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Beef research in big sky country.

Beef Research in Big Sky Country

Indian tribes lived for thousands of years on this land. Unimpeded by fences, buffalo grazed millions of acres in seasonal migrations, moving on to greener pastures when necessary and returning when the high grasses grew back.

But gold seekers, arriving in the early 1860's, then settlers, pushing even farther west after the end of the Civil War, spelled tragedy for the Indian's way of life.

Settlement brought the cavalry. It's because of Custer that today 56,000 acres in southeastern Montana are reserved. And, indirectly, Custer's loss ensured a brighter future for cattle ranchers.

Agricultural scientists now work this reservation, one of the largest research ranches in the world.

Where the cavalry once patrolled, researchers help ensure a plentiful supply of high-quality meat while continuing to protect the rangeland environment.

"Overgrazing is not a new phenomenon on most rangelands of the world," says Rod Heitschmidt, range ecologist and Research Leader at Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory, Miles City, Montana. "It's well-known that buffalo often overgrazed these rangelands just as many of the early settlers' livestock did."

"Once buffalo herds overgrazed, nature gave the rangeland a rest; the buffalo either moved on to better forage or died of starvation. In contrast, many early livestock producers were able to keep their animals on the lands longer by feeding hay or grain. The result was repeated overgrazing," says Heitschmidt.

"Today, however, overgrazing is the exception rather than the rule. Livestock managers have learned to balance the fragile relationship between forage production and forage demand by adjusting herd size," says Heitschmidt.

"Early studies on rangeland management at the laboratory produced a basis for ranchers to safely match cattle population to available forage. Use of this information reduced some of the risk of ranching and took the Plains out of an era of exploitation," says Pat O. Currie, local rancher and range scientist now retired from ARS.

Some ranching practices have cut soil erosion by up to 90 percent and increased forage yield twofold, increasing both domestic livestock production and wildlife populations. Agricultural output in Montana alone has increased by an estimated $1 billion since 1950 because of the guidelines for grazing. North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, and parts of Canada have profited, too.

Besides better management of the native forages, scientists have sought grasses that provide more nutrition than some of the less palatable native species. Over the years they have tested more than 100 different species under various range conditions.

As a direct result of work done at Fort Keogh, nearly 2.5 million acres of the Northern Great Plains have been seeded to crested wheatgrass and Russian wildrye. Scientists have shown improved rangelands increase calf production about 17 percent over native range, says Currie.

They also test new hybrid grasses developed by ARS scientists at other locations. One of the most promising, developed at Logan, Utah, is a cross between quackgrass and blue bunch wheatgrass, known as the RS2 hybrid. RS2 combines the tenaciousness of a weed with the nutritiousness of a forage grass - producing up to five times as much forage as some native grasses, says Currie.

Pedigree With a Purpose

"The first large-scale linebreeding program in beef cattle in the United States was started at the laboratory in 1934 and continues to this day. No new bulls or cows have been added to the original 50-head gene pool, called Line 1. Scientists proved that linebreeding - making close matings to an outstanding individual to increase the frequency of its superior genes - coupled with a strict selection for performance, is an effective method to improve beef cattle," says geneticist Mike MacNeil.

Most Hereford cattle in the United States that are registered with the American Hereford Association have some Line 1 breeding in their pedigree. Offspring from these Line 1 Herefords have occasionally sold for more than $100,000 at the station's periodic sales.

In 1977, Line 1 was divided into two herds. One group continues as a control group selected for increased growth while the second herd is being bred to produce calves with lower birth weight coupled with high growth rates.

"One of the industry's most serious problems is that we've been too successful - we've bred cattle that produce calves too large to pass between the mothers' pelvic bones.

"But so far, we have managed to reverse that trend and produce bull calves that weigh 5 percent less at birth. Now our challenge is to get these calves to gain weight fast to make up for the reduced birth weight," says MacNeil.

"Our current research focuses on developing breeding objectives that identify biological characters that affect profitability on a sustained basis. Developing more efficient livestock to convert grasses into tender lean meat is time-consuming," says animal geneticist Scott Newman. He has identified traits like forage intake of grazing animals and reproductive rate as matters that require greater emphasis in selection programs.

