Tag: Grazing

Beef’s greatest talent is protein upcycling

By Lacey Newlin Jan 7, 2020

“There are some really highly educated people out there who are actively against the beef industry,” said Tryon Wickersham, associate professor of animal nutrition at Texas A&M University. “I don’t think there is going to be anything we can do to change that. I think they will be against everything we do, no matter how we do it, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t mount a defense or stop educating the consumers about the value we bring to their plates.”

Wickersham spoke recently at the Oklahoma State University Beef Conference in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in a presentation called “Beef’s job title.” He says beef’s job title is to be a protein upcycler, which means to improve the value of protein.

Beef’s greatest talent is protein upcycling

 

 

 

 

Tryon Wickersham, associate professor of animal nutrition at Texas A&M University, spoke recently at the Oklahoma State University Beef Conference about beef’s job title of protein upcycler. (Journal photo by Lacey Newlin.)

Wickersham says, on average, it takes 770 pounds of corn to get a beef animal ready for slaughter. Corn is the primary source of human edible protein, or HEP, we feed and the main competition for food sources between cattle and humans. HEP does not necessarily mean tasty protein, but it is protein a person could consume. For example, grass is a source of non-HEP. Soybean meal, though we would not want to consume it, is a great source of HEP. Some people challenge agriculture for raising corn-fed cattle and believe we should be feeding all that corn to humans.

“If we didn’t feed corn to cattle, we wouldn’t compete with humans for that much food,” he said. “To justify corn-fed beef, we have to be able to say it is a better use of corn to feed it to cattle instead of children.”

He says children are used in his model because they have high amino acid requirements and they grow rapidly. The 770 pounds of corn we normally feed to one beef animal would meet the indispensable amino acid requirements of three children, according to Wickersham. Indispensable amino acids must be consumed in a diet to meet your protein requirements. If a child does not consume them, growth will be stunted.

“We don’t think a lot about stunting in the United States, but it’s a real problem in the world,” Wickersham said. “The world is not deficient in calories, it’s deficient in protein and other micro-nutrients and beef happens to be a really good source of those things. If you want to be a vegetarian in the United States you can, and you can meet your requirements and not be deficient, but not everyone is in the United States.”

Wickersham says corn is also high in calories, so those children would have to consume a lot more calories to meet their amino acid needs. In fact, it would be essentially impossible for a child to eat enough corn to meet their requirements.

On the other hand, if we feed the corn to cattle, through the value of protein upcycling we could feed 17 children and easily meet their protein requirements by feeding that one beef animal the 770 pounds of corn. Furthermore, ruminants can utilize sources of biomass that other meat-producing animals, such as fish, pigs and chickens, cannot.

“We’re really dependent on ruminal microbes to convert low-quality sources of protein into a more valuable source of indispensable amino acids,” Wickersham said. “Our animals can eat things that those other animals can’t and convert them into steak.”

Balancing the pillars of sustainability

Another method Wickersham uses to measure protein upcycling is net protein contribution or NPC. It estimates how a production system is contributing to meeting human protein requirements. Wickersham says this metric does allow us to address social sustainability. Sustainability is built on three pillars: social, environmental and economic sustainability. Wickersham says producers cannot pick just one pillar to focus on, they must balance them all.

“The beef industry does a really good job of addressing economic sustainability because everyone wants to stay in business,” he said. “We think about environmental sustainability indirectly as a result of improving economics. However, we rarely think about social sustainability of beef cattle production.”

According to Wickersham, methane production and HEP consumption are inversely related. The more HEP we feed cattle, generally methane production goes down. Conversely, if we feed them less HEP, methane goes up.

“We want them to balance each other,” Wickersham said. “We don’t want to go too far down on NPC. We want to have something counter balancing and pushing against NPC, so we are making the best decisions for the environment too.”

Another important figure is protein quality ratio or PQR, which determines if we are improving the protein quality of the product produced. As an example, the input PQR of corn is 36.8 and the output of beef is 112, by the end of the process, the beef animal has improved the protein quality three-fold. Wickersham says corn is about as bad as you can get when it comes to HEP and PQR and beef is at the best. Beef is a fixed biology; we cannot change the amino acid profile for the output. We can, however, change the input.

“We want the protein produced to be better than the protein we fed,” Wickersham explained.

Wickersham says we can determine if beef is competing with humans for HEP if we multiply HEP by PQR which will equal the NPC. If it is one or above, it is contributing to the human protein supply. Beef is usually around three, but at times it rises or falls, depending on phases of the beef cycle.

