K-State Cow/Calf Unit students driven for careers in beef cattle industry

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Courtesy Photo by Jack Lemmon

Commercial breeding cattle operations in the U.S. date back to the settling of the western region of the country over 100 years ago, and the maintenance of those operations is still incorporated into the curriculum of Kansas State’s Rufus F. Cox Cow/Calf Unit.

In addition to providing experience and instruction to K-State students, the unit also provides applied research and extension programs for beef producers in Kansas and across the Midwest.

“Most of the people who own livestock in Kansas own beef cattle,” said KC Olson, professor of range beef cattle nutrition and management. “The economic outgrowth of the cow and calf industry in Kansas is significant in its services for rural communities.”

The program does not have an actual specific location and facility building, but is mobile to tend to the the herd, which grazes on pasture at all times. This allows students to conduct research based on forage and range management throughout the year.

Under a mobile program, the unit’s workers are more easily able to bring in the equipment — such as extra fences, chutes and pens — needed to maintain each animal’s health and nutrition.

Because the cattle are not kept inside an actual building, the animals in the herd are expected to have high productivity as a result of their longevity, or ability to efficiently produce offspring, and performance. With this level of expected production, the unit has a low number of staff because the unit’s funds come from its own cash flow.

“We are one of the few units on campus who actually owns our own cattle, and most of the other units have a geographical home, but it’s not like that for us,” Olson said.

Student experience

Isaac Meyer, junior in animal science, said he grew up on his family’s farm and has personally owned and raised cattle before working at the unit. He said the unit has provided him with production experience that he can take toward a future career operating his family’s farm.

“I’m eager to learn about how a ranch operates with minimal supplementation on native Flint Hills pasture, and it presents unique challenges and requires certain practices,” Meyer said.

Students who work in the unit learn about beef cattle management, as well as how to efficiently manage forages for low-maintenance cattle to graze on the prairie and improve production efficiency in the herd.

The unit’s students are mostly in charge of pasture maintenance, such as cutting down trees and working on fences. Other, more infrequent tasks include administering vaccinations and dewormers when needed.

Currently, the unit is in the middle of its calving season, which typically lasts through May.

“I really enjoy learning different practices that I might be unfamiliar with or discussing the managerial decisions that are being made so that I can understand the motivation behind why certain tasks need to be done in a specific way,” Meyer said. “I’m very grateful that Jack (Lemmon) and Dr. Olson are willing to be patient and teach me the ‘why’ of doing something instead of just how to do it.”

Jack Lemmon, unit manager and graduate student studying ruminant nutrition, has the opportunity to be the unit’s foreman while researching in an advanced degree program.

“Working at the facility, it is not just focused on day-to-day ranching chores,” Lemmon said. “Those chores are a big part of it, but I also have the privilege of working with distinguished professors, school administrators, graduate and undergraduate students, neighboring ranchers, ecologists, organizations that promote the Kansas livestock industry, native Tallgrass Prairie restoration and management and other industry leaders and professionals.”

Lemmon said in addition to those opportunities, he has met many people from different career paths and backgrounds, which has also provided him with several learning opportunities. He assisted with different research projects, attended scientific meetings and helped neighbors with seasonal ranching tasks, such as prescribed burning and herding and transporting cattle on and off grass.

Lemmon said the work experience that he has had over the last several years has influenced him to pursue advanced degrees.

“When I worked at the cow and calf unit as an undergrad, I really became interested in animal nutrition, as well as range management,” Lemmon said. “I was fortunate enough to pursue a graduate degree with Dr. KC Olson as my adviser. Through that pursuit I have been able to combine my passion and interests, and I get to geek out over the science, but I am also able to spend long hours outside in the pasture learning about God’s creation.”

Breeding and calving seasons

Each of the unit’s 400 females are bred, or artificially inseminated, in late July, after which they are put into a 42-day natural service with a selected bull in a process called “bull clean-up.” The concept of this process is to catch any females who may not have become pregnant during artificial insemination, so the bull will breed those females that go back into their estrus (heat) cycle.

The unit keeps its breeding season limited to a 45-day window for breeding exposure, which Olson said the unit is trying to model for its producers in Kansas and across the country. Most industry producers have between 60 and 90 day seasons.

After gestation — which can range between 283 and 285 days, depending on the age of the cow — the unit then begins calving season, during which the females give birth.

Since the cattle’s diet does not include any grains, the grasses in the pastures are studied and managed to provide the cattle with “a better quality of hay forage in their diet.”

“We try to model the ideal production system as it fits our resource base,” Olson said. “Very few cow and calf operations in Kansas utilize grazing-only, which is what we have and try to make work. We use spring calving and have it at a later time than most of the state because that means that our cows will hit peak lactation in May, when our forage quality is at its best, taking the biggest bite out of our nutritional budget.”

During calving season, cattle are monitored multiple times a day and are assisted if they experience any birthing difficulty. After the calf is born, workers make sure the calf is healthy, then tag and weigh it for the unit’s records.

“I am very fortunate to have a team of hardworking people to help accomplish these various chores,” Lemmon said. “Without them, the cow and calf unit would not be where it is today.”

Teaching and research

There are typically seven to 10 research projects conducted throughout the year at the unit. Some of these projects focus on prescribed burning that will save and restore native Tallgrass Prairie and protect it from invasion of noxious weeds.

“When I teach students about cow and calf production, I teach them from a production cycle perspective,” Olson said. “We don’t just have lectures on specifically genetics, breeding or nutrition, but we’re thinking about all of those different things all the time and we’re always multitasking.”

Some beef-science related classes are taught similar concepts to the ones taught in the unit. Students learn about commercial cattle production and the reasoning behind certain practices and methods, and consequently gain a perspective of the cattle industry they might not see in the classroom.

“One encouraging thing is that kids from all kinds of backgrounds are interested in beef science,” Olson said. “If you really speak to them as people, rather than as students, then a lot of them end up finding an interest in it for themselves.”

Editor’s note: This is the ninth in a series showcasing K-State livestock units. Next week’s story will feature the Kansas Artificial Breeding Unit.

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