July 2006
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Beef Study Tour Covers Cattle Country

by Margaret C. Lawrence

Many Alabama cattlemen have limited experience with the beef production process once the animals leave their farms.

To address that problem, a number of professionals with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System teamed up to lead another Alabama Pasture to Plate Study Tour. The first study tour traveled to Nebraska in 2004.

Kevan Tucker, Clarke County Extension coordinator and regional Extension animal science agents Gerry Thompson and Kent Stanford led 50 people from more than 20 counties on a four-day tour of the Texas Panhandle.

(L-R) Johnny Morrow of Tuscaloosa and Regional Extension Agent Kent Stanford listen intently as Rob Brown of R.A. Brown Ranch explains ranch management in the west Texas town of Throckmorton.
"This tour gave producers the opportunity to see each segment of the production chain up close and in depth," said Tucker. He adds that most of the tour members are experienced producers who have completed Alabama Extension’s Master Cattle Producer program.

"In a way, this tour is like a second phase of Master Cattleman," said Tucker. "It really highlighted many aspects of beef production that are only found on a limited basis in Alabama." For example, he noted that there are no large scale finishing operations or processing facilities in the state.

Each day and stop focused on a different piece of the production puzzle. Successful stocker cattle operations were discussed at Texas A&M University’s Vernon Research Center.

Stanford says the scope of operations the tour visited surprised many of the Alabama producers.

"The operations in Texas are so different than what is the norm for beef operations in Alabama," Stanford said.

Billy Twilley, who runs a cow-calf operation in Dekalb County, commented on the challenges presented by limited rainfall and drought. "They are dealing with tough conditions yet somehow manage to stay in business each year," said the veteran cattle producer. "These folks must have their management fine-tuned to accomplish that."

In Hereford, known as the cattle feeding capital of the world, the group visited one-on-one with the operators of two feed yards. At Bar-G Feeders, home to 132,000 cattle, Damion McLemore expressed admiration for the feeding process. "These folks are professionals in management and organization. Keeping records is essential for them just as it is for us, but on a much larger scale," said the Lawrence County Angus breeder.

Cargill Meat Solutions in Plainview provided an in-depth tour of their facility that processes 4,500 head per day. For many, this was their first time inside a plant of this size.

The Cargill operation made a deep impression on cow-calf operator, Donna Jo Curtis of Limestone County. "I am amazed at the volume of beef they handle and at the tremendous job they do with quality assurance and food safety," she said.

As part of the tour, Cargill representatives stressed the importance of keeping good records, animal identification and process verification.

  Mike Heard, fourth from left, of Cattle Town Feeders in Hereford shows a group of Alabama beef producers the feed mixing process.
The group also learned the importance of a resource that many Alabama farmers often take for granted — water. Stops were made at ranches in the Lubbock area that are participating in a Texas Tech University research project to conserve water in the largest contiguously farmed region in the world.

Dr. Vivien Allen, a plant and soil scientist with Texas Tech, discussed the critical nature of the area’s changing aquifer.

"If we don’t do something differently in regards to water usage practices, in 50 to 75 years, most of the farmers and ranchers in this area will simply be out of water," said Allen.

"We got to see some of the conservation practices that will hopefully keep the farms and ranches sustainable with limited water resources," said Thompson, who serves northwest Alabama in his Extension role.
One highlight of the trip was a visit to R.A. Brown Ranch in Throckmorton. One of the largest seedstock producers in the U.S. and a leader in the American Quarter Horse breed, R.A. Brown Ranch is a place to learn many things while developing an appreciation for the rich heritage of the Brown family.

The owner, Rob Brown, delighted the group with stories of ranching in west Texas and gave his philosophy on cows and horses.

Son, Donnell Brown, discussed their continuing pursuit of genetic improvement. "Select a cow to fit the environment and a bull to fit the market," said the younger Brown, who serves as the ranch’s seedstock manager.

The Alabama group was awed by the size of the ranching operation but more importantly by the quality of the people and their commitment to the ranch. "These are good folks that know how to raise good cows," said Levi Morrow of Greene County.

While the group was at the ranch, a west Texas dust storm blew in and a fire broke out as well.

"Experiencing those two events made our producers keenly aware of other environmental challenges that are faced each day by their Texas counterparts," said Stanford.

As different as the surroundings may have been, there was a common thread between the Alabama group and the Texans they met — a commitment to the way of life, the land and the animals.

"It’s basically putting good people together and the rest takes care of itself," said Tucker. "The tour provided many new connections, a great learning experience and new friends both in Texas and across Alabama."

Margaret C. Lawrence is the Communications Specialist for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.