Precision ranching is a focus of a new coordinated agricultural project led by New Mexico State University (NMSU) in collaboration with Texas A&M AgriLife Research in Amarillo, TX.
Working under an almost $9 million USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant are AgriLife Research Scientists Brent Auvermann, AgriLife Research and Extension Center-Amarillo Director and agricultural engineer, and Jenny Jennings, a beef nutritionist.
The project’s goal is to improve efficiency of beef production by identifying socioeconomic and environmental trade-offs associated with heritage cattle genetics, precision ranching and various supply chain options, including range finishing.
“We’re aiming to diversify options for arid lands ranchers and the U.S. beef industry as they work to maintain and improve the sustainability of beef production in the southwestern U.S.,” said Sheri Spiegal of USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS).
This five-year project will compare heritage vs. conventionally used desert-adapted cattle in studies on profitability, input efficiency, ecosystem effects, feed yard performance, and carcass and meat quality.
A long-term replicated grazing experiment will be established at the NMSU Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center to assess differences in productivity, behavior and ecological effects of a Raramuri Criollo herd vs. a more traditional Brangus system.
Raramuri Criollo, or RC, are a biotype of Criollo cattle, originally brought to the Americas by the Spanish conquistadors and currently raised by the Tarahumara people of Copper Canyon in Chihuahua, Mexico.
“The herd will be pure Raramuri Criollo that will be crossed with Brangus,” said Andres Cibils, of NMSU Department of Animal and Range Sciences. “The calves will be crossbreds, but we want to start with a cow herd of straight-breds, both of Raramuri Criollo and Brangus.
“We want to take advantage of the RC traits that cause them to be more desert-friendly grazers while crossing them with beef breeds to obtain faster growing offspring that can be sold as beef calves at weaning,” he said.
Cibils said the RC herds of cattle in Chihuahua’s Copper Canyon have been fairly isolated with little to no influence of British or Indicus beef cattle breeds and they are being studied at the Jornada Experimental Range northeast of Las Cruces, NM.
“This project is reaching back into history for cattle genetics and forward into the future for advanced technologies,” Auvermann said. “The Criollo genetics bring arid-lands hardiness to the table, while advanced sensors and communications systems make it possible to manage extensive landscapes in near real time.”
Concurrently, collaborating ranches will maintain Red Angus and RC-crossed Red Angus herds or Black Angus and RC-crossed Black Angus herds, all starting with purebred Raramuri Criollo cows.
Weaned calves will be purchased from the three ranches and transported to irrigated wheat pasture at NMSU’s Clayton Livestock Research Center (CLRC).
Each spring, heifers and steers will be sent to the CLRC feedlot and AgriLife Research’s feedlot at Bushland. Jennings will run the finishing trials at the Bushland feedlot.
“Because we’re looking for subtle differences in feed-to-gain performance and meat quality, we’ve got to have precise control of the finishing phase for these cattle,” Jennings said. “Our research feedlot at Bushland gives us that control.”
Each fall, processing and carcass trials will take place at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Amarillo.
Jennings noted that Bushland’s proximity to West Texas A&M University is a major plus because of the university’s Beef Carcass Research Center, directed by Ty Lawrence, who will coordinate the processing and carcass trials.
“Dr. Lawrence’s laboratory has collected harvest and carcass-grading data on nearly a half-million cattle since it opened in 1992,” she said. “They’re true experts in measuring yield and quality for the beef industry.”
Beyond the carcass-quality evaluations, consumer taste and tenderness evaluations will be conducted at Texas A&M University in College Station under the direction of Rhonda Miller, meat science professor in the Department of Animal Science.
“Americans’ tastes in beef can be pretty sophisticated, so we’ve got to tie our work to consumer preferences,” Auvermann said. “If the consumer market rejects our product, we’ve got to adjust our production systems.”
An important part of the research will be development and field testing of a wireless precision ranching system to provide real-time information on weather, water sources and animal position to better understand the environmental and socioeconomic linkages.
Sensor technologies will be tested on five participating ranches, so when the project ends a market-ready product will be available for purchase and deployment on ranches. The proposed precision ranching system will be able to log, transmit and analyze sensor data in real time.
The system will include Ranch Dashboard, a computer graphical interface, which will display sensor data allowing a rancher to monitor weather conditions, water levels in livestock drinkers such as above-ground permanent watering troughs, and animal positions in close-to-real time. Additionally, warnings will be generated when user-defined thresholds are crossed.
Researchers will use an Integrated Farm System Model, or IFSM, developed by USDA-ARS to compare the environmental footprints and enterprise economics of production scenarios that represent different combinations of the cattle genetics, precision technologies and supply chain options under investigation, in order to weigh their trade-offs in long-term sustainability.
Partnering ranchers and feed yard operators will provide information on their operations the first two years, including land use and annual requirements of water, labor, fuel, electricity and other important resources to inform the IFSM model. Purchased feeds will be monitored to quantify feed intake and the flow of nutrients into and from the production system.
Cattle growth rates, replacement rates, mortalities, animals purchased and sold, and their weights will be used to quantify the flow of animals through the production system. The information provided will be used to develop production scenarios for the Southwest U.S.-Ogallala Aquifer beef production area, and ultimately help to identify trade-offs of different supply chain options.
The Western Beef Knowledge System will be built to support decisions to improve profitability, input efficiency, climate adaptability and environmental impacts of alternative beef production systems.
Cibils said they will work with Asombro Institute for Science Education and BlueSTEM Agrilearning Center to develop lesson plans for K-12 students that essentially revolve around the sustainability of beef production in the Southwest and Ogallala regions.
The system will integrate research, extension and education outputs via a website and associated web applications that will enable producers and consumers to understand and evaluate effects and tradeoffs of alternative production systems and adoption of new strategies. — Texas A&M AgriLife