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Articles from 2007 In May


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Teaming Up With NRCS: Creating cattle and wildlife haven

It’s not a rare experience for Will and Joan Senn to see antelope, whitetail deer and muledeer, doves, quail, and turkeys almost any day at their Covered S Ranch near Justiceburg, Texas.

It’s a big change from their former life in Atlanta, Ga., where Will was a businessman. He and Joan are now living their dream as ranch owners.

Senn, a Georgia resident for 35 years, wanted to come to West Texas following his retirement. “This place has everything I’m interested in,” he says. He had always envisioned owning a cattle ranch and horse farm in Texas.

They purchased the Scurry County ranch in 1997 and made it their permanent residence three years ago, investing a lot of time and money to maintain a traditional cattle operation, while diversifying with wildlife.

The Senns have been passionate about restoring the ranch to its native condition. Initially, they focused on re-establishing and restoring the ranch from over-grazing, decreased soil and water quality and decreased wildlife habitat. They absorbed most of the cost for the conservation practices.

They started in1998 with brush control measures where mesquite trees had invaded the land. Will purchased an excavator and started grubbing, raking, and piling brush on 1,450 acres.

He contacted the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) about technical assistance and conservation programs that would apply to his operation.

Kevin Wright, NRCS district conservationist in Snyder, recommended the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) as the most practical conservation program for Senn’s situation.

Wright helped prepare a conservation plan to grub and rake the land. Senn was approved for a WHIP contract with 50 percent cost-share for grubbing practices on 526 acres.
“Any kind of assistance helps, and it was a helping hand for something I was already doing. I appreciate the assistance,” Senn says.

“The WHIP program is a management plan of your natural resources,” Wright notes. “In our efforts to accommodate the wildlife species on this ranch, we made sure a conservation plan included all the natural resources on the ranch and provided enough open country for wildlife. It all pertains to the needs and capabilities of the land, and the landowner’s objectives.”

Senn’s deer populations are already taking advantage of brush control and brush sculpting.

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“Muledeer are a rough country species, and by leaving enough cover in the lower areas, they utilize the land and come into the open ground,” Senn says. The ideal habitat for the deer also benefits cattle — brush strips provide wind protection in the winter and the cattle also use trees and brush for shade.

Senn’s brush management also improves the possibility of conserving moisture from rain to help restore historic springs on the ranch.

“We’ve experienced a long drought here for some time, but with future rains, I hope ground moisture will increase.”

Other wildlife species benefit from seasonally-introduced plants desirable for food and cover. Quail populations have increased dramatically with lote bushes, tasijillo, skunk bush, and the remaining mesquite trees for protection and cover.

“Wright has helped with technical assistance for overseeding grasses and forbs for fall and spring, and choosing plant varieties that provide the best food,” says Senn.

He’s considering overseeding with forbs, such as plateau bush sunflower, to benefit quail and antelope in late winter. Forbs also furnish quail with nutritious, high protein forage in fall and spring.

Wright based recommendations on several factors: land topography, soil types, available moisture, and objectives for cows/calves and wildlife.

He determined the soil types and reviewed the topography and suggested plant species to provide wildlife and cattle needs.

Senn also needed to replace cool season grasses with warm season options. “Kevin’s knowledge has been helpful,” he says. “He’s made recommendations and determined what I might consider in the long-term.”

Senn bases his ranching operation on principles of proper range management, balancing animal forage demand with forage supply. This balance is necessary for animal production and health of the forage resources and habitat. He uses techniques that monitor forage supply to make informed decisions that will sustain productivity.

He’s seen an increase in native vegetation and improved wildlife habitat.

Senn continues to add to his to-do list for the ranch. “This is just the beginning of what I would like to see done.”

He and ranch manager Leddy Lewis are dedicated to conservation practices that benefit the ranch. They hope to combine a sustainable beef operation with increased wildlife habitat and bring about a balance between forage and cover.

Senn credits NRCS with success in restoration of native vegetation and brush control measures on 24,000 acres. His long-range objectives depend on the needs of cattle or specific wildlife species.

