After three years of drought in Texas and the Midwest, the nation’s cattle herd is the smallest it has been since the Truman administration, but according to local farmers Ashe County cattle are doing just fine.
“This is a good time to be in the cattle business,” said Ashe County Cattlemen’s Association (ACCA) President Trathen Cheek.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2013 Cattle Inventory Report, the national herd has dwindled to 89.3 million head, only slightly larger than it was in 1952. Record-high beef prices — $4.92 per pound retail in February — are likely to continue through the year and beyond.
As Midwestern feedlots report struggling to maintain their stock, Ashe County’s 16,000 head of healthy, well-fed beef cattle may soon be worth their weight in lobster.
“A lot of people don’t realize the economic impact of cattle in the county,” Cheek said. “Christmas trees are volatile…more people are looking at cattle now.”
“The worst thing is the drought in the Midwest created a corn shortage,” Cheek said. “Even with the current high prices, with fuel and feed up, you have a narrow profit margin.”
To keep cattle profitable, he said, Ashe County farmers “have to use every available resource.” Those resources include support from the N.C. State Cooperative Extension, and testing by the N.C. Department of Agriculture Upper Mountain Research Station (UMRS).
Dale Sheets and his wife, Gail, run their own cow-to-calf operation in Laurel Springs, and manage a total of 400 head county-wide. Sheets said the cattle business in the county has seen marked improvements over the last three to four years.
“What has happened is the extension agents have worked diligently with the ACCA in bringing us closer together,” he said. “It’s opened up opportunities for producers to sell to each other.”
Extension Agent Micah Orfield, who works directly with the ACCA’s 35 members, said Ashe County cattle farmers are “doing all the right things,” from health care and vaccinations to proper feeding and pasture management.
“They’re getting (their cattle) sold when they need to be sold, steers and heifers that don’t need to be held back and bred,” she said. “They’re getting their bulls castrated, which is very important.”
Ashe cattle farmers are also making an effort at fencing off creeks and streams to keep their animals from trampling the banks, Orfield said, which rapidly accelerates erosion.
“Our farmers are doing a wonderful job taking care of their animals and the environment,” Orfield said. “They are doing a good job feeding us.”
“The testing that (UMRS) does is where we get lot of our information from,” Sheets said — information which farmers apply to better herd management. Livestock Specialist Lorie Townsend of UMRS said “intensive grazing” experiments conducted at UMRC have helped develop methods for maximized pasture utilization.
Left to their devices, cattle will browse a pasture, Townsend said, eating their favorite things and leaving a great deal behind, By subdividing pasture into smaller paddocks, and frequently rotating where cattle graze, they are forced into competition for food, consuming more forage and more evenly distubuting manure.
“Some farms have done this and extended their grazing season, using less hay and less fuel,” she said.
Research at UMRS also saw utilization of local by-products — corn gluten and soy hulls — as an alternative cattle feed, and development of the mineral supplement West Jefferson Mineral Mix, which supplies nutrients mountain pasture lacks, she said.
In cooperations with the extension office, UMRS has also helped farmers implement Beef Quality Assurance programs, which provides guidelines for beef cattle production aimed raising consumer confidence and increasing profits, Townsend said.
For the Sheets, the effectiveness of the Extension Office and UMRS partnership is evident: they haven’t lost a single animal in four years. “We’re ensuring good, healthy cattle for stockers,” he said, which enhances prices down the supply chain.
Sheets, a cattleman for 15 years, is also heartened to see an infusion of new blood in Ashe County’s cattle industry, as young people take up farming. Some of them have spearheaded the use of computer software engineered for cattle management, he said.
“It’s not your grandfather’s cattle business,” said Sheets.