Keep Up the Calving

Cows that fail to become pregnant are cattle producers' biggest headache, says animal physiologist Robert Bellows. Additional studies should provide clues and also determine why about 20 percent of the nation's beef cows do not breed during a normal season.

A second problem is caused by calves that die at or shortly after birth. An estimated annual nationwide loss of 3.5 million calves, worth about $850 million, is attributed to calving problems.

So far, researchers have proven that proper nutrition and genetic improvement of heifers can increase conception rates by 20 percent. Simply feeding heifers in separate groups based on heavy or light weaning weights resulted in a 19-percent increase in pregnancy rate during the first breeding season with no increase in feeding costs.

Poor nutrition, caused by inadequate forage or supplements, is the major reason cows do not rebreed or rebreed late in breeding season, causing a 15 to 25 percent reduction in potential pounds of calf weaned per cow.

Sixty percent of calf losses could be prevented by giving timely and proper assistance to cows experiencing calving difficulties. Assistance also reduces rebreeding difficulties and promotes healthier mothers.

The station was among the first to successfully combine synchronization of estrus and drug treatments for superovulation - where many eggs are shed. Superovulation is a critical part of any successful embryo transfer program, but results are often unpredictable - sometimes no eggs are shed by the ovaries, other times 30 to 40.

"Spontaneous or disease-caused abortions continue to be a significant problem for cattle producers," says Robert Short, animal physiologist. "Most causes are unknown, but we are certain Ponderosa pine needles cause abortions. So far, we've found no way to prevent such abortions. We do know, however, that blood flow to the cow's uterus is interrupted after she eats pine needles and we are trying to find out why."

Another major area of inquiry at Fort Keogh is the management of replacement heifers - young females that go back into the breeding herd to produce the next generation of calves.

"We've learned that heifers that get pregnant early in their first breeding season will tend to do so the rest of their lives, and hence are more productive as brood cows," says Robert Staigmiller, animal physiologist.

At Fort Keogh, scientists have also:

* Demonstrated that the effectiveness of complementary forages can supplement cattle diets and defer grazing of native ranges until later in the year, thus protecting the range-land environment.

* Demonstrated the importance of having beef cows prepared for winter. They must have adequate fat reserves at calving to ensure maximum pregnancy rate the following spring.

* Developed a Range Improvement Machine that forms water holding areas while seeding grasses and legumes. Its use has been shown to increase range production two- to three-fold in areas where conventional seeding techniques were unsuccessful.

PHOTO : Historic officer's quarters under renovation by the Miles Foundation Historical Society. (K-3912-11)

PHOTO : Cody Taylor rides through tall grass during a roundup at Fort Keogh. (K-3908-11)

PHOTO : The old cavalry barracks are framed in the doorway of a modern feed mill on the Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Station. (K-3911-1)

PHOTO : Top: Animal physiologist Robert Bellows prepares to implant a 7-day-old embryo into a surrogate mother (background). (K-2968-4)

PHOTO : Bottom: Mike Woods shoes a horse in Fort Keogh's old cavalry remount barn. Maintaining working horses in peak condition is vital to the daily operations of the research station. (K-3906-7)

PHOTO : Top: Pronghorn antelope and other wildlife are abundant on the Fort Keogh rangeland. (K-3912-1)

PHOTO : Bottom: Laboratory technician Ann Darling pipeting serum for radioimmuno-assay of pine needle poisoning, which causes abortions in cattle. (K-2968-16)

PHOTO : Top: Veteran cowboy Andy Shafer at the old cavalry remount horse barn. (K-3905-1)

PHOTO : Bottom: Plant physiologist Marshall Haferkamp inspects improved forages for row spacing at a range test plot at Fort Keogh. (K-2973-11)
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Title Annotation:Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory, Montana
Author:Senft, Dennis
Publication:Agricultural Research
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1991
Previous Article:A ride in ARS' own "Air Force One".
Next Article:The legacy of Fort Keogh.

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