The visual affects of the Covered S Ranch are noticeable because of conservation practices. Clean fence lines and open country dominate an area that was overgrown with heavy mesquites and cedar.

Read more Pasture and range articles >

Breeding soundness exams vital to successful breeding program

Breeding success depends on the reproductive health of both the cow and the bull. But, because a bull is expected to service various numbers of cows, the potential fertility of the bull is much more important than determining the fertility of any individual cow, says Bryan Kutz, with the University of Arkansas ag extension.

What genetic and physical improvements need to be made? What sire breed would best complement my cow base? How many bulls are needed to correctly cover my cows? Do I need to use two different sire breeds? These are all very relevant questions that need to be answered as we approach the spring breeding season. Nonetheless, without a proper Breeding Soundness Exam (BSE), these decisions may not matter. The greatest bull with bad semen will not produce calves.

It is essential to evaluate bulls every year before breeding starts because the fertility of an individual animal can vary from year to year. The breeding soundness exam should be performed 30 to 60 days before the start of breeding season. It is important to allow sufficient time to replace questionable bulls. This will also allow enough time for stressed animals to recover and to be tested again before beginning the breeding season.

The physical examination includes evaluating body condition, feet and leg structure and the general health of the individual bull. The external evaluation of the reproductive tract includes evaluation of the testes, spermatic cords and epididymis. Scrotal circumference is an important measure since it is directly related to the total mass of sperm-producing tissue, sperm cell normality and the onset of puberty in the bull and his female offspring.

Circumference measurements should be taken at the widest point on the scrotum.

Depending on the breed type of the bull being tested, the minimum scrotal circumference can vary. Maximum testicular size usually occurs at 4 to 6 years of age. With advancing age, testicular tissue may lose some sperm-producing capacity. Therefore, scrotal circumference measurements are not as accurate after this time. The table below illustrates the minimum scrotal circumference (SC) that will allow a bull to pass a breeding soundness exam. However, bull buyers should not feel comfortable in accepting the minimum, but rather select bulls that are average or above average for the breed and the age of the bull. Therefore, the “Good” column of the following table is a better guideline for bull selection.

Recommended Scrotal Circumference

Age

Minimum SC (cm)

Good

< 15 months

30

> 34

15 -18 months

31

> 36

18 -21 months

32

> 37

21 -24 months

33

> 38

> 24 months

34

> 39

There is great variation in scrotal circumference between breeds of bulls. Measurement of many English and European bulls has shown that yearling bulls should have scrotal circumference of at least 30 cm and by 20 months of age have a scrotal circumference of at least 32 cm. Brahman breed bulls will have smaller testes at the younger ages, and they will reach maturity at an older age. The Brahman breed bulls will have adult scrotal circumferences similar to other beef breeds.

Next Tip: Low-stress cattle handling strategies

Black Ink: The herd improvement game

It’s the biggest annual cost item in the cattle business, and it’s getting even bigger. Ding-ding-ding: What is feed?

That’s right. If you don’t keep a lid on it, profitability of your entire cowherd will be in “Jeopardy.” Cattle for $100: The main ingredient in many cattle rations, this grain is also the staple of all those ethanol production plants that are popping up like mushrooms. Ding-ding-ding: What is corn?

Right again. Oh, you want Cattle for $200? It’s the Daily Double and you’ll wager everything. Fewer soybean, sorghum, wheat and hay acres, higher land prices and more ethanol by-products in cattle feed . . . What happens when corn prices double?

Close enough. But that’s only the beginning of an economic chain reaction. With its growing infrastructure and links to the multi-trillion-dollar oil industry, ethanol’s effects will be far-reaching. Even if tax policy changes, that train has enough momentum and critical mass to keep on rolling. Not only your herd, but the entire beef industry could be in jeopardy.

Oh Alex, enough drama. If “The Price is Right,” we can trust producers to do the right thing. Look at the difference in boxed beef values between USDA Choice and Select beef. Is it $6, $12 or $18/cwt.? Most observers see it widening past $20 again. So, of course, producers will respond by generating more cattle that grade Choice and higher.

Time for some “reality ranching.” Most producers pay no attention to the Choice-Select spread, because they sell calves at weaning.

