Robert Field is the kind of cattle producer who never stops learning. Considering he's a seventh-generation Mississippi producer and was in the first group that received Beef Quality Assurance certification in the state in 1999, it's hard to believe there's much he doesn't know. But he'll disagree with that pretty strongly.
"A lot of people tell me they know all about BQA, but they just don't want to go through the certification process. I tell them, and I mean it, that every time I go, I learn something. There is always a new technique. There are always improvements. BQA is one way I stay current. It's just once every three years in my state. That's a small commitment for what I learn," says the Shuqualak producer, who heads up Calyx Star Ranch.
Field's family has worked this spot of ground since the 1820s. Over the generations, the farm has produced cotton, corn, soybeans, pine trees and cattle. Today, his son, Walter, is in charge of the row-crop portion of that Southern mix. The farm also holds guided turkey hunts. It's all a mark of the strong belief the family holds in the importance of diversification.
FOCUS ON THE FUTURE
Calyx Star Ranch may have roots in the past, but Field stays focused on the future. The operation has invested in its commercial and registered Brangus herd through the use of technologies like artificial insemination (AI), estrus synchronization and strong genetics.
Field focuses on bull development, with his primary market being breeding-age bulls. He runs about 250 cows, with a goal of getting the herd back to 275 head by holding back replacements. When cattle prices were high, he sold the bottom third of the herd, with the goal of building back from the top two-thirds.
"It's taken us longer to get back than we thought," he says. "The price of replacements just got so high, it slowed our buildup. There has also been more demand for bulls, so we've been trying to propagate our best females as we build up genetics."
To speed that process, Field says they started using embryo transfer (ET) in 2008. They have been using AI in the herd since 1979, employing a timed-breeding protocol on an estrus-synchronization program in the registered herd. Two calving seasons, fall and spring, give the producer market options. Heifers are managed to have their first calves at 2 1/2years of age. Field says he's tried calving heifers earlier but feels it sets them back and isn't what Mother Nature intended. Commercial cows see natural service.
The goal, in both the commercial and the registered herd, is a total breeding season of 75 days and a 90-day calving season. Field sells bulls in one of two annual sales, October or March. Yearlings will weigh 1,000 to 1,100 pounds.
TRIPS THROUGH THE CHUTE
All of the synchronization, vaccinations, health care and AI work that go into producing one of those bulls or a replacement heifer means Field spends a lot of time moving cows through the chute. When he does, it's critical to keep needles clean.
Skipping needle disinfection between animals can spread diseases like anaplasmosis. Anaplasmosis can kill infected cattle quickly, or they can become carriers, allowing the disease to spread through needle contamination or even biting insects like flies and mosquitoes.
Many of today's BQA practices at Calyx Star Ranch started precisely because of issues with anaplasmosis.
"We used to lose a cow about every five to seven years to anaplasmosis; now we may lose one every 10 years, Field says.
He adds they manage the disease today with prescribed antibiotics in minerals and by taking the time to disinfect needles used for vaccines or to draw blood. Along with disinfection, the producer puts a lot of emphasis on needle size and injection placement.
NEEDLE CHOICE MATTERS
Field's method for needle use includes keeping a disinfectant handy to soak needles in as he uses them. He blows the disinfectant out before reloading them with vaccine, a tip he says he got from his local veterinarian. Shots go in the neck, with most vaccines now given subcutaneously compared to intramuscularly. Field also has some specific preferences when it comes to needle size.
"I use small needles, the smaller the better," he says. "I keep both 18 and 20 gauge, and I adjust the size for the vaccine. Some have a thicker viscosity, and you have to use the 18 gauge, but for most things, I use a 20. For me, it's just a case of knowing that the smaller needles reduce the pain. You don't want to condition them to be afraid of having you around. That's especially important when you are syncing them for AI or you need to stimulate donor cows."
Field adds he prefers nothing over a 1-inch-long needle. "I believe the longer the needle, the more likely it is to break off, and the more damage you can cause," he says. BQA guidelines call for a 1/2- to 3/4-inch needle for subcutaneous injections, a 1 1/2-inch needle for intravenous injections and a 1- to 1 1/2-inch needle for intramuscular injections.
