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What makes the Western livestock industry unique

Progressive Cattleman Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 24 January 2018
Dr. Tim DelCurto

“Simply put, the western U.S. livestock industry is dominant in areas of the West that are not suited for farming,” said Tim DelCurto at the Western Alfalfa and Forage Symposium in Reno, Nevada.

DelCurto is the Nancy Cameron Chair of range beef cattle nutrition and management at Montana State University.

His statement wasn’t news to many in attendance. A significant portion of the western U.S. is characterized by high-elevation rangelands that exceed 1,000 meters in elevation. The Rocky Mountains are a key feature of many of the Western states, and the associated mountain plateaus are key features of the range sheep and beef cattle industries.

Shallow, rocky soils, rugged terrain and steep slopes often characterize these ranges. Because of the high elevation, many areas have limited or short growing seasons. “Land and forage resources in the West make our market unique,” he said.

Precipitation patterns are also unique, with arid and semi-arid environments and precipitation zones of less than 20 inches per year. “The long and short of it is: The West has a short growing season averaging 120 days or less,” DelCurto said. That means two-thirds of the year, producers are dealing with dormant forages.

To top it off, adding to the challenges are soil changes and climate changes. Drought has been a significant problem in the South and West, and in 2017, especially in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. Drought creates forage shortages and nutrition issues. “We’ve certainly seen all of these challenges in this last decade,” DelCurto said.

Supplemental and harvested forage

Despite the efforts to match cow type and production to rangeland environments, most Western livestock producers are dependent on supplemental and harvested forage during the year. Shorter growing seasons and variable precipitation patterns lead to forage often limited in nutritional quality. Therefore, many livestock producers use supplemental inputs to meet their animals’ nutritional needs.

High-elevation ranges often have extended periods of snow cover. During these periods, harvested forages are necessary. Ranches that provide feed during the winter period (December through March) often require a minimum of 2 tons of harvested forage per cow.

While a great deal of effort is made to reduce the reliance on harvested forage, most of the alternatives (stockpiled forage, straws and other crop residues) are also limited by nutritional quality and need substantial nutritional inputs to meet the demands of the cow-calf herd. Strategic supplementation is important for producers and often critical to their success.

Most beef cattle producers focus on finding sources of supplemental protein. Numerous forms of supplemental protein are available and include distillers grains, oilseed meals (canola, soybean and cottonseed) and non-protein nitrogen sources (urea).

For most producers, however, the preferred source of supplemental protein is feeder-quality alfalfa. When compared to other sources on an equal protein basis, alfalfa is often the cheapest form of supplemental protein.

Because of the forage constraints, Western ranch managers often select cattle based on their ability to fit the limited nutrition environments. Often, Western beef producers select cattle with smaller frames, low to moderate milk production and the ability to be reproductively efficient in a limited nutritional environment.

Producers also tend to select calving dates that optimize beef cattle production with the forage resources available. As a result, greater than 80 percent of these ranches calve in the spring. Ranches that market calves at weaning tend to calve a month or two before the onset of green forage.

Public land ownership

DelCurto said one thing we tend to ignore when we talk about livestock production in the U.S. is the amount of national forest, national grassland, BLM land and state-owned lands in the West. The best-case scenario in the Western states is 30 percent government-owned, and the worst case is almost 85 percent government-owned, creating a significant challenge for ranchers. Sustainable use of rangeland during climate change has been an ongoing struggle.

However, with all the government-owned lands, certified weed-free forages are going to become increasingly important, and that’s also an industry opportunity.

DelCurto said approximately 20 percent of the animal unit months for Western livestock production are derived from public lands. While that doesn’t seem like a large amount, when one considers 60 percent of beef production is derived from ranches of 100 head of producing cows or more, you can estimate that approximately one-third of the forages for the larger ranches come from public lands (four months of grazing).

The greatest challenge for Western U.S. livestock producers relates to the need to manage these lands for multiple uses. In addition to grazing livestock, timber, mining and recreation (hunting, camping, hiking and fishing) also come into play.

Because of the arid to semi-arid nature of most of the lands of the Western U.S. and a changing and unpredictable environment, these lands are often more sensitive to disturbance or overuse and can be damaged by improper livestock use.

Current concerns often relate to threatened and endangered species, riparian area structure and function, as well as general clashes with the public in respect to other values or uses.

Where the West fits

The U.S. is the world’s largest beef cattle producer (pounds of beef per year) as well as the most efficient. Over the past decade, the U.S. has consistently produced between 24 and 27 billion pounds of beef per year. This is remarkable considering the severe droughts that have plagued the Southwest and West during this time. The closest world competitor is Brazil, but the quality and type of cattle differ dramatically in respect to age and carcass quality.

Simply put, the U.S. doesn’t have significant competition from other countries with respect to beef production capabilities or product quality.

In 2016, the dairy industry provided approximately 22.7 percent of U.S. beef, contributing 5.7 billion of the 25.2-billion-pound yearly total. “We’re really close to perfecting sexed semen,” DelCurto said, “and if we perfect that, dairy will become even a bigger player.”

“Per-capita net beef supply reached a high in 1984 and ’85 at almost 80 pounds per person and has declined by consumers to a low of fewer than 55 pounds per person,” DelCurto said. “Why? Retail protein prices have gone up. Ground beef in 2012 was $2.90, and in September 2017 it was $3.75. Pork and chicken are a lot cheaper than beef.”

The 11 Western states represent approximately 20 percent of the U.S. beef cow herd inventory with approximately 6.4 million beef cows. Montana is currently the sixth-largest beef cow-calf state with 1.5 million mother cows.

DelCurto said, “Successful beef producers are not necessarily the ones who wean the heaviest calves or who obtain 95 percent conception or provide the most optimal winter nutrition. Instead, successful producers are those who demonstrate economic viability despite the multiple economic, environmental and social pressures on the industry.”  end mark

PHOTO: Dr. Tim DelCurto, professor and Nancy Cameron Chair of range beef cattle nutrition and management at Montana State University, delivers a 2018 beef outlook to attendees at the Western Alfalfa and Forage Symposium in Reno, Nevada. Photo by Lynn Jaynes.

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