It’s a foggy November morning south of Clavet, Sask. Cattle grazing bales gradually emerge from the mist to eye strangers. Near the grazing cattle is the Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence.
The recently opened centre is focused on research, teaching and working with the livestock and forage industries. It comprises 27 quarters of land in two locations — Clavet and Floral — both near Saskatoon. The Clavet location includes the Beef Cattle Research and Teaching Unit, which has a 1,500-head capacity feedlot, and the Forage and Cow-Calf Research and Teaching Unit, which has a 300-head cowherd. Near Floral is the Goodale Research Farm, which includes 165 breeding cows, plus horses, bison and deer.
The fresh, unweathered planks of the windbreaks stand out against the grey morning at Clavet’s forage and cow-calf facility. Much of the fencing and facilities here are new. And Dr. Kris Ringwall, the recently appointed director, has only been in the job two-and-a-half weeks.
Ringwall grew up on a North Dakota farm, and to him, the Saskatchewan landscape looks familiar. Before taking the post in Saskatchewan, Ringwall was director of North Dakota State University’s Dickinson Research Extension Center. Ringwall has worked in extension for years — it’s the only path he’s known, he says. Extension’s role is “always to make producers think,” he says.
“We put on meetings as if we’re going to provide an answer, which is nice when we can do that. And there are a few things that we can answer.” But, says Ringwall, the answers they give are only small pieces of the big picture. The challenge for producers is to think beyond the little pieces.
“And then hopefully we can help. But the initiative has to come from the producer’s own operation, as to how they’re going to fit those pieces together.”
Ringwall studied animal science at North Dakota State University and went on to earn his PhD in animal breeding at Oklahoma State. When he was in school, least-cost production was a dominant paradigm. But as time has marched on, there’s a growing realization that least-cost production is just one piece of the puzzle.
The first thing producers need to do is figure out where they’re at, then least-cost their own operations, says Ringwall. Economy of scale is real. But cow-calf producers need to figure out how much they need and want to scale up, he adds. It’s harder to achieve least-cost unit of production with smaller operations, but that doesn’t mean producers can’t make a living running fewer cows, he says.
The Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence has an opportunity to look beyond the pieces because of its connection to the system, says Ringwall. That potential to jump disciplinary categories and create a unit is built right into its name, says Ringwall, and it’s what gets him the most excited about the centre.
Whether or not the centre fulfills that potential remains to be seen. Ringwall says producers need to help them see those connections to the rest of the system.
Research is very technique-oriented, he explains. Generally studies want to answer one research question.
“And systems work is very, very difficult,” he says.
Technology is also pushing a more technique-focused approach in extension. Ringwall cut his teeth in the days of diagrams and books, which are admittedly less exciting than today’s multi-media. That new technology can make it easier to learn techniques. It also pushes extension specialists to make learning more convenient.
But Ringwall cautions that there’s more to extension and research than new technology.
“So much of what we can modernize is just that — techniques. It’s not the premise behind those techniques,” he says. People still need to read and learn so they understand why they’re using those techniques, he adds.
Too much focus on technique can be an issue for researchers too. They can research all kinds of techniques, Ringwall says. But they need to look at whether there’s a benefit to the beef industry, whether we need to know those techniques.
Researchers can also base their thoughts around a piece of land, which challenges them to stay within those boundaries, says Ringwall. It’s a different approach from looking at a pen and deciding to bring in any input a person wants. Some would say that if a person makes money with the second approach, there’s no need to worry about it, says Ringwall.
“But this centre has the capacity to stay within its resources and see where we go.”
The Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence (LFCE) has another strength. Already it has put several people around the table to ask questions. The strategic advisory board comprises people from the university, provincial and federal governments and the livestock and forage sectors. Ringwall also reports to the deans of the College of Agriculture and Bioresources and the Western College of Veterinary Medicine.
“In my limited life, this is probably the most collaborative effort I’ve ever seen,” says Ringwall. “This is a wonderful effort, in that you’ve got the players around the table and actually helping fund (the centre).”
That collaboration won’t always create warm, fuzzy feelings, says Ringwall, as people won’t always see eye-to-eye.
“But we’re all on the same land base. So the LFCE constantly has to push that concept, where we’re going to do this together.” There are people with very business-oriented concepts and others with very land-based ones, he adds. But at some point everyone has to sit down and figure out how to get to where we want to be.
When it comes to making the centre work, Ringwall says there isn’t really anything keeping him up at night.
“You have to have a base and you start working on that base,” he says. “And you let it grow.”
There’s always a little worry around meeting expectations, he concedes. Individual stakeholders will always have their own concepts and thoughts. A person wants to meet expectations, but anyone who wants to be a leader has to be prepared to challenge people, too. And challenging people can be worrying, Ringwall says, because the people you’re challenging might not agree with you.
But Ringwall hopes that producers can come to the table with the big picture in mind. It’s understandable that they’d want to make money in the short term, but Ringwall also wants to know where they want to be in 50 years.
Right now Ringwall’s top priority is to look at human resources and the organizational base of the centre and to get a handle on the skill sets of the people there. He wants to make sure the centre operates within its skill set.
“Because you may have a desire to step out, (but) if you don’t have the human resources to do that, you can’t do it, because you’re going to have a wreck,” he says. “And you can’t have wrecks because you’re dealing with living things.”
In the long term, he hopes that the centre will smooth the road between the field and fork. He wants to see a calf grow through the system in the most opportunistic way possible, with the best welfare possible. Ringwall thinks the beef industry in general has to become more land-based on the cow-calf side.
“The problem is, as you go down that path from field to fork, the field is obviously land-based. And the fork becomes animal-based.”
The break comes whenever the calf leaves the land for a pen, he explains. But there’s not much opportunity to take the land base all the way to the rail, so the calf does need to leave the land at some point, Ringwall adds. It may happen at the weanling, yearling or 15-month stage. Ringwall says the models along the path don’t really merge, despite efforts to connect them. The driving economic components aren’t the same, he says.
“But if we understand that, then maybe we can move forward.” One thing everyone raising cattle needs to understand is the value of the carcass. That’s the money in the business, and all the costs have to be borne by that end value, he says. Once the carcass is processed, it’s moved into another phase of the industry.
Finally, that field-to-fork pathway needs to be financially sustainable, he says.
“It doesn’t do you any good to have a model that you can’t make a living at.”