Food production on American ranches is changing, shifting from a commodity-based marketing scheme to one that is based on incentives for quality.
And that change, said Gordon Niswender, director of Colorado State’s Western Center for Integrated Livestock Management, can sometimes butt heads with a century of tradition and success. Global markets and changing consumer preferences also are impacting ranching.
"People in ranching have to realize that their business is not producing animals," Niswender said. "It’s deciding the best way to utilize and market their forage. That’s what ranching is all about.
"Successful ranching is about integrating the use of the land, animal, water, human and economic resources to optimize production and ensure sustainability of these resources. In most cases, long-term sustainability requires that the enterprise be profitable."
For example, Niswender said that lots of calves are born in February and March, a time when lactating cows require enormous amounts of calories to feed their offspring. That food is more plentiful in May and June, when grass greens up, so May-June is a sensible time for cows to produce maximum quantities of milk for their calves. Thus, calves may benefit more if ranchers move the traditional, early calving season to a time later in the year.
"Of course the calves aren’t as large when they’re weaned, but the production system is better matched to the environment," Niswender said. "Calving in late spring means they’re born in better weather and are easier to manage, and cows require less supplement."
Niswender, University Distinguished Professor of physiology, said, "The way we taught production agriculture for much of the past century is no longer appropriate. We often taught how to maximize-to get the biggest calf or the fastest steer to market, for example-and that often puts production out of sync with the resource base. The result is that many ranchers often aren’t making a profit at all."
Perhaps the biggest barrier to integrated resource management is tradition; the production paradigms that worked in the past simply may not be effective in current conditions, he said.
To address these issues, The Western Center for Integrated Resource Management offers a bachelor’s degree with majors in animal science, agricultural and resource economics and rangeland ecosystem science. All students share a common core curriculum. A master’s degree in agriculture also is being developed, and the center offers short courses for working ranchers and ranch managers who can’t take long periods of time away from the job.
"The program helps students and professionals improve management of the land and conserve the resources of the West," said James Heird, associate dean of Colorado State’s College of Agricultural Science. "We place an emphasis on short courses for current land managers so that they can take advantage of the program as well.
"The program is designed in part to preserve the heritage of the West and to maintain the beauty of Western ranchland."
Niswender said the emphasis is on resource management, not ranching, because many ranchers can take advantage of the traditional stewardship of wildlife, wetlands and other habitats to supplement ranch income. The program has generated interest among wildlife and forest managers.
The center hosted a series of drought workshops last summer in La Junta, Alamosa, Sterling and Hesperus, with more than 250 people attending. Officials hope to follow up with more workshops this summer, because even if the drought is over, Niswender said, problems remain in the form of stressed plants and reduced forage.
Eventually, he hopes the center can focus on education and teach ranchers to interact with each other to solve their own problems.
"We have to try to get producers to form groups and help each other, since many of them may have an answer for their neighbors’ problems. We’re trying to get them to interact and help themselves. This type of continuing education has been very successful for producers in Australia."
The Western Center for Integrated Resource Management maintains a Web site at http://www.wcirm.colostate.edu/, or call (970) 491-1610 for additional information