Scientists help ranchers become competitive

The Southwest can be an inhospitable place to raise cattle. It can be too hot, too dry, too cold, too wet, too humid, too arid or any combination of those variables for ranchers to depend on consistent livestock gains from abundant forage.

Scientists at the Noble Foundation, a non-profit research and consultation organization in Ardmore, Okla., don't claim to provide much help with weather control, but they are helping ranchers adapt to the environment.

“We provide a multi-disciplined approach to help our cooperators solve problems,” says Matt Mattox, a Noble Foundation forage specialist who says clientele includes almost 900 cooperators in 47 counties in Oklahoma and North Texas.

“We're looking at projects that will have a significant impact on ranchers in this area,” he says.

Shipping fever tops the list.

“We're working on a large shipping fever project with Oklahoma State University,” Mattox says. Noble and OSU scientists hope data from this study will provide a better understanding of the causes and then solutions to the problem.

“We have a lot of questions about shipping fever, but few answers,” he says.

“This five-year, $2.4 million research project is directed by the Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine and funded by a Noble Foundation grant.

Mattox says the research piggybacks a retained-ownership project. “By assessing the health status of the ROP calves from the ranch to the processing plant, researchers at the Noble Foundation and OSU can tell how a specific calf responds to vaccines.”

The project has four main objectives:

Understand the key pathological processes in shipping fever.

  • Determine predictors of illness and/or treatment success in shipping fever.

  • Develop DNA-derived vaccines.

Improve management practices and treatments for prevention of shipping fever. “We're in our third year and hope to have answers soon,” Mattox says.

A cooperative project with Texas A&M University, referred to as an “early warning system,” may provide ranchers a better guide for stocking rates, Mattox says.

It's space-age technology brought to rangeland. “Satellites images can indicate the greenness of range vegetation,” Mattox explains. “Remote sensing links to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which provides historic weather data back to 1948.

“That information, plus data from a vegetation growth model, PHYGRO, developed by Texas A&M, provides information on the probability of forage growth for 90 days out and indicates if drought is likely.”

Mattox says data from the project can help ranchers prevent over-stocking. Also included in the formula are weather stations, which cover a 12-mile by 12-mile grid.

“A&M used this program in Africa and in central and far west Texas. It worked very well to provide information to help ranchers make better market decisions. They save money and preserve range conditions.”

The project is just now kicking off in the Noble Foundation service area.

Mattox says this and the shipping fever study could make a significant contribution to cattle ranchers.

“We're also looking at alternate feedstuffs as supplements for stocker cattle, especially during the fall phase of a small grain/stocker program,” he says.

Forage in the early stages of a small grain forage system is inconsistent, at best, so researchers are looking at various feed choices and supplements, such as soybean hulls. “We're also evaluating limited grazing versus full grazing.”

The project is in its third year and researchers have not evaluated data yet. “But the cattle on test are performing well.”

A fistulated steer project gauges how much winter pasture one animal needs as supplemental nutrition to meet requirements.

“We're able to evacuate the rumen to determine amount and quality of protein ingested,” Mattox says. Variable grazing allows researchers to determine how much high-quality forage an animal ingests within specified time periods.

“This projects works better with mature animals, such as over-wintering dry cows,” Mattox says.

He says research projects result from cooperator consultations. “We see problems through consulting and develop research studies to find answers,” he says.

Currently, Noble researchers have 10,000 acres available for projects. “We've just acquired another 5,000,” Mattox says.

Cooperators volunteer for the service, which is free. “All we ask is that they provide information back to us,” Mattox says. “And the more information we get from a cooperator, the more detailed the consultation will be.”

Consultations provide information for management decisions such as budgeting, marketing, grazing rates and wildlife management.

Mattox says the team approach provides in-depth analyses that can make a significant difference to ranch management.

“Team members put their heads together to provide solutions,” he says. “It's highly specialized support. We ask cooperators to develop SMART goals — specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.”

The team documents everything it does on a farm or ranch.

Mattox says many projects provide the agricultural community with non-biased data from full-scale demonstration sites.

“One of our educational events is a grazing school, an intense course of hands-on experience in livestock management, stocking rate, brush control and other topics. Participants learn to calculate stocking rate and paddock size demands.

“And by the end of the course, they'll work on a case study ranch management plan that can help them with their own farms.”

The next grazing school is scheduled for October 6 through 9 and is available to cooperators and other ranchers.

The Foundation also runs an ag helpline to answer questions. “Annie Coble, helpline assistant, passes questions along to the proper resource specialist,” Mattox says. “When the specialist has researched the issue thoroughly, he provides a detailed answer.”

Mattox says the helpline gets calls from all over the United States but most come from Oklahoma and Texas. The number is (580) 224-6500.

Mattox says these efforts are geared toward helping Southern Plains farmers and ranchers become a bit more competitive in an environment that's not always generous.

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