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  4. 1996
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Food for Thought

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In this article, I'd like to do a little philosophizing. As someone who has traveled around the mid-west and plains states in my career, I've had the chance to see the face of agriculture in many different regions. In the last two years, I've had a chance to get out and visit a number of you and observe the resources available in this area. The longer I look, the more this area appears to be ideally suited to beef cattle production, particularly for the cow-calf producer.

However, there are number of things occurring that concern us. In the short term, we have to deal with the drought and high hay prices that make us less competitive with other areas that have had rain. In the long term, one of our concerns is the tendency for larger properties to be broken up into smaller properties.

It's harder for a rancher to work with a large number of landlords who may have a quarter or half section than it is for a crop farmer. It is more difficult to move cattle around than it is to move farm equipment. As a result, we see land ownership and landlord-tenant relationships that work very well for crop farmers in Iowa or Missouri that are difficult to manage and don't make much financial sense here.

Back to the cow-calf and competitiveness. This came to mind as I visited with my brothers who farm and run about 300 cows in South Dakota. There are many differences between the way we operated when I was a kid and the way they operate today, as there are differences between the way they operate and the way ranchers in this region do. It has a lot to do with climate, forage, and cost of feed.

It seems that regions have developed in this country that are better suited to perform specific functions in the beef industry. A good example is the feedlot and packing concentration in the plains states. The climate, cattle gains, and feed efficiencies are so good in that region that nearly all those functions have concentrated in that area. Cheap transportation has probably helped as well.

Previously, I have expressed a desire to enhance forage resources so that we could approach a year round grazing program in this area. That's possible now and is being accomplished by a few producers with whom we work. Compare that to the situation in the northern plains states where many cattlemen begin feeding their cows in November and don't put them on grass until May. It makes one wonder how they can compete.

It makes one wonder whether we won't see an even greater cowcalf concentration in the southern states. The northern states might become a summer grass area for stocker steers. If that develops, we may need more fall calving herds to provide stocker calves to those northern states.

These figures may not be up to date, but I've read that 70 to 75% of all the nutrients that beef cattle consume in the United States come from forages. That includes cattle fed in the feedlot.

We're all concerned about the comparative price among beef, pork, and chicken. In that regard, beef cattle are the only one of the three that are capable of utilizing forages as a resource. Yet, forage research tends to be one of the last things that is funded in our public institutions. That's one of the reasons we chose to implement a forage grass improvement effort here at the Noble Research Institute. However, that doesn't take the onus off the back of the cattleman to lobby to put his resources on improving forages and their utilization be they tax dollars or check off funds.

I write this article not as a recommendation, just as food for thought. Whether this or some other scenario comes to pass, there will to be opportunities to make money. We hope that you are one of those who will be successful in doing so.