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Livestock stewardship

Ask a dozen people the definition of “steward” and you will likely hear subtle differences among their responses.

If you're a beef producer, “a person who manages another's property” may not be the first definition that comes to mind, but it is the dictionary's definition. In regard to the land, many would remark that even though most ranchers and farmers own and manage their property, the overriding philosophy is that they are caretakers for the next generation; they not only want to manage it, but enhance it.

Stewardship is a duty to the huge majority who care for the land, but can we apply the same word with regard to our cattle? The mission of the Indiana Integrated Resource Management program is “dedicated to caring for the land and the cattle that graze it,” which implies that we are also stewards of the cattle we own and manage.

All the winners of the National Cattlemen's Foundation Environmental Stewardship Award Program (see page 24) are dedicated to improving the land and water they manage. But I'm also quite certain they're improving the land not only to benefit the environment but also the livestock.

Cows consuming forage at the proper vegetative state, as is the goal with Management-intensive Grazing (MiG), should have improved body condition. That improves fertility and nutrient intake, which could translate into increased weight gain and enhanced disease resistance.

But MiG can enhance parasite pressure in livestock. Thus, strategic deworming, along with movement of cattle to pastures with few to no parasites (a hayfield or a long-ungrazed meadow, for instance), can minimize these concerns and is another form of stewardship.

Although controversial to some, fencing cattle out of loafing areas that contain water (stream, pond, swamp, etc.) can decrease the chances of transmission of footrot, leptospirosis and other diseases. This is another “good for the environment, good for the cattle” scenario.

In many areas of the country, we compromise on the dates of our calving season due to our breeding season. Thus, we calve in the winter in order to breed before the heat of summer. Could we delay calving by a few weeks or even months and still have a successful breeding season? If you won an environmental stewardship award but lose 5% of your calves due to weather issues, are you completing the circle of stewardship?

Does our stewardship extend to the next owner of our cattle? If you precondition your calves before sale, you decrease morbidity and mortality of your calves for the stocker, backgrounder or feedlot.

What about the techniques taught in Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) and low-stress cattle handling? Are these innovations concomitant with stewardship? BQA reminds us that every bovine is hopefully going to be a tender, juicy and flavorful eating experience; and it does matter how, when or if you give injections to your cattle.

Low-stress handling techniques should be the backbone of cattle stewardship. When we think about improving the health, productivity and profitability of the cattle, how we handle them can have a profound impact on all three areas. As I reflect on my 40 years of working with cattle, low-stress handling is likely the most profound change for me personally.

Step back and look at your operation as a whole. Would your neighbors consider you a steward of your land AND your cattle, or would you need to improve in one or more areas? If improvement is necessary, attend a meeting, read an article or surf the web. If you're among our industry's many award-winning stewards of cattle, lead the meeting, write the article or just share your wisdom with someone who has stewardship potential.

W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical associate professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.