It’s more than cattle at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center stations.
By Chris Branam
A flock of migrating snow geese alight on a meadow a few hundred yards away from Herefords grazing in a fenced pasture on the outskirts of Burns. This town of less than 3,000 has for decades been home to one of two branch stations that comprise the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center.
It’s mid-April, and the last of the EOARC’s cow/calf pairs will soon be transported about 40 miles west to the Northern Great Basin Experimental Range in Riley.
OSU’s research at the two agricultural experiment stations that comprise EOARC (Burns and Union) focuses on beef cattle production and management. Cattle have been raised in Oregon since John Quincy Adams was elected president in 1824. Cattle and calves ranked as the state’s second-leading agricultural commodity in 2016, with a value estimated at $701 million.
In 2016, four eastern Oregon counties ranked among the top 100 counties in the United States by cow inventory: Malheur (No. 7), Harney (No. 10), Lake (No. 54) and Baker (No. 64).
The station in Union was founded in 1901. The Harney Branch Station was established in 1911 and charged to identify crops and management practices that could be used by homesteaders in the area, but this emphasis was short-lived due to the environmental challenges of the high desert.
The Harney Branch Station was turned over to the county a few years later. The research emphasis shifted to cattle production with the purchase of the Squaw Butte Range Livestock Station in 1935 and an area known as “Section 5” in 1948—EOARC’s current site.
“Initially the main emphasis was on increasing beef production,” says David Bohnert, an OSU animal scientist and director of EOARC. “The measures of success were improvements in pounds of beef produced and feed efficiency. The weaning weight of a rancher’s calves was coffee shop fodder as much as the weather.”
But research priorities have shifted over the last 20 to 25 years to environmental and ecological concerns. The current mission statement for the Burns station is to “provide scientific information for the development of sound land and livestock management for present and future generations.”
“Beef production is still important and we continue to conduct research that builds on the past successes related to cattle management and production in the high desert of eastern Oregon,” Bohnert says. “However, grazing strategies and other challenges associated with public land management have all resulted in substantial issues that have become major challenges and concerns. Consequently, our historical stakeholder base has expanded from primarily livestock producers to include federal and state agencies, environmental groups, and other non-governmental groups.”
Union and Burns researchers from 100 years ago would be surprised by the progress in improving the efficiency of beef production, animal health, and reproductive strategies.
“They would be astonished,” he says. “Current concepts, policies, and societal expectations are very different from what they were in the early 1900s. But most importantly, I hope they would see that we have been able to stay true to their history and success of working with our stakeholders to address challenges to the overall production system while benefiting our local and state economies.”
EOARC at a Glance
Oldest OAES station
Established in 1901, the Union branch station was founded just 13 years after the founding of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station (OAES) in 1888. Until then, all experiment station research was conducted in Corvallis. In 1974, Union and Burns merged administratively to become the EOARC.
Everything is big on the east side
With 1,260 acres of base property between them, Union and Burns represent OSU’s largest agricultural research center. Union has 600 acres of base property, consisting of mostly irrigated pasture. Burns has 660 acres, most of which is unirrigated meadow. Hall Ranch, purchased in 1941 for the Union station, is 2,000 acres of forest. OSU researchers use the 5,535-acre Meadow Creek study area in the nearby U.S. Forest Service’s Starkey Experimental Forest.
The 200 head of mature cows are maintained in Union from mid-October to mid-June. The cow/calf pairs are grazed on the Hall Ranch in the foothills of the Wallowa Mountains and Starkey Experimental Forest the remainder of the year.
It’s all related
In 1936, OSU purchased 137 head of Hereford cows for the Squaw Butte Range Livestock Station in Burns. In ’38, OSU purchased 59 more. No females have been purchased from outside sources since 1938, so all 260 cows in Burns are descended from those original 196.
In 1948, OSU purchased 660 acres known as “Section 5” seven miles south of Burns. It is the current home to the Burns station, which is jointly managed by OSU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. OSU primarily conducts livestock and rangeland research while USDA-ARS is focused on rangeland research and restoration. The Nature Conservancy also has a presence at the station.