But each rancher’s “Wheel of Fortune” can lead to unintended crimes against beef quality. When the wheel isn’t kind to a producer, he may not have enough money to buy a vowel, let alone $4/bushel corn. He may cut corners to form a wheel of misfortune for calves that skipped their preconditioning shots or had to eke out a living on stalks or poor quality hay while waiting for better days.

“Fear Factor” may keep producers from exploring the game of retained ownership on feed at home or in a commercial feedlot. After all, we’re talking about $4 corn and who knows if those calves can gain and grade? It’s easier to guess what’s behind door number three, “Press Your Luck” and play “Let’s Make a Deal” with fad answers.

Anyone on “Hollywood Squares” could help you decide: Should you assume the world has changed too much for your cows? Should you liquidate all those years of building a herd that can hit the high-Choice, grain-fed target? “Deal, or No Deal?”

Don’t react to the fear factor by switching breeds unless you have already been considering one that can finish with fewer days on feed. The United States is still the world’s leading source of grain-fed beef, and grass-fed beef will not gain more than a niche foothold domestically.

Still, you can’t escape the question: is it time for an “Extreme [Herd] Makeover?” Only if your cattle lack the potential for early, rapid and efficient growth toward a high-quality endpoint. Find out what they need—and you can be sure they need something.

Most producers are unaware of the educational herd-improvement “games” going on across the country, in the form of steer futurity and feed-out programs. Your state Extension beef specialist can get you in these games where everybody wins. You can sample your herd without feeling like you’ve gone “all-in” on the World Poker Tour. The information feedback is well worth the entry fee, and provides a basis for deciding how extreme your herd makeover should be.

You can’t have too much efficiency or carcass quality, though it may be possible to have too much growth potential in your cattle. Generations of selecting for higher yearling weight usually lead to increasingly large females in the herd. Checking scale weight on cows and their calves can help you cull the bottom end that could never make it past the first round in a beef version of “American Idol.”

As a consolation prize for drought and winter storms—with cattle and beef supplies lower than expected—prices remain strong at auctions and packing plants. However, continued strength depends on cattle type and condition. Higher-priced feed and your reactions to it may lead to a wider spread in values.

Every animal has its price. “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Cattle backed by favorable feedlot and carcass data will help you get there, compared to the unknown cattle. The “Password” is predictability. So cull if “The Joker’s Wild,” and start building your “$100,000 Pyramid” today.

Read more Cowman Commentary >

Eli Lilly Acquires Data Powerhouse Ivy Animal Health

Ivy Animal Health, Inc., will become an operating unit of Eli Lilly and Company's Elanco Animal Health division under an acquisition agreement announced today by Lilly. The transaction is expected to close near the end of the second quarter of 2007, contingent upon regulatory approval.

Privately held Ivy was established in 1982 and includes four divisions -- Ivy Laboratories, VetLife, Ivy Natural Solutions and AgSpan -- and will continue to operate from its current location in Overland Park, KS, a Lilly release says. Upon deal closing, Ivy will become a wholly owned subsidiary of Lilly.

Jeffrey Simmons, Elanco executive director of global strategy, research and development and operations, says the acquisition of Ivy offers a number of strategic opportunities for Elanco, including VetLife's current differentiated implant product line, Ivy Natural Solutions' current and future products and services, and AgSpan's Benchmark Knowledge Services. "Our product lines are complimentary, and together they deliver cumulative value to our beef-producing customers," he says.

Within its Benchmark® Performance Program, Ivy Animal Health maintains extensive databases containing live cattle and carcass performance data as well as nutritional, financial and health information on more than 60 million animals, and meat-quality data on more than 26 million carcasses, its Web site says.

Richard Shuler will continue to serve as president of Ivy. He points out Ivy and Elanco's decade-long business partnership on both the domestic and international fronts, and says that relationship "has now been formalized by this acquisition." He calls it "a synergistic partnership that is beneficial to both parties and, more importantly, to the global animal stakeholders we serve."

More info on Lilly is available at www.lilly.com, about Elanco at www.elanco.com, and Ivy at www.ivyanimalhealth.com.

