PITY THE POOR COWMAN. All his life he has been told to raise bigger and better cattle. More meat on the hoof meant more dollars in his pocket—which is why Texas ranchers have turned away from smaller British breeds like Angus and Hereford in favor of heftier continental breeds like Simmental and Charolais. Now, however, feedlot operators and meat packers have decided that smaller is better when it comes to producing the marbled beef that can qualify for a grade of USDA choice. The reason is price. British breeds develop choice beef when they weigh about 1,100 pounds; larger breeds must continue to feed on expensive grain until they reach 1,300 to 1,350 pounds. In 1995 feedlots paid ranchers up to $2.81 a pound more for 500-pound certified Angus feeder cattle than for similar-sized continental breeds. Meanwhile, packers have their own reasons for preferring smaller cattle. At one time they supplied local grocery stores with sides of beef, which butchers carved into cuts and then steaks. No longer. Now the packer supplies the cuts in boxes that hold around seventy pounds of meat. Each box contains identical cuts (say, all loins or ribeyes). The most efficient way to fill the boxes with choice beef is to use cuts from cattle that weigh about 1,100 pounds—again, Angus and Herefords. Cuts from the bigger breeds are too big to fit neatly into the box. Well, you might ask, why not get a bigger box? The answer is that bigger means heavier, and some unions resist lifting heavier boxes. Even consumers are thinking small: They don’t like the extra-large steaks that come from the bigger breeds.

The switch to lighter cattle (even the King Ranch is moving away from the Santa Gertrudis breed it created to a smaller breed called Santa Cruz) couldn’t have come at a worse time for cattle raisers. This year shapes up as the worst in three decades for Texas ranchers. Fertilizer, which is used mostly in pastures east of I-35, costs 50 percent more than last year. Feed-grain prices have increased by at least that much. Cattle prices have crashed because of an oversupply caused by two factors: (1) an optimistic herd expansion after the boom of 1991; (2) the drought, which has forced ranchers in both Texas and Mexico to liquidate their herds.

Baby Talk

HEALTH MAINTENANCE ORGANIZATIONS are getting to be a popular whipping boy in Texas politics. One of the big fights of the 1997 Legislature will be a proposal to allow doctors—the HMOs’ arch-enemy—to bypass insurers by contracting directly with businesses to provide health care. Meanwhile, a newly appointed state Senate committee with a mission to study the problems of managed care appears to be doctor-friendly. Now another HMO controversy is gaining steam. HMOs want to save money by sending newborns home from hospitals within 24 hours of birth, but this policy interferes with a state program to screen newborns for blood disorders that indicate a risk of mental retardation. State law requires that babies be tested for five disorders before their release from the hospital, but some of the tests aren’t reliable in the first 24 hours. In particular, first-day tests for congenital hypothyroid and congenital adrenal hyperplasia are likely to produce a substantial number of false positive results; two other tests can result in false negatives. Parents of babies who test positive receive a letter from the Texas Department of Health warning them that the child may become mentally retarded if the condition is not treated. This is not a letter you want to receive. Most babies test negative on a second try, but in the meantime, parental anxiety abounds. You can bet that the HMO’s Heave-’M-Out policy will be one of the hot topics in the 1997 legislative session.

Going to Pot

AUSTIN’S LONG-SUFFERING CONSERVATIVES, the Brooklyn Dodgers of Texas politics, will have to wait till next year—again. The May city council election was going to be their big opportunity. The three seats at stake were held by controversial environmentalists. Voters citywide were angry over rising crime and neglected infrastructure, leaving the council’s popularity somewhere between the Aggies’ and Hill Country megadeveloper Jim Bob Moffett’s. But things began to go wrong for conservatives long before Election Day. First, they formed an organization none-too-subtly called Take Back Austin (TBA). Then they made decades-old charges of marijuana use a principal issue in the campaign, showing, to say the least, a lack of understanding of the Austin electorate. The result: Incumbent Jackie Goodman defeated her Take Back Austin challenger; gadfly political columnist Daryl Slusher and newcomer Jeff Hart knocked out another TBA hopeful; and environmentalist Beverly Griffith forced the TBA’s Rick Wheeler into a runoff.