produced by the microbe Geobacter. The Air-gen connects electrodes to the protein nanowires in such a way that electrical current is generated from the water vapor naturally present in the atmosphere.

Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have developed a device that uses a natural protein to create electricity from moisture in the air, a new technology they say could have significant implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change and in the future of medicine.

As reported today in Nature, the laboratories of electrical engineer Jun Yao and microbiologist Derek Lovley at UMass Amherst have created a device they call an “Air-gen.” or air-powered generator, with electrically conductive protein nanowires produced by the microbe Geobacter. The Air-gen connects electrodes to the protein nanowires in such a way that electrical current is generated from the water vapor naturally present in the atmosphere.

“We are literally making electricity out of thin air,” says Yao. “The Air-gen generates clean energy 24/7.” Lovely, who has advanced sustainable biology-based electronic materials over three decades, adds, “It’s the most amazing and exciting application of protein nanowires yet.”

The new technology developed in Yao’s lab is non-polluting, renewable and low-cost. It can generate power even in areas with extremely low humidity such as the Sahara Desert. It has significant advantages over other forms of renewable energy including solar and wind, Lovley says, because unlike these other renewable energy sources, the Air-gen does not require sunlight or wind, and “it even works indoors.”

The Air-gen device requires only a thin film of protein nanowires less than 10 microns thick, the researchers explain. The bottom of the film rests on an electrode, while a smaller electrode that covers only part of the nanowire film sits on top. The film adsorbs water vapor from the atmosphere. A combination of the electrical conductivity and surface chemistry of the protein nanowires, coupled with the fine pores between the nanowires within the film, establishes the conditions that generate an electrical current between the two electrodes.

The researchers say that the current generation of Air-gen devices are able to power small electronics, and they expect to bring the invention to commercial scale soon. Next steps they plan include developing a small Air-gen “patch” that can power electronic wearables such as health and fitness monitors and smart watches, which would eliminate the requirement for traditional batteries. They also hope to develop Air-gens to apply to cell phones to eliminate periodic charging.

Yao says, “The ultimate goal is to make large-scale systems. For example, the technology might be incorporated into wall paint that could help power your home. Or, we may develop stand-alone air-powered generators that supply electricity off the grid. Once we get to an industrial scale for wire production, I fully expect that we can make large systems that will make a major contribution to sustainable energy production.”

Continuing to advance the practical biological capabilities of Geobacter, Lovley’s lab recently developed a new microbial strain to more rapidly and inexpensively mass produce protein nanowires. “We turned E. coli into a protein nanowire factory,” he says. “With this new scalable process, protein nanowire supply will no longer be a bottleneck to developing these applications.”

The Air-gen discovery reflects an unusual interdisciplinary collaboration, they say. Lovley discovered the Geobacter microbe in the mud of the Potomac River more than 30 years ago. His lab later discovered its ability to produce electrically conductive protein nanowires. Before coming to UMass Amherst, Yao had worked for years at Harvard University, where he engineered electronic devices with silicon nanowires. They joined forces to see if useful electronic devices could be made with the protein nanowires harvested from Geobacter.

Xiaomeng Liu, a Ph.D. student in Yao’s lab, was developing sensor devices when he noticed something unexpected. He recalls, “I saw that when the nanowires were contacted with electrodes in a specific way the devices generated a current. I found that that exposure to atmospheric humidity was essential and that protein nanowires adsorbed water, producing a voltage gradient across the device.”

In addition to the Air-gen, Yao’s laboratory has developed several other applications with the protein nanowires. “This is just the beginning of new era of protein-based electronic devices” said Yao.

The research was supported in part from a seed fund through the Office of Technology Commercialization and Ventures at UMass Amherst and research development funds from the campus’s College of Natural Sciences.

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Story Source:

Materials provided by University of Massachusetts AmherstNote: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Xiaomeng Liu, Hongyan Gao, Joy E. Ward, Xiaorong Liu, Bing Yin, Tianda Fu, Jianhan Chen, Derek R. Lovley, Jun Yao. Power generation from ambient humidity using protein nanowiresNature, 2020; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2010-9