Signs designating a cow-calf operator as a “Master Cattleman” are popping up all over the Bluegrass State these days. To folks navigating the main thoroughfares and back roads, it's one of the most ubiquitous indicators that Kentucky is serious about raising the competitiveness of its cattle industry.

Since 2000, more than 1,000 producers from 101 Kentucky counties have gone through the state's Master Cattleman program, says Jimmy Henning, University of Kentucky (UK) assistant director for agriculture and natural resources.

Master Cattleman is a Kentucky Beef Network program funded by the Kentucky Agriculture Development Board (ADB) and developed and delivered by UK's College of Agriculture. The 10-session curriculum provides producers with information on the various management aspects of cow-calf production and how each impacts the quality of the whole.

Included in the curriculum are four hours of instruction in each area of: management skills, forages, nutrition, facilities and animal behavior, environmental stewardship and industry awareness, genetics, reproduction, herd health, end-product quality, and marketing and profitability.

Producers who complete the program's requirements are Beef Quality Assurance-certified and eligible for a Master Cattleman sign to display on their farm gate. The presentations of the signs are made at state cattlemen's meetings.

That's just one aspect of a state program that's spent more than $52 million across Kentucky over the past three years in a bid to dramatically improve beef and forage production in the state, Henning reports.

The source of funding is largely from 2001 tobacco settlement funds, 50% of which state officials allocated toward helping farmers and communities that will suffer financially as tobacco income declines.

The funds have allowed investment in the Master Cattleman program, and cost sharing on improved genetics, handling facilities and forage stands, as well as more certified calf sales in the state.

“The model program was written at the state level, but its exact implementation is decided at the county level,” Henning says. “Counties can be more restrictive in terms of programs offered and cost-share levels, but can't be less restrictive than the state guidelines.”

A program rundown

Here's a quick rundown of the investments and potential payoffs as listed by Henning in the August issue of UK Cooperative Extension's Forage News.

  • ADB investment has helped producers purchase 13,000 bulls, most of which should improve calf-weaning weights by an estimated 25 lbs./head, Henning says. Assuming 30 cows/bull as an average serving capacity in Kentucky and an 80% calf crop, farmers should have 7.8 million more pounds of weaned calf to sell. These heavier calves should generate more than $8 million in added cattle income.

    “The bull program doesn't specify breed, but does have EPD standards for calving ease, weaning weight and yearling weight based on breed and the type of bull needed. Bulls must meet these standards in order to qualify for funding,” Henning says. The program is open to the purchase or leasing of bulls, or use of artificial insemination.

  • ADB funds have helped producers improve forage programs by encouraging cost-share participation to seed hay and pasture crops that will produce 30-50% more yield than basic grass fields. The improvements will also improve forage quality, which should lead to greater beef production at less cost, he says.

  • Following variety and soil test recommendations by UK Extension, more than $17.1 million was utilized to support new seedings of alfalfa and red clover. The improved yield and quality is expected to return up to $400 or more/acre seeded over the life of the stand for alfalfa, and $240 for red clover.

    At an estimated $110/acre seeding cost, at least 300,000 acres of improved forage have been established. Based only on yield, it should generate at least $30 million in increased forage value, Henning says.

  • Thus far, more than $13.5 million in ADB funding has been matched by Kentucky producers to purchase or improve 11,000 cattle handling facilities across the state. Based on 50 calves/facility and $15/calf income gain as the result of improved health and management programs, the effort's value totals $8.25 million more potential income for Kentucky producers.

    Henning calls the handling facilities component of the program “the most phenomenal part. It allows for cost-share purchase and installation of handling facilities and equipment for beef and dairy cattle, secure lots or pens for bulls, weaning pens and shared-used handling equipment.

    “These are lasting pieces of hardware and one of the keys to helping producers accomplish their management and quality enhancement goals — practices like animal health, dehorning, shortened calving seasons. It's just one piece, but a key one, in the management equation,” Henning says.

  • In 2003, producers representing 51,000 cows went through the Master Cattlemen program. For the largest cattle-producing state east of the Mississippi River, that's admittedly a sliver of Kentucky's cattle population, as the state boasts 39,000 beef operations and a total 1.128 million beef cows, for an average herd size of 29 head.

    “Yet, due to the adoption of these profit-oriented recommended practices, participating producers are realizing increased economic returns of $12,000 annually,” Henning says. That's based on an average herd size of 102 cows.

  • In 2003, Extension agents in partnership with KBN facilitators and the Kentucky Department of Ag assisted local cattle groups in hosting 31, CPH-45 health and management feeder calf sales at 13 locations around the state. More than 30,000 feeder calves were marketed.

The average premium/cwt. over the average sale price was $7.27, with the calves gaining on average an additional 80 lbs. for a total of 2.4 million lbs. Accounting for both the premium and weight gain, these Kentucky producers increased total income by more than $4.7 million, Henning adds.

“Kentucky sees beef cattle as one of its linchpin enterprises of the future,” Henning says. “There's a new level of cooperation between the UK College of Agriculture, the Kentucky Cattleman's Association, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and state government. Through coordinated and focused educational programs, and sound investments, we want to put Kentucky on the map as a leader in the beef cattle industry.”