As director of the Animal Welfare Approved program, I recently had the opportunity to visit the Arapaho Ranch, in north-central Wyoming. At 580,000 acres, it is the largest USDA certified organic ranch in the U.S. - and one of the most inspiring ranches that I have ever seen. Arapaho Ranch is actually part of its environment, working in harmony with nature, rather than trying to control it. My visit began at the front of the local high school in the town of Thermopolis, where I met with David Stoner, who manages the Arapaho Ranch on behalf of the Tribal Council of the Northern Arapaho Nation. David is one of those people who can say a huge amount with very few words, and as we drove out to the first pasture it quickly became clear that the Arapaho Tribe had struck gold by appointing him to manage their ranch.
Working with a staff of technicians, farm workers, students, temporary employees and fellow scientists, Dr. Joan Burke leads the small ruminant livestock research at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Dale Bumpers Small Farms Research Center in the Ozarks region of Arkansas. The research center manages Certified Animal Welfare Approved by A Greener World (AGW) sheep and cattle breeding and feeder stock.
The farm consists of approximately 2,200 acres, with about 170 acres devoted to sheep. Since the area is hilly and unsuitable for crop farming, small ruminants make an efficient addition to the system. Predominant forages are Bermuda grass and tall fescue, and pastures may include hairy vetch, clovers, sericea lespedeza, chicory, sunn hemp, soybeans or cowpea. There is also an effort to restore native grasses and forbs for livestock and pollinator benefits. Agroforestry—where livestock or cropping is cleverly combined with forestry management—is a component of the center’s research activities, especially for the forage finished cattle which benefit from shade and cool season forages grown between tree rows. The knowledge and technology gained from the range of research at Dale Bumpers Small Farms Research Center is transferred to the agricultural and scientific community.
As Research Animal Scientist for the Agricultural Research Service, Joan has worked with small ruminants for many years, conducting research to examine approaches to improve livestock health, productivity in terms of reproductive efficiency or number of young born and weaned, and weight gains on a forage-based system. “The overall goal of the Dale Bumpers Small Farms Research Center is to develop tools and practices to improve small scale farms. For example, we can integrate multiple, within-farm livestock and agroforestry-based enterprises, while improving nutrient efficiency of forages,” Dr. Burke explains. “This will be accomplished through diversified and integrated production, increased production efficiency, and reduced reliance on purchased inputs.”
Dr. Burke says that at any given time the farm may have more than 200 Katahdin ewes, specifically chosen for their ability to thrive in the Ozark and Southeast environment: “The sheep have been selected for parasite resistance, shed their hair and have low maintenance requirements, and produce twins and sometimes triplets. Our small ruminants perform well in our harsh southern environment.” She adds, “The most important aspect of our animal husbandry practices is the ability to resist or tolerate parasitic nematode worm infections.” Dr. Burke also explains that the relationship between forage management, product quality and animal health is also important: “While small ruminant producers may sell meat, milk or wool, these products are ultimately derived from nutritious forages grown on pastures. Without good forage management, animal productivity and health will suffer.”
Dr. Burke and her staff also manage a herd of Certified Grassfed by AGW beef cattle. This is the only certification and food label in the U.S. and Canada that guarantees food products come from animals fed a 100 percent grass and forage diet, raised entirely outdoors on pasture or range, and managed according to the highest welfare and environmental standards. The herd consists of approximately 150 cows, primarily Angus based breeds. As a research center that disseminates information to small farms, they chose Angus cattle because many people in the area raise the same breed. “The Angus breed fits moderately well in this environment,” says Dr. Burke, “and have been selected to tolerate tall fescue grazing. We find that most do really well.” In addition to the Angus, the farm also manages several Romosinuano cattle, a heat tolerant Bos taurus breed. Meaning “polled Sinú” in Spanish as they come from the Sinú River Valley region in Columbia, the breed has a reddish coat and the same size and stature as Angus cattle. While not a well-known breed, it also fits well into the pasture-based production system and environment in Arkansas.
The center is currently using their herd of grassfed beef cattle for research on forage-finished beef. As Dr. Burke explains, “we want to look at what genetics fit best for forage finished beef, so we’re looking into a number of different factors that go into what makes the best carcass and the best overall product.” Dr. Burke adds, “You’ll have a better product if the animal is happy and treated with the highest welfare.” The team is carrying out a new study to examine the benefits of finishing grassfed steers in a pine silvopasture system. The protection offered by the trees is expected to keep steers cooler on warm days and provide quality cool season grasses.
Dr. Burke says the farm sought AWA and Certified Grassfed by AGW status because “we were utilizing AWA standards while conducting important research that contributes to agricultural sustainability. We want our stakeholders to know that animal welfare is extremely important for our research animals.”
For more information on the Dale Bumpers Small Farms Research Center visit their website.