Beef. It's still for dinner. And the Beef Promotion and Research Act is still alive and well, according to the USDA.

A recent attempt by the Livestock Marketing Association failed to garner enough valid signatures on a petition to force a referendum on the beef checkoff program.

That's good news for Texas and other Southwestern cattlemen, says Donald Patman, president of the Texas Farm Bureau. "Texas beef producers should breathe a collective sigh of relief," Patman says. "The checkoff is working and is a small investment that is producing big results."

The beef checkoff program may be best known for its use of deep-voiced actors, including the late Robert Mitchum, promoting the taste, nutritional value and simplicity of beef dishes. Television spots were accompanied by the rousing music of Aaron Copeland's Rodeo. (I think. It possibly could be one of his other works with a distinct Western flavor, but Rodeo sounds right. It has the right connotation for beef anyway. Whatever, it's a wonderful piece of music and meshes well with the beef message.)

I can't imagine anyone watching and hearing those commercials and not wanting to bite into a juicy steak or tasty burger (the meat kind, not the veggie burger popular in some trendy but misguided restaurants).

And recent spots included easy-to-fix beef dishes, made possible by research from the checkoff dollars.

"Mom comes home from work, pops a beef dish in the microwave and dinner's ready in 10 minutes," Patman says. "These convenient (heat and eat) products were not available two years ago."

He says these and similar products have increased demand for beef. "Beef consumption is up 5.5 percent over last year. And we've had a significant turnaround in consumption for the last two years."

The effort goes beyond domestic consumption. Checkoff dollars also support beef promotion efforts in foreign markets. Food safety and nutrition issues also benefit from the program.

It's not hard to empathize with ranchers who prefer to do away with the program. Times have been tough for most farms, including cattle ranches. And any additional cost puts an extra burden on profitability. A tax, whether it's self-imposed or government-mandated, is a hard bill to pay. But this one makes sense.

Checkoff dollars, when used wisely, serve as an investment in an industry's future. There's power in collective effort. Pooling resources allows the industry to develop strong advertising campaigns, such as the "It's what's for dinner" message, that keep products in consumers' minds. Like it or not, advertising plays a key role in shoppers' choices.

Checkoff funds also help battle misinformation about the role beef should play in our diets. We know it tastes good, but it's also good to know that beef can be part of a healthy lifestyle.

Patman says beef producers have seen value from the ad campaigns, the research efforts and the educational programs made possible by producer dollars.

"The lack of support for a referendum is testimony that beef cattle producers know a good self-help program when they see it," he says. "Continued efforts as a result of the Beef Promotion and Research Act demonstrate our ability to move the demand for beef in a positive direction."

It may be important, as well, for checkoff supporters to reassure those who would do away with the program that their dollars are spent wisely. It takes only 10 percent of the nation's cattle producers to force a referendum.

It's impossible to devise any program that suits every producer, and some will always favor staying outside organized efforts, preferring independence to collective actions. Making certain that even the naysayers are well represented will reduce the potential for controversy.

University Extension and research scientists say cotton yield monitors, although not perfect yet, provide farmers with information they can use to increase yield and improve production efficiency.

John Wilkerson, who has been working with yield monitors for six years at the University of Tennessee, says precision technology leads to precision information and to increased profit.

"Farmers can do profit/loss mapping with yield monitor data," says Wilkerson, who developed the technology for the Ag Leader system.

"We can identify loss areas in a field. We look at nutrient levels, soil characteristics, slope and other factors."

He says one test indicated two distinct zones in a field. "One zone made a profit every year in a five-year study," he says. "The other zone never made a profit in five years."

He says farmers can improve harvest efficiency with yield monitors, especially when they have multiple pickers or strippers running in one field. "If a module is nearly full, we can use a yield monitor to identify which picker has the pounds on board to fill the module.

"They're also important in scrapping decisions. If yield monitors indicate too little lint to justify a second pass across the field, we can move on to another field without wasting time and energy in one that's not profitable," he says.

He says monitors also help farmers make in-field picker adjustments to improve efficiency.

Alex Thomasson, Mississippi State University, says remote-sensing technology is improving. "Even with errors, farmers can get a good idea of variability in a field," he says.

Thomasson tested monitors in Weslaco, Texas, south Georgia, and Mississippi and says results show some error but also indicate that yield monitor data is accurate enough to provide valuable information for farmers.

The highest margin of error, compared to yield weight measurements, was 26.6 percent. That came from the Texas location and was the first load analyzed in the day. Thomasson says that load included a lot of weeds, and was harvested early in the morning, when temperatures were cooler. Average margin of error for the Texas location was 5.6 percent.

Average for the south Georgia sites was 0.9 percent. The worst load there, a 24 percent error, also came early in the morning. "We think temperature may be a factor in accuracy," he says.

The Mississippi tests were set up to judge reliability. "We found the monitors to be easy to use and reliable," Thomasson says. He says industry should continue to improve reliability and accuracy and provide a unit that compares to grain yield monitors.

Steve Searcy, Texas A&M, says stripper monitors differ from picker-type units.

"We've evaluated commercial monitors and weigh-type systems," he says. "We want to know how accurate, from point to point, stripper monitors are. We compare monitor data with handpicked cotton."

He says results from 1999 were not promising. "But we dedesigned the system and got significantly better results."

Calvin Perry, University of Georgia, says the Ag Leader monitor appears to be "the most userfriendly system we've tested."

He also has evaluated Farm Scan and Zycom. "Each has days in which it performs better than on other days. The same is true for different fields," he says. He recommends farmers recalibrate cotton yield monitors any time harvest conditions change dramatically.

"Each system will perform and produce useful yield maps, if properly calibrated and maintained," he says.