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Youth learn about beef industry with NMSU's junior performance steer project

CLAYTON, N.M. - For several youths exhibiting steers at the Union County Fair in northeastern New Mexico, their projects entailed more than simply displaying their animals in front of a judge and the local crowd.

Union County 4-H member Cash Murdock looks at the real-time ultrasound image of his steer's ribeye section during the county fair's performance steer competition. Mike Barnes, Clayton High School agriculture education teacher, and cattle producer Kathy Roberts explain the image on the monitor. (NMSU Photo by Jane Moorman)

For the last three years, youths enrolled in the junior market steer project in Union County have had the option of entering their steers in an additional competition that emphasizes production and marketing parameters commonly used in the mainstream feedlot industry.

"Unlike other counties in New Mexico, most of the youths and steers exhibited in Union County come directly off the family ranch," said Manny Encinias, New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service beef specialist, one of the organizers of this competition. "Because these families and the community are embedded in the beef business, the program was an easy sell from the very beginning."

Encinias, Grenville rancher Kathy Roberts and retired Union County Extension Service agricultural agent David Graham proposed the program in 2008 to add an educational dimension for youth and families interested in the economically important aspects of the junior market steer project. The program's goals also included attracting more local producers to the fair, and promoting careers in production agriculture in the areas of nutrition, genetics, meat science and feedlot management.

Eighteen youths participated in this year's program, which involved measuring the average daily weight gain over a 180-day period beginning in early February. Once at the fair, Encinias and fellow technician Raymond Rivale utilized real-time ultrasound to estimate the composition of each steer's carcass by measuring the ribeye area, backfat, and marbling.

This information on each steer, combined with a ranking in the show ring by a three-member panel of local feedlot managers, and the results from a written exam taken by each participant are used to compute an overall champion for the competition. The top five places in the competition are awarded cash premiums.

All steers participating in the production competition remain eligible for the traditional market steer show later in the day and a sale position in the junior livestock sale.

"One of the biggest reasons our local ranching families wanted this expanded program was to give their kids more education," Encinias said. "Through this program, the youth understand that they have a responsibility and standards to uphold as young beef producers, because their market steers will eventually end up on someone's dinner plate."

As a requisite of the program, every participant and at least one of their parents must complete a formal training in Beef Quality Assurance, which provides the framework of best management practices to produce safe, wholesome and quality beef.

The fair competition also introduces the youth and their families to the technology of real-time ultrasound as it is commonly used throughout the nation's beef industry.

"Ultrasound is used by seedstock producers to predict economically important traits in growing bulls and females tied to carcass composition," Encinias said. "Feedlots also use the technology to sort cattle into uniform lots and determine feeding end dates based on carcass size and quality."

Marketing is another component of the beef industry that participants learn, including the monetary difference between selling a group of animals for an average price and selling each animal individually according to its meat grade classification.

During the county fair competition, the ultrasound carcass information is used to determine current market value of the steer using a grid marketing formula. The cattle receive premiums and discounts based on how well they fit a defined set of carcass parameters, including carcass size, the amount of red meat yield and the amount of intramuscular fat.

"Marketing cattle using a grid formula is a strategy that has been used for many years in the central and northern Plains," Encinias said. "Only in recent years have we begun to see a higher percentage of cattle in the southern Plains marketed on the grid."

"This program gives our kids an idea of a real world marketing situation," said Mike Barnes, agriculture education teacher at Clayton High School and sponsor of the Clayton FFA chapter. "Most of our steers are home-raised cattle, so using the ultrasound gives some data to the parents to see how it is used as a marketing strategy. The competition is helping open parents' eyes to the change that is happening in the beef industry."

Program organizers see the performance competition as a way for youth to gain an appreciation for all aspects of beef production. Ranchers in the area agree.

"This is a real-life experience," Union County rancher Joel Gilbert said. "They can relate to the final product - not just having a good-looking animal. It lets them see the relationship between what they do while raising the steer and what's happening at a feedlot."

Rancher Randy Monroe adds that the program is getting his son, Tanner, to see what really goes on while producing beef cattle.

"It's not just going out and buying a calf," Monroe said. "He is seeing that raising calves is a real business, not just chores. He's learning it's a future business that he can build toward."