beef cattle ranch

When the foundation of Tennessee’s beloved beef production began to wane, organizations joined forces to revitalize the state’s No. 1 agricultural commodity.

Many factors had caused the state to drop from the ninth largest beef cattle state to 13th in recent years. High feed prices, drought, farmer retirements and urban encroachment have challenged the state’s beef industry. The Tennessee Beef Heifer Development Program seeks to reverse that downward trend. It aims to rebuild the state’s beef herd and improve beef quality. The program’s home facility educates farmers on how to custom-raise heifers to add value.

“We really think this program can be extremely beneficial to beef cattle producers in our state,” says Kevin Thompson, director of the University of Tennessee’s Middle Tennessee Research and Education Center. “It offers an opportunity for our producers to diversify. It gives an enterprise within the state that producers can implement on their farms to raise heifers for their neighbors. They can come to Lewisburg and physically see a facility easily duplicated on their farm.”

Developing replacement heifers ranks as one of the most time-consuming and costly aspects of beef production for farmers, Thompson says. The inaugural class of 100 beef heifers arrived in the fall of 2015 at the University of Tennessee’s Dairy AgResearch and Education Center in Lewisburg. Farmers retain ownership of their heifers and pay the facility to manage nutritional and health needs from weaning to pregnancy. Heifers are then returned to the farm or sold to other farms.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Tennessee Farmer’s Cooperative and University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture joined forces to create the heifer development program, an initiative consistent with the Governor’s Rural Challenge to improve rural economies. A $243,000 grant from the Tennessee Agricultural Enhancement Program built the facility, and a contribution of $125,000 from the Tennessee Farmer’s Cooperative equipped it, says Justin Rinehart, University of Tennessee beef cattle specialist.

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“The impact of the program is that we can grow our herd quicker and with higher quality cattle,” he says. “That will increase revenue for the state’s largest ag commodity.”

TDA Commissioner Julius Johnson says that although Tennessee’s cattle numbers have increased by 2.6 percent in the last year, the state is still not fully realizing its potential. The demand for beef is strong across the globe. In Tennessee, rebuilding the beef herd will position the state to gain a greater share of that global market.

“UT has previously identified that the best way to grow the state’s ag industry is through the beef cattle industry,” he says. “We are great at growing grass and forage, but our herd numbers are the lowest since 1959. Regrowth of the herd is important to our state, and it’s starting already.”

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