Good needle selection helps in the common goals of reducing stress in a herd and helping to cultivate good dispositions.
"You always need to be working on disposition," Field says. "That should be top of mind with every producer. I've read the works of Temple Grandin and Curt Pate, and there are a lot of habits we, as cattlemen, sometimes have to unlearn to keep stress down and build up good habits in both the cattle and ourselves.
"When you yell at a cow, for example, it just makes things worse. Moving cattle is about your position and how you stand. You don't overfill pens or chutes," Field explains. "I know people are sick of hearing me say, 'The faster you go, the longer it's going to take you,' but it's true. You cannot rush cattle without paying a price for it."
Field's commitment to BQA isn't unusual in Mississippi, says veterinarian Carla Huston, a professor at Mississippi State University's college of veterinary medicine and a BQA coordinator for the state.
"There has been an increased interest in BQA both in our state and nationwide, as concerns for animal care and welfare, as well as judicious antibiotic use, have been increasing," she says. "We have been fortunate that in the beef industry, Mississippi has been proactive and supportive of the program."
Huston says BQA has been especially effective in helping producers fine-tune areas including proper vaccine and medication administration, stress management and overall animal welfare. There are still challenges, however, especially in value-added areas of management.
ROOM TO IMPROVE
"Practices like preweaning vaccinations, early castration and dehorning continue to be areas we'd like to see improvement in," Huston says. "We think reasons these practices are not yet implemented in all of our operations include tradition, a lack of a perceived financial benefit and a shortage of good working facilities."
She says multiple regional BQA meetings take place every year. Those requesting the live BQA training sessions include not only producers but order-buyers, stockyards and county cattlemen's associations. There are also online certification courses, often available free from sponsors.
Cost for the live programs differ by state, but Huston says in Mississippi, they charge just $15 for the three-year certificate, along with a full-color BQA manual, vaccine cooler and bumper sticker.
While education is key when it comes to BQA, Field says there's one more thing that makes the program extremely valuable to the cattle industry: "BQA sends the world a message about what we do. It says we are committed to doing things the right way. And you know when you do what's right for that cow, you are doing what's best for you and your operation, too. It's the old Golden Rule, only in this case, it applies to cows, and there's nothing wrong with that."
The first National Beef Quality Audit was held in 1991 to help the beef industry measure the impact of the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program. The audit is repeated at five-year intervals. The next report set for release is the cow/calf audit in July 2017.
It's estimated the number of fed cattle in the U.S. raised following BQA guidelines is between 80 and 90%. In 2011, the latest audit, data shows horns and bruising have improved significantly since the program's inception. Carcasses with no bruises were at 77% in the latest survey, up from 60.8% in 1991. Those with no horns were up to 76.2%, from 68.9% in 1991. Other trends noted in the report included more black-hided cattle, more use of individual identification and less mud/manure on hides.
Injection site and bruise damage, especially in high-end cuts like the butt or loin, continues to be a high-priority area for the industry. Injection-site damage can influence tenderness in a cut as much as 3 inches away from the injection site, and any injection into muscle can decrease quality and tenderness.
Today, 86% of injections at the cow/calf and seedstock levels are given subcutaneously, and 87% of the time, the placement is at the neck. BQA tips to avoid injection-site damage include:
-- proper restraint and facilities
-- injections placed in front of the shoulders in the neck area
-- the use of products labeled for subcutaneous administration instead of intramuscular
-- the use of proper needle size
-- the use of sharp needles
-- injections at least 4 inches apart
-- administering of only 10 cc per injection site.
For More Information:
-- To find a BQA coordinator in your state or to get more information about certification, visit www.bqa.org.
-- To learn about Robert Field's Calyx Star Ranch or to find out when he is having a bull sale, visit www.calyxstarranch.com.
-- The latest Beef Quality Audit reports are available at www.bqa.org/resources/audits/2011-national-beef-quality-audit.
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