TUCUMCARI, N.M. - For 50 years, cattle producers in the Southern High Plains and Southwest have benefited from the New Mexico Beef Cattle Performance Association's performance testing center for bulls located at the New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Tucumcari.
As one of the country's longest running programs, the testing center will celebrate its 50th anniversary during the annual Tucumcari Bull Sale, March 18. Activities will begin March 17 with the annual Buyers Bull Session and Dinner at the Tucumcari Convention Center, 1500 W. Route 66 Blvd.
Since its creation in 1961, bulls from more than 25 different breeds have participated in the 16-week program that gathers objective performance data for improving the probability of beef cattle. Producers from throughout the United States have used the sale to improve the genetics and quality of their herds.
"Up until the 1960s, selection of bulls was for type and action, not necessarily things tied to economic performance of the animal," said Bobby Rankin, retired NMSU Extension beef cattle specialist and Animal and Range Sciences department head. "More depended on how the animal suited somebody's eyeball judgment than upon performance and traits that would improve the profitability of the herd."
Rankin's first big project when he joined NMSU in 1961 was to help the NMBCPA start a bull testing station at the Tucumcari science center, formerly known as NMSU Northeastern Substation.
The association began discussion on having a performance testing center in 1956 at a meeting attended by leading ranchers: Bill Littrell, of Cimarron; Karl Butts, of Clayton; J.W. Herrings Jr.; Charlie Scheihing; Glenn Burrows, of Clayton; George and Mattie Ellis, of Bell Ranch; A.D "Sonny" Brownfield, of Deming; Ed Jeffers, of Gladstone; Jay Cox, of Las Vegas; Ray Bryan, of Cimarron; Jack Copeland, of Nor Visa; James Calliban, of Gran Quivira; Al Woodburn, of Roswell; Howard Hampton, of Logan; James Williamson, of Pep; Gene Stockton, of Raton; Howard McDaniel, of Wagon Mound; and W.E. "Frankie" Flint, of Bard.
Other breeders who supported the testing center in the early days were Cliff Neafus, from Newkirk, and Lloyd Grau, from Grady.
Ranchers in the area, including Chappell Spade Ranch and T4 Ranch, contributed labor to build the test center facilities, including pens and barns.
While developing the framework for the program, the ranchers utilized the Performance Registry International standards as benchmarks. Rankin developed the data collecting procedures and general guidelines, such as testing only weaned and registered bull calves.
In the 1961 inaugural test, 27 cattlemen brought 128 bulls representing four breeds to the center.
"At first, the program tested junior and senior age bulls, as well as steers," Rankin said. "The steers allowed us to gather growth performance data, and after they were harvested, important beef quality data."
After a few years, the group decided to focus on improving herds through identifying quality junior bulls and discontinued testing senior age bulls and steers.
In the 1960s, NMSU joined other universities with centralized performance testing centers to gather data that was shared through the Beef Improvement Federation.
"The Beef Improvement Federation was formed to make the centers' recordkeeping more uniform and for the promotion of the information so cattlemen could make decision about improving their herds from data based information," Rankin said. "We had annual meetings and discussed ways to help the industry improve their herds."
Current director of operations for the test, Manny Encinias, NMSU Extension beef cattle specialist, said, "Conceptually, these breeders and Extension specialists were the pioneers who shaped today's beef industry. Standard data collection and management practices on seedstock and commercial cattle operations today were logically crafted by these individuals."
Today the concept of preconditioning calves, which involves implementing a defined health and nutrition program at weaning, coupled with a transition period before calves are shipped, is a standardized practice to improve post-weaning health, performance and value.
These performance-testing pioneers recognized this period after weaning was critical to defining the future performance of bulls sent to the test, and adopted preconditioning guidelines for bulls entering the tests.
Ron Parker, retired Extension beef cattle specialist and NMSU Extension Animal Science and Natural Resources department head, who managed the bull test from 1981-2005 recalls incorporating the measuring of scrotal circumference to bulls sent to Tucumcari.
"Research indicated the importance of scrotal circumference to fertility traits in bulls. From this data we were able to put a limit on the minimum size for bulls to be sold in the spring sale," Parker said. Today, the scrotal circumference measurement is a key component in a breeding soundness exam, which every breeding bull must pass annually prior to the breeding season.
During Parker's tenure as bull test director, testing also included estimating carcass characteristics, like ribeye area and marbling, with real time ultrasound.
"Remember that prior to the application of ultrasound to estimate carcass traits, the only method to determine carcass composition was by harvesting an animal, in this case a steer or heifer contemporary," said Encinias. "Ultrasound has given us the opportunity to assess these traits on the live animal and make correlations to the nutrition program, as well as the performance and health of the bulls participating in the test."
In the last decade, the validity of centralized performance testing facilities, like the Tucumcari Bull Test, has been questioned. However, the emergence of commercialized DNA-marker technology and escalated feed costs have revived interest in performance testing to further identify superior genetics that will excel in traits to improve the bottom line for commercial cattle producers.
"We're much more than a 'feed 'em and weigh 'em' facility today," Encinias said. "Our group of genetic suppliers strives to evaluate the genetic merit of these young bulls using advance technologies, like DNA and ultrasound."
To operate a program continuously for 50 years is a significant milestone that has weathered numerous industry transitions, and bull buyers' preferences.
The original test period consisted of 140 days, but was transitioned to 112 days according to Larry Foster, retired NMSU Extension beef cattle specialist, who managed the test prior to Parker.
"When I first started, very few bulls made 1,000 pounds at 365 days weight, but by the end of my time, most bulls were getting over 1,000 pounds," Foster said. Selection of superior genetics has taken the 365-day weight of bulls participating in today's test to more than 1,200 pounds.
Foster said across the country there has also been a tremendous increase in the weaning weight when comparing 1965 data to now.
"It's a phenomenal increase. I think a lot of it is due to performance testing bulls and selecting bulls with superior growth potential," he said.
While the present day test continues to evaluate the bull's genetic potential for growth and efficiency, Encinias and cooperating producers place a significant amount of attention to producing and selling quality, performance-tested bulls.
"Two common observations prospective buyers bring to our attention when visiting the facility today is the large amount of hay we feed the bulls and that the bulls are not roly-poly fat," Encinias said. "Providing these young, growing bulls all the hay they can consume, promotes the development of a healthy rumen environment, which we believe is vital in minimizing body condition loss of these yearling bulls when they are turned out to service cows."
The bull-buying customer has always been an important part of the Tucumcari Bull Test and the business conducted by the New Mexico Beef Cattle Performance Association.
"The action of the association today ties into the original precepts that the group established 50 years ago," Encinias said.
In 2009, the association launched the New Mexico Gold Calf Marketing Program to assist commercial cattle producers in marketing value-added calves sired by member bulls and also developed a high altitude grazing performance test at the Valles Caldera National Preserve in northern New Mexico.
"If you look at it from a pure selection and genetic standpoint, you might be able to make the argument that there are other ways today of evaluating genetics in bulls that are just as useful," Parker said. "But the one thing you can always come back to is that regional performance tests, like Tucumcari, are supplying high quality bulls to commercial producers in the area, and doing it very reasonably while gathering a lot of data about the bulls."
Rankin said the program is important as a function of the Cooperative Extension Service's beef improvement program, because it allows the beef cattle specialist closer contact with the participating breeders and their neighbors which gives the Extension specialist an opportunity to share other programs that may be of service to their operations.
"It's a way for distributing knowledge and working cooperatively, and that's what the Extension Service is all about, being cooperative with the producers to try to improve their product and profitability," Rankin said.