Beef cattle production in the United States is the largest segment in American agriculture, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There are more than 800,000 American ranchers and cattle producers who strive to produce and develop industry-standard beef for consumers.
At Kansas State’s Purebred Beef Teaching Unit, the breeding program provides an educational, hands-on experience in cattle production that helps students find their role in the industry.
“Out of all the animal units at K-State, it’s probably one that our students in the department have the most contact with just because of being conveniently located, having animals that go into the Little American Royal that is sponsored by the K-State Block & Bridle, and being the one that provides a lot of the beef cattle for classes taught in the department,” said Bob Weaber, professor and extension specialist in beef cattle breeding and genetics.
Operations of the unit
The purebred beef teaching unit structures their mission on providing undergraduate students with “practical experience in breeding, feeding, management and marketing of purebred seedstock” and giving the opportunity to evaluate quality cattle through livestock selection and other general animal science courses in the K-State animal science program.
“Seedstock” is a term used to describe a specialized cow and calf operation with purebred, registered cattle to make genetic improvements in the animals that will ultimately benefit the entire beef industry.
The unit has about 300 head of purebred cattle in the program owned by the university that are only used for breeding purposes. The breeds of cattle among the herd consist of Angus, Hereford and Simmental cows.
The cattle raised at this unit are widely utilized by students and their research projects. The variety of projects conducted depend on what is currently being researched by the industry, such as a study on responses to vaccinations.
The unit is run by one full-time employee unit manager, and all other unit operations are completed through student labor. Depending on the time of the year, Weaber said, there are usually anywhere from three to 12 student workers at the unit.
“We have a fair number of students that come from farming and ranching backgrounds who like working in that environment and plan to go back into production agriculture,” Weaber said. “But we occasionally have students who come in and want to learn who haven’t had that experience in cattle production.”
Students who work at the unit have a variety of chores to tend to, including feeding and daily maintenance, monitoring the health of each animal, vaccinating, helping prepare for the Legacy Sale, helping move animals for classes and preparing show cattle for the Little American Royal each spring.
“Growing up on a cow and calf operation in Montana, I already had knowledge of cattle before I started working at the unit,” Dan Johnson, senior in agribusiness, said. “Even though I had that other experience already, I have actually learned a lot about cattle production in Kansas and the purebred industry, and also other things like burning dead grass each spring, which was something completely new to me.”
Johnson said he also had some experience with marketing livestock before he started working at the unit, but after helping with the annual sale, he had the ability to learn more of the behind-the-scenes work with auctions.
“I grew up on a cattle operation and was able to manage the cattle herd at my junior college, so I already had that background with cattle,” Justus Bartonek, senior in agricultural economics, said. “However, I think the most interesting part about working at the purebred unit is being in that work atmosphere and being able to take your mind off of school.”
The student workers at the unit are not only able to gain more experience in cattle production and helping with the sale, but they also have opportunities to network with other producers in the industry.
“I really enjoy getting to make connections with cattle experts and producers from all over in the industry,” Bartonek said. “It’s a really great opportunity to get to know those people for connections that I’ll have later on in life.”
Weaber said students at the unit gain experience breeding animals with the embryo transfer and artificial insemination programs at the facility.
Embryo transfer is the removal of fertilized eggs from one cow with desired genetics by producers and implanting those eggs into several other surrogate cows to produce more offspring at one time. Artificial insemination means to insert semen into a cow to produce offspring with certain characteristics.
Some donations of embryos and semen are given to the unit; however, the university maintains the cattle herd, the unit’s breeding program and the selection of objectives within the program.
The purebred beef unit recently constructed a new headquarters and bull and heifer development center. The bull and heifer development center features an electronic system to measure individual animal feed intakes and enables the precise calculation of feed efficiency.
Improving feed efficiency of beef production through selection and management offers opportunity to improve the sustainability and profitability of beef production in Kansas. The data from research will be utilized in the unit’s breeding program to select for more efficient animals.
On what is now the current K-State campus, the first structure built after legislative action was a large barn that housed livestock in 1872. Following this, several different barns were built to house other animals. In the middle of the 1950s, the barn that once housed the purebred beef cattle caught on fire and burned to the ground, which immediately prompted legislative funds to build a replacement barn.
This new barn was completed in the 1960s and has been used for teaching purposes ever since. In this barn there are rooms for students to live and work at the barn, with additional hourly student help. This building has since been replaced with a newer, more up-to-date building for the unit near the Stanley Stout Center.
Each year the unit hosts an annual “Legacy Sale” the first Friday of March. With this, students enrolled in the livestock sales management class plan and prepare for the sale of cattle.
“I really enjoyed helping with the Legacy Sale,” Rachael Buzanowski, junior in animal sciences and industry, said. “It’s really great to be able to see all the people who support the work that we do at the unit.”
This sale markets the unit’s bulls, bred cows and heifers to cattle producers invited from different areas in the region, and this is the one time throughout the year where the purebred unit sells animals in their herd to cattle farmers and ranchers.
“The unit really does serve both the students and the public,” Weaber said. “It’s a really important place for our clientele and also our students to interface the department in the state. That provides a nice two-way communication of knowing the needs of cattle producers in the state, but also a great teaching venue for students.”
Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series showcasing K-State livestock units. Next week’s story will feature the beef stocker unit.