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Breeding from the bottom up

Small scale ranching in NE Colorado

Even the mightiest of industries can rely on small-scale producers for their raw materials. The burgeoning beef industry in the United States, worth US$40 billion dollars a year, depends heavily on small family farms to breed the stock to supply the beef cattle chain. Whilst the profits to be made in the intensive fattening or finishing of beef cattle in feedlots may be very good, the margins made by the farmers who supply one of the world's largest beef industries are often far from handsome. But a recent development may help the smaller scale producers to make more money from their businesses.

Small-scale producers averse to taking risks
More than half of the 70 million beef cattle slaughtered in the USA every year start life on small farms. "Of 900,000 cow-calf producers in the United States 90% have less than 50 mother cows," says Tom Jenkins of the Meat Animal Research Centre (MARC) in Nebraska. "Their beef cattle are usually the third or fourth source of income on the farm behind row crops and vegetables." Such producers tend to be isolated and understandably conservative or reluctant when it comes to the risks of introducing change to their stock or their system.

The risks - and the potential benefits - of change can now be assessed without putting anything at stake. A computer programme - Decision Evaluator for Cattle Industry (DECI) - has been developed by MARC that enables farmers to simulate adjusting the breed or feed or system they use and to see the potential profits to be made.

Seated in front of his office computer at MARC, Tom Jenkins taps away at the keyboard. "DECI asks the user to describe their production environment, their ranch and what type of forage and supplementary feed are available." The farmer also has to enter the type of animal kept and whether they are pure or cross-bred. Are farmers daunted by using a computer in this way? "That's what's nice about today's world. We're moving into the age of electronic innovation. Most farms have access to a computer these days. And we keep it easy to use. It's all punch and click. We try to minimise the number of key strokes for the user."

Assessing the options
Having entered all the background data, farmers can then choose to experiment with the breed they keep. DECI offers the characteristics and performance of twenty beef breeds. It can also show the result of changing the breeding system. In the American cow-calf industry, average conception rates are about 80% a year but many farmers lag well below that. Improving the reproductive rate will mean more calves to sell and a significant jump in income. The software also allows assessment of the effectiveness of different feeding regimes and the impact of using more, or less, of bought-in feedstuffs.

Sue Jarnet, in north-eastern Colorado, runs a cow-calf business on native grasses on the family ranch and sells on about 30 young stock a year. Would using a computer programme help her? "I guess it's a good chance to try out different options. For sure I do not want to take risks with my business unless I can be sure it will pay off and not push my land or my pocket too hard."

Internationally relevant
As well as becoming popular amongst beef breeders in the US, DECI is being adapted for use in South and Central America. To Tom Jenkins it is a significant breakthrough in communicating research findings to farmers. "It teaches individuals about the system they are working with and the options, from research, that they have. It allows them to evaluate strategic management decisions so they can plot an effective course to stay in business. Too many - especially smaller producers - make decisions based on advertisements from commercial players and then they try to implement new technology and very often fail. We want to keep the small-scale producers in business. In every producer we lose we are also losing a sector of the rural economy in the US. It's a big step to link a computer programme with the well-being of rural communities but we're hoping DECI will help."

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1st November 2004