Wickersham says beef has a really great story to tell, but most of the time we fail to tell that story very well. He says NPC is a useful tool for defining the value of beef production systems.

“It gives us social sustainability and allows us to tell a compelling story that beef cattle are producing improved-value protein,” Wickersham said. “It also gives us an environmental sustainability and efficiency of nutrient utilization and provides us a way of capturing the benefit of having cows grazing our pasture. That brings value to humans. We are taking that grass that we have no way to utilize and turning it into steak.”

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 580-748-1892 or lnewlin@hpj.com.

Testing New Futures

Testing New Futures

Holistic Ranch Management More Than Grass

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor

“No. You missed that,” Scott Johnson says, correcting a caller. He and his wife, Jean, were traversing a part of eastern Colorado on one end of a long-distance struggle with cell service. The caller had entirely missed the point Scott made about holistic management. It is much more than grass.

The template of holistic management laid over the Johnson family’s Flying Diamond Ranch, Scott explains, is a collaboration of moving parts. It considers the harsh seasons of Colorado’s semiarid eastern plains and the sustainability of the ranch’s composite Angus herd. It is management of predatory coyotes, of spring calving and scrutiny of meat markets. Most of all, it is family — this one taking its first steps into a sixth generation with five grandchildren, four born in 11 months.

“Do you follow my way of thinking?” Scott asks. “If our ROI [return on investment] is great, but someone is maimed, we wouldn’t be real proud [of our performance]. We will give up profit for safety or harmony,” he says. “The focus is on the whole. If we’re not getting along as a family, if we’re not safe, then the rest of this really doesn’t matter,” he explains. “It’s its entirety. Its wholeness. Its balance. Not perfection. But, bottom line, [we are] profit-oriented. Business is business.”

The Flying Diamond’s clean and highly viewable website uses six words to articulate holistic management: “Ranching with family. Working with nature.”

BORN ON A CATTLE DRIVE

Flying Diamond is 112 years in the making. Charlie Collins, Scott’s great-grandfather, fell in love with the land when, as a teen in the late 1800s, he trailed cattle near the banks of Big Sandy Creek on a drive from Mexico to Montana. By 1907, Collins had moved his family from Kansas to Kit Carson, where the ranch is still headquartered today.

The ranch is dominated by a shortgrass and sand sage landscape. Thick riparian areas border the Big Sandy and Horse creeks, tributaries of the Arkansas River. Culls are based on a female’s ability to wean a calf every year beginning at age 2 and succeed in 13 inches of precipitation and temperatures running the scale from below zero to above 100ËšF.

The cattle winter on corn circles in Kansas and Nebraska. “We like to rest our pastures during the winter. It’s healthier for our grass to have the cattle off and let it rest, and get a little more growth,” Jean says. Scott adds, “Having cattle on cornstalks, our day-to-day chores slow down a little bit in the winter. We can give family a little breather.”

Flying Diamond is an operation run by a family of type A personalities, Scott allows. “We’re not real chitchatters. We socialize. We have good times. We want to maintain excellent family relations. But, we’re not sitting around drinking a lot of coffee.”

GENERATIONS MANAGE TOGETHER

Scott and Jean anchor the Flying Diamond’s fourth generation. Their four adult children represent its fifth. Ownership is based on a meritocracy. The more a family member contributes, the more they own.

Jen Livsey, married to Jay, is the oldest. She is a Princeton University undergraduate and the first female graduate from the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management. She recently opened Eastco Group, a livestock and drought insurance business. Jen oversees the rotational-grazing plan and analyzes purchase and lease opportunities.

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Will and Lauren Johnson live full-time on the ranch. A Marine Corps veteran, Will is CEO of Flying Diamond Ranches Inc.

Myles Johnson and his wife, Katie, live in Idalia, Colorado, where Myles is the K through 12 superintendent of schools. Myles is the ranch’s administrative officer, managing compliance, meetings and corporate records. Katie is a certified public accountant and manages the ranch books.

Charlie Johnson and his wife, Kaitlin, live in Kit Carson. He is chief operating officer (COO) of Flying Diamond Ranches Inc. He partners with Jen in livestock and drought insurance.

