For beef producers, the challenge continues to be how to work and invest smarter.
"Feedlots can be a humbling experience," said Eldon Cole, Extension Service livestock specialist. "You won't always make a profit, but you will always learn."
Cole talked about genetics and taking advantage of testing. Genetic traits make a difference in price. For example, rat-tail in cows indicates thinner skin and an animal that is not as likely to stay healthy. An amicable temperament in a cow can bring $62 more per head at market. Paying for and age and source test can bring $30 more per head at market.
Beef specialist Dona Goede challenged conventional thinking about bulls. Just because a bull has been established in a herd for a long time and is hard to move out of a field does not mean the bull is doing his job. A big old bull may not have the legs to manage heifers in winter and if it takes later in the season of cows to become pregnant, a test is needed to show how the bull is producing. Goede said it might be time for an upgrade.
"I hear people say they want an older bull to rent. Don't," said Goede. "You don't know where he's been. Get a younger bull, a virgin if possible."
Cole added that trichinosis is a disease in cattle that has been on the rise nationally. The number of incidents have been stable in southwest Missouri, but with a mobile society and moving animals around, it becomes even more important to get bulls tested.
Economizing has been critical for dairy producers who are facing the worst market slide on record. Agronomy specialist Stacey Hamilton talked about studies at the center on the advantages of alternating a rye grass and novel fescue diet. He saw no clear advantage of one diet source over the other and recommended switching back and forth, depending on the month.
In tests done at the center, all cows got an additional nine pounds of grain added to their diet per day, equalizing the differences between the grass diets. The extra grain is essential for dairy production, he said, whereas beef cattle do not need such a rich diet.
Genetics again has been a key in the level of milk productivity achieved at the center's dairy farm. Hamilton said over the past 10 years, the center has developed an A1-bred herd, genetically selected from good dairy stock. Having similar cows brings stability to the herd and its production, a goal farms struggle to achieve.
Although market conditions are difficult for dairymen at present and not enticing as a career choice, dairy specialist Joe Horner said he has not seen a better time to get into the field in light of low prices. However, the Ozarks philosophy of "build it up, wear it out, make it due or do without" has worked against the perpetuation of the family farm, Horner said.
The practice of pouring cement for a new home, next to the parents' and grandparents' homes has established a model with little flexibility. At present, Horner said a dairyman must work strenuously to age 35 to be able to get the money to purchase a herd or farm, then work to age 55 to pay off the debt.
Horner saw more flexibility in adapting the New Zealand system, where a dairyman in his twenties could get a share of the milk profits, depending on his invested effort, evolving into an equity partnership. Under this model, newcomers earn a manageable piece of the business and can build their portion.
Unlike here, New Zealanders tend to move around, buying into bigger operations until they can get into ownership of the land. Horner said the system also works better on grass-based dairies, which have more economic flexibility. Still, Horner did not see a far stretch to where a dairyman could own the farm and sell the herd to a younger dairyman.
"We can't recreate New Zealand here. We have to put a little bit of 'hillbilly' bend in it. We can control it a little better," Horner said.
Another new challenge has been what to do with dead cows. Dairy specialist Barry Steevens said state law, in response to the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE or "Mad Cow Disease") scare, now will not allow rendering firms to pick up animals until the brain and spinal chords have been removed. Since producers are not inclined to make the extra effort, and a 4,000-head dairy head can expect to see 20 cows die every month, burial becomes the only real option.
In southwest Missouri, Steevens said, digging a five-foot hole in rocky soil may not be realistic. He spoke about composting, developed over the past 15 years through the poultry industry. A cow can be buried with a foot of material below, beside and on top, provided the material has enough nitrogen, such as poultry litter.
Steevens and a rancher who uses the system explained how the compost pile can rise to 150 degrees, too hot for flies to breed. When the temperature starts to drop in about three weeks, the pile needs to be stirred to add oxygen to keep the process going. A rancher who uses the approach said a well-done compost pile has no smell, whereas a badly done composting effort can be one of the worst sources of smell on a farm.
Despite ideal weather conditions, Richard Crawford, director of the Southwest Research Center, said attendance appeared to be down slightly on Friday. On Thursday the center hosted 2,300 students from 52 high schools for tours. Crawford said any time the center can share word about its mission is a good opportunity.