Ethanol Impacts Will Continue For Quite Some Time

It's almost mind-boggling to contemplate that up to 40% of this year's corn crop could be used in ethanol production. The demand for ethanol and its financial incentives are only growing as energy costs hit record price levels.

It's a multiple whammy for cattle producers. Higher fuel, energy, nitrogen costs, etc., dramatically raise the cost of raising feed inputs and hike producers' breakeven levels. The higher prices also stoke ethanol demand, pulling even more corn into ethanol production. And, of course, the higher prices for gasoline and a host of other products lower consumers' disposable income, which impacts beef demand.

Ironically, the cattle industry has enjoyed some extremely strong price levels for both feeder and fed cattle this spring. But instead of tremendous profits, the surprisingly strong demand and price levels have merely allowed producers to only feel a slight negative pull from the higher corn prices.

One economist told me these were the glory days of beef, that we were poised to reap the rewards of rebuilding demand. Instead, we had to use the bonanza to offset the loss of our export markets due to BSE, and the explosion in production costs caused by ethanol.

The incredible strength of the market fundamentals insulated us from the pain we would have experienced in more normal times. It also explains why the protectionist anti-trade movement was able to prosper during this time despite the validation of what the economists have told us all along in regard to the value of exports to our pricing structure.

It explains why the beef industry, while being vocal about its concerns over the impact of the ethanol subsidies, tariffs and quotas, has merely shrugged off the fact that every calf we produce will be worth a minimum of $100 less than it would have been without the government subsidies. The farm bill is moving forward and the momentum is for increasing the bonanza for ethanol, with no thought on how to minimize the long-term negative effects on livestock production.

I know a lot of cattlemen also raise corn, and quite a few have invested heavily in ethanol production. Many have been less than enthusiastic with my negative take on ethanol subsidies. While I salute the corn industry for capitalizing on this political opportunity, my hope is that you capture these billions of dollars and fully benefit from your glory days. Because the tens of billions of dollars the beef industry created through demand growth went to offset export market losses and increased production costs.

Beef Improvement Federation Meeting Is June 6-9

The 40th anniversary celebration of the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF), set for June 6-9 in the Hilton Fort Collins, Fort Collins, CO, will focus on the future of genetic evaluation and improvement with a variety of presenters from around the country. Register and check out the program details at www.beefimprovement.org under the "conventions" tab at the top of the opening page. Or contact Willie Altenburg at 970-568-7792 or [email protected], or Mark Enns at 970-491-2722 or [email protected].

BIF was founded 40 years ago as a means to standardize programs and methodology -- and to create greater awareness, acceptance and usage -- of beef cattle performance concepts. This year's meeting features opportunities for producer input on guiding the future of genetic evaluation and genetic improvement of the U.S. beef herd, as well as becoming informed about the field's latest research findings and progress.

The meeting kicks off the evening of June 6 with a National Association of Animal Breeders symposium examining "40 Years of Beef A.I." The Thursday session begins at 8 a.m. with a look back at BIF history, before moving into the day's focus of "Performance programs at a crossroads." Among the day's topics are: "Who benefits and who pays from genetic improvement," "Are beef genetics research, education and Extension relevant?" "Does the seedstock industry focus on the needs of the commercial cow-calf producer?" and "Defining the ideal beef animal -- how will we get there?"

Friday's morning program tackles the theme: "Challenges to conventional wisdom." Topics to be explored include: "Can we build the ideal animal?" "Why haven't we seen an improvement in quality grade?" and "Are there benefits to using DNA markers?" Lunch and committee meetings will make up the afternoon program.

Saturday is devoted to producer tours. The "Beef Industry Players Tour" will visit Kuner Feedot of Five Rivers Cattle Feeding, a Safeway Foods distribution center, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and Cattle-Fax offices, and Aristocrat Angus Ranch. Meanwhile, the "Seedstock Alliance Tour" will visit Walter Farms, Five-Star Cattle Systems and the Kuner Feedlot.

To learn more about the conference agenda, visit: www.beefimprovement.org/2007_BIF_Program.pdf.

