IRM integrates the expertise of specialists from various agricultural disciplines to help beef producers be more efficient and more profitable. For Armstrong, the expertise came from Purdue animal scientists, agronomists, veterinarians and agricultural economists. The key, however, was that they worked as a team to solve problems and suggest new management strategies.
After Armstrong agreed to try some of the IRM team's advice, things started to change -- a lot.
"These guys came down and walked the farm with me, looked at my cows. You know," he says, "sometimes you work your own farm for so long, and you just need a new set of eyes."
Six years later, the view is very different at Armstrong's farm. He now has 250 head of cattle; he manages two calving seasons a year instead of one; and he saves pasture by selling his calves at weaning time rather than as yearlings. The extra pasture allows him to feed a larger herd.
The view is very different statewide, too. Since Armstrong signed on as that first guinea pig, 59 other herd managers have decided to participate in the IRM program.
Armstrong says he first knew that IRM would make a major difference for the better when, early on, Kern Hendrix, IRM coordinator and Purdue Extension specialist in beef nutrition and management, took one look at the corn being fed to Armstrong's younger cattle and made a rather simple suggestion.
"He said I needed to grind my corn, because it helps the younger cattle digest it better," Armstrong says. "After that, the amount of weight they gained in the winter doubled. We went from about 0.8 pounds per day to 1.5 pounds per day. So the calves were ready to be sold in April rather than September."
While the suggestion was simple, its origins were anything but.
Hendrix says IRM works because it assumes that problems usually have complex causes and may require multifaceted, multidisciplinary solutions.
"We look at many areas to try to solve a problem or create better opportunity," he says. "Of course, the bottom line is to increase profitability."
Larry Nelson, fellow IRM team member and associate head of Purdue's Department of Animal Sciences, says one producer in Orange County improved his gross income by $30 per weaned calf. Although Indiana beef herds are typically small, that still translated to an extra $7,000 over three years for the producer, Nelson says.
IRM specialists also keep their eyes on beef consumers who, for a variety of reasons, aren't eating beef the way they used to.
Nelson says the beef industry's long-standing belief that bigger is always better is getting a 1990's reality check. Tailoring the size of the animals to the size of the American appetite is becoming the new imperative.
"Consumers don't want to buy the big steaks, because one person can't always eat that much meat, and the big steak is cut too thin for the grill," Nelson says.
Beyond producing generous-to-a-fault steaks, producers breeding bigger cattle have had to pay more to keep them fed and deal with more frequent birthing problems. Large calves require C-section births more often than smaller ones, making births more expensive as well as more risky.
IRM also helps producers keep an eye on each other. Each of the 60 Indiana herd managers involved in the IRM program benefits from the collective experience of the other 59. While they all learn from Purdue's IRM program, they share with each other many of their own hard-learned lessons.
Dave Wagner, a Purdue animal sciences graduate who runs a 75-head cow-calf operation 12 miles southeast of Bedford, says he's learned a lot from IRM specialists, but nearly as much from other producers he's gotten to know at IRM events.
"You share first-hand information with these old-timers who all have a hundred times more experience than what you've had," Wagner says. "It's a give-and-take thing. You can't be secretive about your knowledge, and likewise you've got to be open-minded to that guy who's got 10 cows but might just know something that you don't."
Wagner, a three-and-a-half year veteran of IRM, knows the value of another perspective. "It's a heck of a lot cheaper to learn from someone else's mistakes than from your own," he says.
Sources: Stan Armstrong: (812) 275-5200
Kern Hendrix: (765) 494-4832, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Larry Nelson: (765) 494-4834, e-mail: email@example.com
Dave Wagner, (812) 849-6995
Writer: Amy H. Raley, (765) 494-6682, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, email@example.com
Purdue animal scientists Theresa Vanzant, Kern Hendrix and Larry Nelson (left to right) work with Indiana beef producers to improve efficiency and profitability. Purdue's Integrated Resource Management program brings animal scientists, agronomists, veterinarians and others together to solve beef production problems. (Purdue Agricultural Communications photo by Mike Kerper).
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