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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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Beef Systems for Appalachia
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Impacting Use of Grassland for Beef Production


Hill land, characteristic of much of Appalachia, is ideally suited for grassland based beef production. In West Virginia (WV) and Virginia (VA) some 4.3 million acres are in pasture (USDA Agricultural Statistics, 1998). Most farmers raise some beef cattle, primarily in relatively small cow/calf operations. Off-farm sales in (1996) of beef cattle and calves in WV and VA amounted to $260 million (USDA, 1998). However, beef systems in Appalachia deserve a much broader consideration than purely production economics. Secondary benefits in the form of income, employment, and support of agribusiness can be sizable. For many farmers raising beef is a way of life. In addition, keeping hill land open and productive has large benefits to both rural and urban society. These include aesthetic attributes as well as wildlife habitat, which represent real but hard to measure contributions of grassland agriculture to the surrounding community and to society. Yet these benefits can only accrue if the economic stability of the small farm in Appalachia is assured.




In the past, much agricultural research work has focused on individual components of farming systems. Major advances have occurred in production of individual crops such as corn and alfalfa and in animal nutrition. The goal to increase production has been eminently successful in those parts of farming to which it can be applied. There has been a cost, however. Firstly, inputs of machinery, pesticides and fertilizers have greatly increased. Secondly, productivity of major farm commodities per person is now so high that small farmers in Appalachia and elsewhere cannot compete using technology developed on and for flat land. In addition, research on grassland-based agriculture was greatly reduced starting in the 1950's, because confinement feeding was considered more efficient. Now, however, there is a renewed interest in sustainable use of grassland for beef production. To meet the renewed interest, a team of USDA-ARS, West Virginia University and Virginia Tech scientists is developing practices to produce market-ready beef entirely on pasture and forage in the Appalachian Region.


The present program is focused on sustainable forage-beef cattle systems, with emphasis on production, economic, and environmental aspects. Thus the research activities of three institutions are highly complementary and ideally positioned to form a consortium to conduct pasture-beef systems research that meets the needs of Appalachia for low purchased inputs, sustainable production, diversification, added-value products sold off-farm, and maintenance of the rural environment for the benefit of society -- a goal that no one institution could accomplish alone.


CRIS Alignment to REE Research Area Priorities


Scientific Staff

  • William M. Clapham,  Plant Physiologist, Lead Scientist
    Growth and development of traditional and novel plant resources for grazing.
  • David P. Belesky, Research Agronomist
    Forage productivity and quality in hill-pasture as a function of environmental and management factors.
  • Joyce G. Foster, Research Chemist
    Plant biochemical constituents and the nutritive value of forage and browse species.
  • James P. Stetter Neel, Research Animal Scientist
    Influence of grazing system, forage specie and diet chemical composition on the quality and quantity of forage produced animal products.

Last Modified: 2/17/2010
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