Do Your Breakeven Math Before Creep Feeding

The decision to creep feed, which is any feed a producer provides calves while they're still nursing, is one that must judged by its cost-effectiveness, says Karl Hoppe, North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension livestock specialist at the Carrington Research Extension Center.

The amount of creep feed required to produce the desired result in the calves is a major factor producers must consider. "Make sure you do the math with the right feed conversions," he advises.

More creep feed is needed, for instance, if it's to replace pasture grasses than if used as a supplement. Hoppe estimates calves would need 5-7 lbs. of creep feed for every 1 lb. in weight gain if creep feed is a supplement. However, if it's replacing pasture grasses, calves might need 8-9 lbs. of creep feed for 1 lb. of weight gain.

"So if the pasture condition is good to exceptional, then be sure to use a creep feed formulated to supplement grass, rather than replace grass," he says.

Favorable and profitable conversions of 5-7 lbs. of creep feed to 1 lb. of gain are typical where pasture forage is limited and feed is balanced with nutritional requirements, adds John Dhuyvetter, NDSU's Extension livestock specialist in Minot. Such conversions also are likely for calves of first-calf heifers and very old cows where milk and grass don't meet calves' growth potential. Some other tips:

  • Hoppe recommends producers start calves on creep feed as soon as possible to avoid digestive upset.

    "I'm always concerned when pastures become overgrazed and then creep feed is introduced," he says. "This can lead to extremely high intakes of creep feed and result in sickness and possible death."


  • When producers plan to sell their calves is another big part of the creep feed equation. "If you sell calves at weaning, the extra weight they've gained on creep feed needs to be worth more than the extra cost of the feed," Hoppe says.


  • Consider the source of the creep feed. Commercially produced creep feed is more expensive than homegrown feed. The commercial product might be less costly in the long run though, because it will result in fewer digestive upsets and it contains correctly formulated rations, Hoppe adds.


  • The type of creep feed used could be another issue. Use creep feeds with higher amounts of protein and fiber, and lower amounts of starch, as a supplement to grass to improve the grass's digestibility. Calves eating creep feeds that are starch-based, or mostly grain, will substitute creep feed for grass.

    "Creep feeding in most all situations will increase calf weights and herd revenue," Dhuyvetter says.


  • Given today's high feed costs, calculating profit margins from creep and alternative feeds is very important. To calculate the feed cost per pound of additional weight from supplemental feeding, multiply the cost per pound of feed by the projected rate of conversion (pounds of creep feed consumed per pound of added weight gain).


  • Since heavy calves usually bring less per pound at marketing than lighter calves, the value of creep feeding's added pounds often is less than market price. If there are small or no price slides, this is sometimes the case when cattle feeders are aggressive bidders for early heavy calves capable of finishing for the April or earlier seasonally high markets. Then the added weight can be valued near market price.
"More typically, we see a 6-8¢/cwt. price slide associated with increasing calf weights, making the added pounds worth about 65% of market price," Dhuyvetter says.

Creep feeding likely won't pay when conversions are high in situations where pastures provide good nutrition and cows are milking well, he adds. It's also of questionable value for heifers that will be retained and developed for replacements, and for calves that will be backgrounded for an extended time postweaning.

Don't Expect Any Movement On COOL This Summer

While the farm bill normally would be the preeminent piece of legislation everyone would be talking about at this juncture, it will be hard for any issue to displace the Iraq military situation, says Jay Truitt, National Cattlemen's Beef Association vice president of government affairs in Washington, D.C.

"Nothing can get in the front seat as long as the Iraq discussion is taking place. Even the issue of energy, which normally would be a fireball of discussion, isn't getting the attention it normally would."

The result, Truitt says, is the upcoming farm bill likely will be developed without the scrutiny it normally attracts.

"I don't think that's good. I think it's best to have to defend what you're doing in public policy on a regular basis just so you get the chance to communicate about where you fit and what your value is to society," he says.

A reduced media focus on the farm bill doesn't mean the going will be any easier for agriculture groups, however.

"There's just not enough money to do what everyone wants to do, which is different than the last farm bill," Truitt says. "It will force all groups to stay pretty connected because there are going to be cuts in a lot of different places just in order to satisfy all the parties at the table."

