Come Rain or Shine

Novel Strategies in Beef Production

December 09, 2020 USDA Southwest Climate Hub & DOI Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center Season 1 Episode 8
Come Rain or Shine
Novel Strategies in Beef Production
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Andres Cibils reflects on the first year of the Sustainable Southwest Beef Project - what's been accomplished, what's in the works, and what's changing. Want to learn about the beef and what's being researched? Check out this podcast, and visit  

The Sustainable Southwest Beef Project is funded by USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems (SAS) program. Grant #2019-69012-29853

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DOI Southwest CASC:
USDA Southwest Climate Hub:
Sustainable Southwest Beef Project:

Emile Elias: [00:00:00] Welcome to Come Rain or Shine, podcast of the USDA Southwest Climate Hub

Sarah Leroy: [00:00:06] and the Department of Interior Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, or Southwest CASC. I'm Sarah Leroy Science Communications Coordinator for the Southwest CASC. 

Emile Elias: [00:00:17] And I'm Emile Elias, Director of the USDA Southwest Climate Hub.

Here, we highlight stories to share the most recent advances in climate science, weather, and climate adaptation and innovative practices to support resilient landscapes and communities. We believe that sharing some of the most forward thinking and creative climate science and adaptation will strengthen our collective ability to respond to even the most challenging impacts of climate change in one of the hottest and driest regions of the world.

The Sustainable Southwest Beef project is a five-year CAP project, or coordinated agriculture project funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture with a host of diverse partners and collaborators. In a previous episode of Come Rain or Shine, Dr. Andres Cibils and Dr. Sheri Spiegel introduced the project and shared its vision and goals.

The project's been underway for little over a year now. And so we're back with Dr. Cibils for an update on project research and first year activity. Dr. Cibils. Thanks for joining us.

Andres Cibils: [00:01:41] Thank you for the invitation, Emile. It's a pleasure to be here. 

Emile Elias: [00:01:46] So I know there have been a lot of exciting activities and accomplishments in the first year. And this is a question I ask of other podcasts as well. And so before we dive in, I want to ask if you had to pick just one word to describe or sum up the first year of the project, what would it be?

Andres Cibils: [00:02:10] I find it hard to, uh, to express ideas in one word, Emile, but if I have to say it in one word. I would say that, uh, cooperation or collaboration was probably probably characterized very, very well what happened and what helped us accomplish what was accomplished in this first year. 

Emile Elias: [00:02:33] Excellent. Yeah. Thanks. I know it's a challenging, it's a big challenge for a lot of people to pick one word or one phrase, but I agree it's been really collaborative and cooperative project so far.

Andres Cibils: [00:02:46] Yes. Oh, sorry. I don't want to get ahead of myself here, but the fact that we have scientists and educators from so many institutions and different disciplines and that are involved in different sorts of activities - research, education, extension - makes collaboration part of the- opportunities for collaboration are fantastic, but that makes this collaboration sort of an essential ingredient here, I think it's happening tremendously well, in my opinion.

Sarah Leroy: [00:03:18] Perfect. And later we're going to ask you some more questions about that collaboration and education piece of it, but I just want to take a step back first. So in this project, there are three strategies that are being researched, right? Precision ranching technologies, heritage cattle genetics, and varying supply chain options.

So could you tell us a little bit about each one of these and maybe some progress that's been made so far? Um, why don't we start with the precision ranching technologies. 

Andres Cibils: [00:03:52] Yes. Sure. I'll be happy to do that. I think, I think that all the teams have made great strides, and just to provide context that everyone is aware of, this has been a difficult year to launch the project because, of course, because of COVID and all of what we know that is happening in relation to COVID. But despite all of that I think we managed to find a great way to keep things moving forward. And so, so specifically on the precision ranching side of things, the learning curve this year was fairly steep because we set out to set up and pilot and test a new system, uh, that involves setting up a network that can catch the data in real-time and sent it to the cloud and then be able to see that data on a, on a dashboard. And we were able to do it fairly successfully at NMSU's College Ranch. That is basically one of the five of our five research sites for both or, for all of the three aspects of the research, really, but for the precision ranching and the breed comparison in particular, these sites are places where we’re going to be, test this.

And so we learned a lot, of course year number one in any project of this magnitude involves hiring graduate students and post-docs and different sorts of staff and so on. And so that was a lot of what we did this year, as well. And we were lucky we could hire outstanding people. I think that, uh, having this, having this, makes it run very well. The other thing that I really like about, uh, our team is that we have, uh, pretty active dynamic collaboration and communication with ranchers, with producers. And so they are an essential part in the precision ranching pilot testing we do. Ah, for approximately three months here at the college ranch, Andrew Cox, the ranch manager was, was a vital uh, team member because he was testing the system for us in real-time. And you know, sort of telling us, "You know, this is useful, this isn't useful. I used the system to find a cow that had been hit by a truck. And I was able to go and find it right away." These sorts of things that are valuable because it allows us to get out of a lab environment and sort of test these technologies in sort of the real world. 

