It’s a different time throughout much of the world with COVID-19 restrictions, but the saying “the show must go on” definitely applies to ranching and raising beef for the consumer, so the annual Texas A&M Beef Cattle Short Course went on — virtually.
“In early March, we could see the writing on the wall,” said Jason Cleere, Ph.D., conference coordinator and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service beef cattle specialist in the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University. “We knew we couldn’t feasibly hold it with all the restrictions in place. But we still wanted to put together a user-friendly conference for our ranchers and have the same great content that we’ve always had.”
So, they did.
The show must go on
Cleere said this was the 66th year, and the event has a lot of tradition that goes on with it, so they made it happen. About 15 concurrent sessions were live each day and over 1,800 ranchers, beef industry representatives and exhibitors, who would normally gather on the Texas A&M University campus, logged in from homes or offices around the world as speakers stood at the podium in front of an empty room on campus.
“We try to bring our attendees that cutting-edge information, give them some heads-up on potential issues,” Cleere said.
For instance, he said, it appears this fall is going to continue to be dry for much of Texas. Brian Bledsoe, chief meteorologist in Colorado Springs said drought is starting to grab ahold regionally, “and now is not the time to overextend yourself.”
“It’s not great news, but ranchers can begin to prepare,” Cleere said.
Additionally, he said, there are a lot of challenges this year from a cattle market standpoint, such as getting cattle into the packers and the backup caused by COVID-19 issues.
“Some of that is cleaning up right now, but there is still a lot of product out there. So, the industry has had to look at ways to improve value in those cattle, and also focus on reducing production costs. Those are issues producers are facing right now when we talk about the cattle industry.”
The content of the virtual conference addressed those and other challenges and opportunities in the ranching and beef industry.
“We know our ranchers missed the fellowship they have when they come to campus; we all do,” Cleere said. “But we tried to focus on the opportunities and challenges we have in the beef industry and offer a mix of everything from lectures to a working sale barn visit to live cattle-handling and working demonstrations and fence building.”
Virtual prime rib?
“One of the big questions we had was ‘How do I get my Texas Aggie prime rib through that computer,” Cleere said. “We knew we couldn’t serve them up, so we had some prime rib giveaways for every 100th registrant and then we decided – let’s demonstrate it.”
Davey Griffin, AgriLife Extension meat specialist, grilled up and walked participants through the process of cooking that famous Nolan Ryan Texas Aggie prime rib during a live broadcast.
“I always get asked every year, ‘How did you do that?’” Griffin said. “So, we decided we would provide everyone with the opportunity to see what is going on when we cook our prime ribs so they can plan for themselves and cook one of their own.”
Challenges provide new opportunities
Cliff Lamb, Ph.D., head of the Department of Animal Science, said the impact of what has happened over the last five months after COVID-19 hit has been tremendous, but he said when he heard talk of converting the Beef Cattle Short Course to online, “I had no doubt they could do a great job. It’s not what we all wanted, but it has created opportunities for us to be bigger and better in the future.”
During the conference, Lamb explained how the Department of Animal Science is also creating some tremendous opportunities for future education and research by building a purebred or seedstock operation with Red Angus and Beefmaster herds that will become the ‘face’ of the department along with other breeds across the Texas A&M University System.
“This video demonstrates the impressive improvements we’ve made in those genetics,” he said. “That comes with a lot of support from faculty and staff, but it also takes into account some of the tremendous donations of our stakeholders who have really helped us out in building a beef herd that is going to be as good as any university beef herd in the country.”
A new platform for educational outreach
Jeff Hyde, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension director, said the agency has a long history of serving the beef industry with advice and science-based information on production and marketing. And the number of people joining the event virtually was a testament to how people have been engaged over time and that they still want the information, even though it’s in a different format than it has been.
“We are an organization that takes science-based information and packages it up for those who can benefit from that information,” Hyde said. “Certainly, we’ve learned a lot about beef production, about beef marketing, about meat science over that time, and yet the core of what we do hasn’t changed at all.”
Hyde said to be able to have the capacity and expertise to shift gears and provide the same information through a different format is part of what AgriLife Extension’s long-term history is in adapting to new technologies as necessary and make changes to how we do business.
“It’s just a different kind of year, but I’m happy to see our team make the adjustments needed to still provide this training to the beef industry,” he said. “We have to figure out how to better use digital technology to meet the needs of our producers and our audiences in the state, while still maintaining that face-to-face connection.”