He says three rails drive policy for the U.S. livestock industry today:

  • basic agricultural policy and trade,

  • industry structure and

  • environmental and animal rights activism.
Meanwhile, economist Bill Helming of Olathe, KS, sees the main congressional battlegrounds as ethanol and its attendant effects on the livestock industry, market competition issues, and the environment.

After more than a decade out of power, the Democratic Party recaptured both houses of Congress last November. The effect, however, has yet to fully manifest itself.

"Clearly we're in a new operating dynamic here in Washington," Truitt says, "but it's always easier to go from the majority party to the minority than vice versa. Despite the fact there's a lot of experience on the Democrats' side, it's taken them a little longer than they likely expected to get up to speed as far as having their committees set up and running and in full order."

As those committee structures get tested with controversial measures, it will provide an indicator of what next year will be like, he says. Still, with tough federal elections looming in 2008, Truitt says there will be aggressive pushes by candidates and parties to stake out political positions. One such area is in energy -- bio-fuels specifically.

"We'll see some aggressive pushes to try to capture as high a mandate as possible this summer on ethanol as a percent of the total fuel market. I expect to see both the House and Senate in June move to double the renewable fuel standard from the 15 billion gals./year mandated by 2015 under the current law to as much as 36 billion gals. by 2022," Truitt says. "Neither party can afford to alienate that constituency."

Helming agrees. Of the ethanol-production incentive of 51¢/gal. (set to expire in 2010), and the 54¢/gal. tariff on imported ethanol that expires in 2012, he says the backbone doesn't exist in Washington to back off on support.

"Clearly, corn-based ethanol production has severe limits in terms of replacing fossil-fuel energy," Helming says. "But at the end of the day, the political environment is such that they'll choose to expand it."

He's convinced the beef industry can and will adjust. "Frankly, I think it will create some opportunities for the beef industry though it has an obvious downside."

Competition bills are another area of interest. Three bills are currently before Congress.

Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-IA), chairman of the House Agriculture Livestock Subcommittee, introduced the "Competitive and Fair Agricultural Markets Act of 2007." And Sen. Tom Harkin (D-MO) introduced similar legislation in the Senate. Meanwhile, Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA), fellow Republican Mike Enzi (WY) and Democrats Harkin and Byron Dorgan (ND) introduced legislation to ban packer ownership of livestock.

Neither Truitt nor Helming feel the motivation exists in Congress to legislate markets at this time.

"At the end of the day, I think the beef industry will be allowed to retain its flexibility and freedom to enter into private and negotiated supply and pricing agreements," Helming says. "The cattle-feeding industry, as an example, left the Corn Belt largely because of that kind of thinking. You can neither legislate morality nor free markets -- it's really that simple."

Nor does either man expect movement on country-of-origin labeling (COOL) this year, which was passed in 2006 but its implementation delayed until September 2008. Some in Congress are pushing for a September 2007 implementation but Truitt says such lawmaker support doesn't exist.

Nor does support for bundling COOL with implementation of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), as some have suggested. Truitt says an NAIS package couldn't pass either the House or Senate. COOL will be part of the farm-bill discussions, he says; NAIS will not be.

In fact, trade in general is an area of optimism to both men.

"I don't see the U.S. going back to an isolationist country. It would be incredibly stupid and very negative for our economy. It won't happen," Helming says.

Truitt adds that, with some modifications in trading authority, he expects broad-based political support for free trade to continue.

"With 'handcuffs' applied to trade negotiators in regard to labor and environmental components, it will free up the trading environment, especially in the Democratic party," Truitt says. "More immediately, I think the South Korea FTA will go through if the beef issue is fixed. The votes are there for that. If the beef issue isn't resolved, the Korea deal is dead."

Both experts cite the environmental arena as an area of concern. Regardless of the makeup in the Washington political leadership, Helming says the livestock industry will face increasingly larger challenges -- and costs -- in the environmental arena.

"But by stepping outside the box and taking a whole new look at that situation, I believe there will be ways to turn this environmental focus into a plus for the industry," he says.