Sarah Leroy: [00:06:26] And that's a great story, and a great example. What about heritage cattle genetics? Can you tell us a little bit more about that strategy? 

Andres Cibils: [00:06:35] Yes, absolutely. So, the heritage genetics research, uh, component of the grant actually builds on over 10 years of research conducted mostly by scientists at the USDA, ARS, Jornada Experimental Range and in collaboration with some of us at NMSU more recently. And so we, the one point that was a bit challenging to do was to get everything set up in the first year to produce our cross-bred calves from our criollo cows. And so one of the important things that we're hoping to achieve is to basically determine whether a rancher could have a herd of these heritage genetics cows, which we hypothesize have a lower environmental footprint than some of our equivalent commercial breeds.

But could cross them with improved beef breeds to produce calves that will be sold in the mainstream market for prices similar to the prices that they receive for their commercial beef calves. So the logistics of breeding the cows, and having the calves ready this fall to go to the feedlot, well to wheat pasture and then to the feedlot. Coordinating this, not only with, uh, the ranch here, the College ranch in New Mexico, but also the team has use of one in California and one in Utah, we have to synchronize that so that everybody is, uh, leading programs in such a way that, that calf would be ready, that required a lot of planning. Dr. Rick Estelle is leading this group and did a fantastic job. I just, couple of weeks ago, we shipped our first cohort of calves, the crossbred calves from our heritage genetics, and the straight-bred calves that we're going to compare them to.

Well, these three ranches, and all of those calves are now at NMSU's Clayton Livestock Research centers, NMSU feedlot, ready for the next phase. And so we're hoping to repeat this for three years, setting this up the first year and having the calves in Clayton is huge I think, and so I'm super proud of that team and what they have achieved. That is really amazing.

Sarah Leroy: [00:08:59] That's a lot of amazing work that's going on and that's only two of the strategies, right? So why don't you tell us a little bit more about the last one, the supply chain options? 

Andres Cibils: [00:09:08] Yes, yes, absolutely. So the supply chain options has shown an incredible amount of flexibility and adaptability into that because of course we were a few months into the project when the Coronavirus pandemic hit.

Uh, one of the first things that everybody experienced was this disruption of the beef supply chains. And so all of a sudden, uh, our meat packing plants are closing down and people starting to wonder, well, what's up with our beef supply chain in the United States, uh, you know, three or four or five big meat packing plants close down and all of a sudden we don't have meat in the supermarkets. The prices are expensive for the consumer, but for the [inaudible], the sale prices for the producer are very low, because there's no one buying those animals because the packing plants are closed, et cetera. So that got the supply chain options team led by Dr. Sheri Spiegal, and to talk here, looking into some of these things into the brittleness of the supply chain in relation to these sort of unexpected stressors. 

And so anyhow, that, that is really wonderful and discussions are continuing, and we had help by our fantastic extension team led by Dr. Elias, basically, uh webinars, explaining to ranchers how to market their beef, you know, in a situation like that, so I often thought. You know, before walking into a huge project of this magnitude, that, that it would be very hard to adapt really quickly to a situation like that. Especially when there is such a big team of the people that are highly specialized and really- man, I am amazed by what this team has done. Really. So, anyhow, yes. 

Sarah Leroy: [00:11:07] Yeah. So, so building off of that, and I know it's a little bit early in the project, but are there any preliminary findings that you could share?

Andres Cibils: [00:11:18] That, that is a little bit early still, so, no, but I, I, I think we are, we are building at least the foundation to be able by year five to have findings that hopefully will match what we hoped we would find. And so just an example of that, we're not waiting for that to happen in the sense that we have a team of people, Dr. Sheri Spiegal, Dr. Emile Elias, and others, John Ragosta a data scientist. Uh, working on developing a Western Beef Knowledge System that is an interactive platform that we're hoping to develop to basically make our discoveries available to everybody, basically. So we still don't have, I think, uh, big results to talk about, but I think we're building that. 

And one result that I'm super proud of this year is a lesson plan that was put together by our educators, by the Asombro Institute. And so they also had to adapt to doing distance learning and put together a lesson plan. I can't remember the name of it, let's see, it's Solving the Beef is the name of the lesson plan that they put together. And that's, that's an accomplishment! That's a result, that's a fantastic result. What excites me about that is that went through really rigorous revision as far as the accuracy of the science involved there, but it's able to translate some of what we've learned about this and as I mentioned before our heritage genetics sort of builds on what has been researched over the last 10 years or so, but by putting all this together, they developed a really creative activity that is of course science and education for children 12 years and older. So, I'm proud of that accomplishment! I think the  education team is ahead of all of us in that we're still cranking numbers, I guess.

Emile Elias: [00:13:25] Yeah I agree! So there are the research components that we just spoke about around precision technologies and heritage cattle and supply chain options. But then you also talked about these other project components, the educational efforts, um, Solving the Beef and that big component of this project. Also, you mentioned the extension team.

So I think that word that you used initially collaborative is really perfect for this, very apropos for this project. And one thing you mentioned, and I'd like to learn a little more about, um, you mentioned this advisory team of ranchers, and I also understand that a professional chef has also joined the advisory team.

