Management makes the difference at WSU's Beef Center
by Doug Warnock (1998)
Dan Coonrad has managed Washington State University's Beef Center in Pullman for 30 years. Over the last 5 years he has led the Beef Center to more responsive, flexible, and innovative management. Though Coonrad's efforts have supporters among the administration and faculty of this large bureaucratic institution, the vision and direction have come from the Beef Center's staff, which includes students. Results include increased financial independence, better staff morale, and improved stewardship of the Beef Center's 1500-acre land base.
The Beef Center exists for the purposes of research, teaching, and extension in the beef cow-calf area. Research requirements do not permit the Center to control its cattle numbers, which are often between 100 and 200 mother cows. "To do a good job of grass management in these circumstances is hard," Coonrad says.
The holistic goal that the Beef Center is now using to guide its operations was put together by staff and a few students who work part-time there. Each year Coonrad asks incoming student helpers to write down answers to questions such as, "what things do you appreciate most about your life today? . . . Identify those items that you contribute back to the well-being of your community."
Coonrad does not present students with an existing holistic goal. "I'm not giving them this until they get their thoughts down. They need to get their individual input into this thing so it works for them. They don't need any preconceived ideas."
These statements are then folded into the goal statement of the Beef Center. Among them: "to live in a rural environment with honest people who value and trust each other, and where everyone's opinions are valued." The Beef Center team will strive "to produce quality beef cattle, while emphasizing quality in the research and teaching areas . . . sustainable use of resources, and the most efficient and productive methods of feeding, grazing, and handling of beef cattle."
Because the taxpayers are the major stakeholder group of the land-grant university system, Coonrad enlisted the local "Loose on the Palouse" management group--consisting mainly of citizens and taxpayers not affiliated with the university--to give input into the Beef Center's holistic goal as well. They had some great suggestions, he said.
Coonrad began practicing Holistic Management at the Beef Center in 1992. The greatest challenge, he says, is changing one's thought processes. He reports major improvements in pasture production and reductions in supplemental feeding costs. He is now realizing 140 pounds of calf weight gain per acre. This is not counting any weight gain for the cows or growth of replacement heifers.
"Our grazing management success comes from controlling the time that animals are in a paddock and allowing adequate recovery time for the grass. A cow will come back and graze a desirable plant a second time, if she is there long enough," Coonrad says. "With this kind of management she is not allowed to do that and the plant is able to recover."
"Time management and monitoring are the keys to success," he adds. "We watch the plants, their rate of growth, how they're recovering and try to keep the plants in the desirable stage of growth for a longer period," he said.
When he initiated this program, he put in temporary fences to allow for flexibility to change them after gaining experience. He found that they needed to add some lanes to provide access to water tanks and to allow for bringing animals into the holding areas for artificial insemination, which is a part of the university's breeding program.
"At first, the paddocks were five acres in size. This allowed for good control of the grazing, but required too long to move through all the paddocks before returning," Coonrad reported. He found that by time the cattle returned to the first paddock, the grass had completely matured and headed out, putting it in the later and less desirable stage of development.
"So we went to ten-acre paddocks. This allowed us to move the cattle fast during the early part of the season when plant growth is fast and move through all the paddocks, while they were in a desirable stage of growth. We try to get a bite on all paddocks by about mid-May and be started on a second time around by June 1," he said.
"Our average calf gain for the grazing season through both good and bad years has been about 2.6 pounds per day. During the first 30 to 40 days of the grazing season, we generally get around 3.0 pounds of gain per day; the calves really blossom. Then the gain tapers off as we get farther into the season, and averages about 2.6 pounds per day over the season," Coonrad reported.
"We wean when we run out of that good quality grass. In 1994, the drought year, that occurred in late July. In a lot of years we have had good grass and not weaned until the middle of September. Another factor affecting when we wean and move cattle is what is going on in the way of research here. That's part of why we exist--we need to accommodate the research and teaching activities that are being conducted," he said.
"A year ago we changed the way we fenced the paddocks. We had originally fenced up and down the hills with the poly wire and last year we changed to fencing more on the contour. That way we graze the south slopes earlier, since they are a little more productive in the early season. Then we graze the north slopes more later in the season, because they retain their moisture longer than the south slopes. This gives us more flexibility and we can manage our grass growth more effectively than before," Coonrad stated.
"One of the problems that we have here is that we have so much grass growth in May and early June and then it really tapers off in July and August. So it's a challenge to move the cattle according to the grass growth and keep them in good-quality feed throughout the grazing season. We take a crop of hay off some fields during the early growth, when we have more feed than needed. Then we can come back and graze those paddocks later in the year, when the growth rate has slowed down," Coonrad said.
Through holistic management, Coonrad believes he has improved the overall pasture, realizing more total forage production, more complete ground cover, improved the cycling of minerals in the soil and improved the water cycle. The soil capping that was present before has been reduced by the animal impact. There is better water retention by the soil, resulting in less runoff. He still doesn't have as large a legume population in the pastures as he would like, but plans to work to improve that. He has planted some grazing type alfalfa in one or two paddocks and had good results. "We're starting to see some change in grass quality and varieties. Areas that were good when we started are better today."
"We've been able to cut our feed bill in half. The main reason is that we change the way that we use the Snake River pasture. We used to move the cattle down there in the spring and stay until June. Now we go down there in March and come back the first of May and concentrate on the fast growing pasture near the Center. Then we take the cattle back to the Snake River in October and stay until January, with little or no supplemental feed. We've reduced our winter feeding operation from 150-160 days down to 90-100 days. Also, we've changed the feeds that we use. We changed some of the paradigms that we had. We decided that we didn't have to feed regular hay or haylage and have gone to more byproduct feeds, such as grass straw, feeder hay, and the like, which are available at lower cost," he said.
The Beef Center has a minimal budget allocation. The rest of the operating expenses are up to the Beef Center to generate. The annual budgeting is done with the financial planning process that is a part of Holistic Management, in which financial resources are allocated toward the holistic goal, rather than being allocated to multiple and conflicting goals. Coonrad believes this has helped improve the efficiency of their use of resources.
According to Kris Johnson, who is Associate Professor with WSU's Animal Sciences, "the Beef Center has been able to weather some tough economic times in recent years, due to our being more flexible and a willingness to try doing things differently, when necessary."
"One of the reasons that this has been successful is that Dan is including the ideas and input from a lot of interested people," Johnson said. "He listens to interested faculty and students, as well as the Beef Center staff, and will call people outside the university who have information that might be useful. This has resulted in some really good ideas coming forth. Everyone involved with the Center feels that they can voice an opinion," she added.
"I see this as a major step forward in our beef program at WSU," commented James Carlson, former chair of WSU's Department of Animal Sciences and currently Associate Dean and Director of Agricultural Research. "It has increased the forage productivity and made the Beef Center more efficient," he added. "I commend Dan for taking the leadership to initiate this management. It has benefited the university, the students and the beef producers," Carlson said.
DOUG WARNOCK is a freelance writer and retired extension agent who lives in Walla Walla. Doug is a graduate of the trainers program of the Center for Holistic Management.