Business is organized around communications—face-to-face, weekly conference calls and a monthly executive committee meeting. Quarterly board meetings are a newer function Kirk Samuelson, Scott’s cousin, brought to the ranch. Samuelson served as COO of Fortune 500 Kiewit Corp., in Omaha, until he retired. He and Scott are cochairmen of the board for Flying Diamond. Quarterly board meetings are formal. “Ten years ago, I was the dictator,” Scott admits. “Now, no one is comfortable with that. When we talk about family harmony, that’s not to suggest there aren’t red faces and pounding on the table.”

The board meetings are to play a role in the ranch’s vitality. “You go to workshops, and you hear horror stories,” Jean says. “Families won’t talk to each other. Ranches divide. That is a threat. How do you keep a 100-year-old ranch together for the next generation?”

The board meetings have a start-stop time and a structured agenda. They often include talks by outside experts. Assignments are given before the meeting—budgets, range management, cattle movements, fertility testing and branding, selling bulls, commodity markets and new market opportunities. “There is an element of accountability brought into the operation that we didn’t have before,” Jean says. “You are held accountable. What did you say you were going to accomplish? Did you do it?”

AGREEMENT IS KEY GOAL

Flying Diamond’s meetings are collaborative. The goal is consensus. “At the end of the day, we want to come up with a compromise we can all live with. This is a new concept for us,” Scott explains.

New is a continuing education standard. Time spent in continuing education is measurable and reported quarterly toward an annual goal of 300 hours. Safety is one component. Jean is the ranch’s safety officer. She has organized horse- and cattle-handling courses. “We specifically do safety training, communicate safety and track safety by hours per year.”

Calving runs from March through May. “We try to mimic nature,” Scott says. “We calve when the deer and the antelope and the elk calve.” Cows graze on spring grasses and not supplemental feed, and the calves generally miss late-season blizzards. Predation is better managed. Calves invite coyotes in the dark of winter. Coyotes have a wider menu in the spring, when the ranch’s wildlife also is giving birth.

“Deer and antelope spend zero dollars, and their offspring have a 50 percent survival rate,” Jen told ColoradoBIZ in a February article about Flying Diamond Ranch. The goal of the ranch, she explained, is to improve the odds of survival among the calf crop but mimic nature to lower production costs.

And here, an example of holistic management: “Our guys aren’t out in blizzards. The weather is better for the calf and better for us,” Scott says.

PATH TO PRODUCTIVITY

Cattle graze only 5% of the ranch’s ground at any one time. Nearly 200 miles of single-strand electric interior fence mark paddocks typically less than 300 acres in size. Cattle graze in some paddocks no more than three days in a growing season. Stocking rates once ran 40 acres per cow/calf unit. Today, it is 30 acres per unit. “We are able to run 30% more animals. Maybe we’ll be able to get to 20 acres per cow/calf unit with more intensive grazing,” he says.

Scott traces his land-management practice to several days spent 35 years ago with Allan Savory, the guru of grazing lands holistic management. Savory’s notion was to move cattle frequently—as bison moved themselves—by way of intensive, human-directed management.

Flying Diamond has laid out 20 miles of water pipeline with the assistance of Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives and Conservation Stewardship programs. Seven wells pump water to 23 stock tanks. The family has an eye to tightening its grazing practices—that cattle would graze no more than 1% of the ranch’s acreage at any one time.

Few ranches are as intense, Scott says. “Everything gets more intense the more intense we get. More monitoring, quicker moves. We are not know-it-alls. But, it can be a big benefit to the resource and a big benefit financially.”

ONE GENERATION TO THE NEXT

Holistic management is one of many parts. Flying Diamond Ranch has won its share of acclaim for this approach as the recipient of the Colorado Leopold Conservation Award and regional Environmental Stewardship Award, the latter partially sponsored by the National Cattlemen’s Foundation.

Awards recognize achievement. Flying Diamond Ranch tests new futures. Its organic cuts, for example, are finding customers in San Francisco. As a member of its advisory committee, Jean learns how the College of Agricultural Sciences at Colorado State University studies water conservation, sustainability, even urban farming. But also, meatless meat.

“It sounds like science fiction to us, but maybe it’s something that’s coming,” says Jean, not setting aside opportunity perhaps born of a petri dish. The future does not discourage Flying Diamond Ranch. “We’re bullish on agriculture,” Scott says.

The Flying Diamond Ranch evolves and grows and shifts for a time beyond Scott and Jean, and perhaps beyond Jen, Will, Myles and Charles—from today to a time for five grandchildren: Collins, Sofia, Clint, Stella and Henry, growing up among the hills of Colorado’s plain.

One generation builds on another. “We think,” Scott says, “that future is pretty bright.”