Can you tell us a little more about that?

Andres Cibils: [00:14:11] Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. So our, our advisory team has, uh, ranchers, academics who have experience with previous USDA-NIFA CAP grants. And also there are also members of ranch organizations, or beef organizations, NCBA for instance, and a chef, yes.

So we have a chef from, uh, South Dakota, uh, who has the, is basically the executive chef for a company that provides the catering to hospitals across South Dakota, and I think probably Nebraska as well, I'm not sure. And he, through one of our advisory board members, Cindy Tolle, he came to basically know the criollo beef. He will not serve anything else to the patients of these hospitals as beef. 

So he wants to source the beef for the catering that they do for the hospitals from, basically using only criollo beef. And we are very excited to have him on board because, because he provides us the consumer side of the picture. So, uh, initially we had our producer, and research, and so these secondary fields sort of well represented, but we didn't really have the consumer end of things well represented in our advisory board. And he does an excellent job of doing that and is, uh, is an incredible advocate for some of the things we do as well. 

Emile Elias: [00:15:56] Excellent. Thanks for that. Um, and I also understand that you had an exciting development of your own. You've accepted a new position with NIFA, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. So, I guess in January, the Sustainable Southwest Beef project will have a new project director?

Andres Cibils: [00:16:15] Yes, exactly. So, yes, that is correct. I will begin working with, uh, USDA-NIFA on February first and Dr. Glenn Duff has accepted to step up into the position of Project Co-Principal director, of course. We are, we are very, very lucky that I think to have Glenn in that position. I am very confident, I think we all are very confident that bodes very well for the, for the future of this project and continuing with the same collaboration culture and enthusiasm that we've had so far.

Glenn is currently the superintendent of the Clayton Livestock Research Center. He is basically leads the, this research feedlot over there, has a lot of years of experience, uh, in academia, uh, both as a faculty and as an administrator. And as far as the CAP is concerned, he was a member of both the breed comparison team and an active member of the extension team.

I didn't talk enough about the extension team this morning, but I would say that of the three teams, this is probably the most dynamic in the sense that we continually, uh, are kept on our toes by our extension team. You know, we, we need to, they help us re-focus and focus on the information that is needed out there, and have done a really fantastic job. So Glenn is, is an active member of one of our most dynamic teams, I would say. And so, has a good view of what the CAP is about, and what we're trying to accomplish, what we’re trying to achieve, and I'm excited that he's accepted.

Sarah Leroy: [00:18:08] Well, congratulations on your new position! That's pretty exciting.

Andres Cibils: [00:18:13] Thank you.

Sarah Leroy: [00:18:14] And so I guess before we wrap up today, is there anything else that you'd like to share? Any final thoughts you have about the project as you prepare to move on to your new position? 

Andres Cibils: [00:18:31] Well, I you know, I look forward to this new position, I don't exactly know what my day-to-day  work is going to entail, but I will definitely stay connected to the project in the sense that I have a couple of graduate students that are currently working on the project, and in my capacity, my, my, yeah, my capacity as faculty, I will continue to provide advising until they get the research.

And so, we will stay in touch and I expect the sort of great things from this project and from what will come afterwards. Uh, basically we are already sort of thinking of what will happen after the project. And so. I don't want to take up too much of your time here, but one of the teams that I forgot to mention today is, uh, our evaluation team, it's a fantastic team at Kansas State University.

And they are, uh, really helping us start to think ahead, start to think of, well, what happens post-CAP? How are we building this? And so, um, my new position, I, I expect to see great outcomes, but also, what will come next? What will happen next? Because I'm sure it'll be a fantastic result. 

Emile Elias: [00:19:45] Yeah. Thank you so much for being here. Congratulations on your new position. I think we're all looking forward to seeing some of these research results as the project evolves over the next five years, seeing what does happen next, how this project can really help build some resilience into the Southwestern beef system and, and what that, um, the Southwestern Beef Knowledge System that you were talking about is going to look like.

So thanks so much. And it's been, um, just a pleasure. It's been delightful to work with you so far on this project. And, um, you know we'll continue to be in touch. It's hard to believe it's only been one year. And that so much has happened. So we'll keep reporting on this as the project evolves, and also keep in touch with you. And thanks for being here.

Andres Cibils: [00:20:40] Thank you, thank you for the opportunity and it's been a great privilege to work on this team. I've learned so much in this year, from everyone, and it's been a pleasure to work with you, and I do look forward to staying in touch with you guys. So thank you. Thank you so much.

Emile Elias: [00:20:59] Thanks for listening to Come Rain or Shine, podcast of the USDA Southwest Climate Hub,  

Sarah Leroy: [00:21:05] and the DOI Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center. If you liked this podcast, don't forget to subscribe like or follow for more great episodes. If you want more information, have any questions for the speakers, or would like to offer feedback, please visit or

Emile Elias: [00:21:30] Our sincere thanks to USDA Agricultural Research Service, the Sustainable Southwest Beef project and the US Geological Survey for supporting this podcast.