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Facility's closing threatens promising cattle research

BROOKSVILLE — The light-red calves scamper across the pasture to their mothers as Sam Coleman pulled up in his pickup, unabashed pride evident on his face.

"Look at the back on that one," he said, pointing over the steering wheel. "You won't find many calves that age that have a straight back like that. He's going to be a beautiful animal."

Indeed, few people have ever seen cattle like these. Unless you're knowledgeable in bovine research, the cross-bred calves huddled in tall grass of the pastures near the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Subtropical Agricultural Research Station at Chinsegut Hill may appear rather strange.

The animals are so new, in fact, that they don't even have an official name yet.

Rather, research scientists at the facility refer to them simply as an F1 composite breed, a catch-all name that indicates they are the mixed offspring of several beef cattle breeds — in this case American Angus and Brahma cattle, plus the South American Romosinuanos — that are a product of more than a decade of genetic research.

While Coleman praised the calves' aesthetic virtues, his hope is that they will someday lead to a tastier, more profitable breed of beef cattle.

Though that result is a long way off, Coleman fears it may never happen at all, at least not at the agricultural research center he's been directing since 2000.

With the Bush Administration calling for a 10 percent cut in agricultural research in its proposed USDA budget for 2009, Coleman said this agricultural research station is one of three targeted for closing.

Doing so, Coleman said, would mean the end of the $1.3-million annual research program on which thousands of Southern cattle ranchers depend.

Though his superiors assured him that most of his 11-member staff would be offered positions at a research site in Oklahoma, Coleman isn't certain the research he and his staff have been working on will follow them.

"A lot of what we do here is specific to our part of the country," he said. "It would be difficult to duplicate in other locations."

According to Coleman, 40 percent of all cow-calf breeding in the United States is in the Gulf Coast states east of the Mississippi, where hotter climates dictate the need for hardier breeds of cattle.

The current Angus-Brahma-Romosinuanos cross-breeding program seeks to develop an animal that can produce more offspring while withstanding a more hostile climate than its northern cousins.

For Larry Rooks, president of the Florida Cattlemen's Association and a Citrus County cattle rancher himself, the Chinsegut Hill station is essential to the future of the South's cattle industry.

"Our business would be set back decades without it," Rooks said. "The research they do there helps us to stay competitive in the world marketplace."

Indeed, Rooks said that through the years the center has helped develop higher-yielding forage grasses for cattle and has conducted water quality studies that have helped mitigate the effects of cattle operations near sensitive wetland areas.

The facility, which includes research laboratories housed in a modest building atop the second-highest point in Florida, dates back to 1932 when Col. Raymond Robins bequeathed 2,100 acres to the federal government to study cattle genetics. Since then, the USDA has also added the University of Florida as a partner in much of its research.

So important is the facility to the Florida cattle industry that Rooks and a delegation from the cattlemen's association made a trip to Washington this month to lobby Congress members from agricultural states to keep the USDA's research facilities intact.

Although he remains hopeful, Coleman said he knows what he is up against. Budget cuts two years ago forced the facility to eliminate its forage research position. The center has done no research in that area since.

Coleman said that although he is forbidden from lobbying politicians on behalf of his agency, he hopes support from those within the industry and elsewhere will help persuade lawmakers not to pull the plug.

"It's tough for people to understand what we do here," Coleman said. "Cattle research is slow-going and risky. You might work for years before you find the answers you're looking for. But we feel those answers are worth pursuing."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or 848-1435.

Facility's closing threatens promising cattle research 04/26/08 [Last modified: Sunday, April 27, 2008 9:01pm]
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