SALMON — University of Idaho faculty, donors, local ranchers and residents gathered June 19 to celebrate the grand opening of a new headquarters serving a research center where livestock and forage are studied.
Located in Lemhi County — which is home to 8,000 people and 35,000 cattle — the Nancy M. Cummings Research, Extension and Education Center is nestled at the foot of the Beaverhead Range, 8 miles north of Salmon. The center honors Cummings’ love for the valley and her wish for more educational opportunities in the area.
Dean Michael Parrella of the UI College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, welcomed guests and presented Cummings’ daughter and granddaughter with a commemorative photo. Cumming’s daughter Sherrie Auen is trustee of the Auen Foundation. Her daughter Catharine N. Reed is a Vice President of the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation. The foundations are major donors to the Cummings Center.
Auen remembered the first time her husband Ron saw the Salmon Valley and what was then the Hot Springs Ranch.
“He loved it. He thought it was the most beautiful piece of land he’d ever seen,” she said.
The Auens bought the 1,044-acre irrigated ranch and later donated it to the university in memory of Sherrie’s mother.
Professor John Hall then shared with guests some of the history of the Cummings Center. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Auens starting to transfer the land to UI and the university starting to develop the center. One of the first steps in converting the former hay ranch with a couple dozen cows and few fences to a beef cattle research center was building a herd of cattle. As part of the agreement, the Auen family asked Idaho ranchers to donate cattle to support the facility.
The Idaho Cattle Association organized a 21st-century cattle drive and asked members to contribute heifers. The center received 110 heifers from across the state, which Hall described as an “eclectic mix of bovines.”
From that start, the center developed the current resident herd of 360 to 380 Angus-Hereford crossbred cow-calf pairs. The Cummings Center acknowledges the ranchers’ contributions with a “brand board” in the headquarters. The brands the heifers wore are burned into wood on the display board.
Early work at the center focused on infrastructure. The U of I improved the fences to contain the growing herd, added to the irrigation system and built a farm shop. The human residents made do with the existing ranch buildings. The Cummings Center was formally transferred to the UI in 2005.
From his arrival in 2008 until recently, Hall wore two hats. In addition to carrying out beef cattle research and extension, he was also the Cummings Center supervisor. Wearing his second hat, his goal was to “change the Cummings Center from a working ranch where we did some research into a research center.”
Hall guided the construction of new facilities for cattle and people, including student housing, a cattle working facility with corrals and chutes, laboratories, barns and feed storage areas.
Hall remembered building the working facility in 2009. The UI was short of money to hire crews to do the work, “so every morning, the interns and I would start by framing up concrete. … At 3:00 the concrete trucks would come and we’d all pour concrete and screed concrete. The next day we’d do it all over again.”
Then Hall looked up at the current year’s crop of interns and added, “So, interns, maybe doing those alfalfa plots yesterday wasn’t so bad.”
Hall’s first office was in a small log building that be previously housed chickens; his office in the new headquarters is large and has a spectacular view. The new distance learning classroom in the headquarters building is also a big improvement over the previous set up. The new classroom “doesn’t have a farm shop on the other side of the wall. I don’t have to tell the crew, ‘Hey, I’m lecturing in beef production today. You guys can’t work in the shop for about an hour,’” Hall said.
In addition to the classroom, the new headquarters provides offices for the three resident researchers and students, a conference room, and a teaching and catering kitchen. Nonprofit groups can rent the classroom and kitchen for educational events, and area residents can testify to the state Legislature from the conference room. Lemhi County students who weren’t able to attend college in person during COVID came to the Cummings Center to connect with their online classes and continue their education.
Neighboring rancher Jay Smith then told guests more about the ICA, where he’s currently president. The Cummings Center hosts the group’s annual Grass Futurity. This event gives producers a chance to see how their cattle compare with other ranchers’ livestock in a head-to-head contest. Each participant donates a yearling steer, which spends the summer on the center’s pasture. Steers are weighed monthly to see who bred the fastest-growing animal. The friendly competition is intense, fueled not only by bragging rights, but also by monthly and end-of-season prizes and cash awards.
State Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, joined Hall, Auen, Parrella, and Reed for the ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of the headquarters. Hors d’oeuvres laid out in the kitchen and drinks poured in front of the brand board fueled socializing and talking with researchers about ongoing and future research at the Cummings Center.
Hall is looking forward to wearing just one hat, after completing the last major infrastructure at the center. He said he’ll be “doing a lot more research and working more closely with producers to do more education. The fun stuff.”
Professor Jim Sprinkle investigates cattle nutrition and works to make producers more efficient. He conducts much of his grazing research at the 10,400-acres Rinker Rock Creek Ranch near Hailey. The ranch is another of the UI’s nine research centers. Rock Creek is a partnership with the Wood River Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy that provides a place for research on grazing and conservation.
Sprinkle said that producers want big calves, because calves are sold by weight. So, bigger calves are better, right? Sprinkle takes a broad view and keeps his eye on the bottom line. He explained that the focus on bigger calves has produced bigger cows. Bigger cows need to eat more to make enough milk to raise a bigger calf. On rangelands, forage is limited by climate and current conditions. In the arid Intermountain West, forage is typically low.
As an example, Sprinkle points out that it costs $42 to maintain an additional 100 pounds on a cow for a year. If a rancher gets $1.50/pound for an additional 10 pounds of calf, it cost $42 to make $15.
“We’re getting bigger weaning weights, but profitability isn’t necessarily going up,” he said.
Sprinkle said there’s not a quick fix.
“It took us a long time to get up to our current cow weights and it’s going to take us a while to come back down, because you can’t just breed out cow size overnight,” he said.
Melinda Ellison, another professor at the Cummings Center, investigates cattle nutrition and interactions among grazing and wildlife. She also expands the center’s coverage to sheep as UI’s extension sheep specialist. Her monthly webinars on the care and feeding of sheep attract viewers from around the world.
Some of the center’s neighboring ranchers are chomping at the bit to learn how virtual fencing could work in their area. Ellison has started talking with the Bureau of Land Management and a virtual fence company about a future grazing project that includes conservation goals.
Ranchers hope that virtual fences will allow them to continuously herd cattle, keeping them out of sensitive riparian and conservation areas and guiding them to grazing areas. If Ellison and the ranchers have their way, some of the fences put in at the Cummings Center 20 years ago could become obsolete.