28 Mar Career Spotlight: Cattle Nutritionist
Some would say there is a great deal of romance in the lifestyle associated with raising livestock. Cool, crisp mornings on a fine-trotting horse moving through grass stirrup high comes to mind. While this can certainly be true, raising meat and producing milk are businesses. Experienced stockmen will often say that they are grass farmers first. That’s because the business of livestock involves the conversion of energy into a protein source that can be utilized by humans. It’s a complicated process, and one that can often benefit from the expertise of a cattle nutritionist.
Whether working as a consultant or directly for a feed manufacturer, a cattle nutritionist is responsible for formulating rations that enhance the health, well-being, and growth of livestock. Roughage, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals are all important to the ruminant diet, and the cattle nutritionist knows through education and experience how those puzzle pieces fit together in diverse circumstances.
A WHOLE DIFFERENT BALL OF WAX
Luke Miller has been working as a ruminant nutritionist for Great Plains Livestock Consulting for about six years. The company is a network of independent nutritionists focused primarily on beef cattle. They work with ranchers, feedlots, and independent feed manufacturing companies that don’t have in-house nutritionists. From a strategic standpoint, it makes sense for the consultants to specialize in one area, as not all livestock are created the same.
When dealing with ruminant animals, according to Miller, “You have to feed the bugs, and then you can feed the animal.” He’s referring to the microbes in the gastrointestinal systems of cattle and the important role they play in the digestive process. The knowledge required to be a cattle nutritionist is a “whole different ball of wax,” says Miller.
Great Plains works with cattle professionals at various stages in production, meaning a host of different feeds and ingredients come into play. A cow/calf producer might be primarily concerned with forage availability and free-choice minerals. Backgrounding or preconditioning operations and feedlots often feed a mix of commodities and byproducts such as distillers grains and gluten meals.
Again, raising livestock is a business, and profitability is one of the main factors producers and nutritionists must consider when deciding what to feed animals. As commodity and byproduct prices change, so do rations. An agricultural economist knows how important supply and demand is to the price of a commodity, and that price trickles down to livestock producers when those commodities are used as feed.
Geography is another important aspect a cattle nutritionist must keep in mind. “That’s one thing that’s kind of fun about having representation across different parts of the country. We do things a little different down in South Texas than what we do in Minnesota compared to what we do in Indiana,” says Miller.
All these variables mean uncertainty, which highlights the importance of the services provided by nutritionists. As Miller points out, “When you step back and start to think about the amount of dollars that you’re involved in with helping some of these producers make some of these decisions and things like that, it’s a little bit mind-boggling at times. So you want to make sure that you’re doing a good job by them and that you’re able to make them money at the same time.”
FINDING THE BALANCE
Working as a cattle nutritionist can take several forms. Some larger operations might employ nutritionists directly. Consultants may work with ranchers, dairymen, or feed companies on a case-by-case basis. At any rate, it is a job that requires a strong work ethic, a healthy understanding of the science behind feeding, and most importantly the ability to communicate effectively.
Miller is a road warrior. He spends about one day a week in the office; the rest is spent travelling to keep in touch with his customers’ needs. He says balancing travel and commitment to customers with spending time with the family can be the biggest part of the job.
All the windshield time is worth it when the end result is spending time with people you admire and respect. Miller comments, “There’s not a better group of people out there to go out and work with than people involved in the ag industry, cattle producers specifically.” He adds that it doesn’t seem like work when you stand on a producer’s place, someone with whom you have spent the time to develop a relationship, and talk about his operation.
Being a cattle nutritionist takes a commitment to higher education. All the nutritionists in the Great Plains network have either a Master’s degree or a PhD. However, Miller points out that opportunities exist for support roles in the industry for people who have not obtained that level of education.
Just as important as the degree is the work ethic. Miller recommends college students become involved in extracurricular activities that enhance their knowledge of the cattle industry, such as livestock or meats judging and internships. These endeavors show dedication, a key thing Great Plains looks for in its consultants.
Like many in agriculture, Miller understands the importance of engaging young people in the production side of the business. He agrees that working as a cattle nutritionist can be a good way for someone just starting out to be directly involved with cattle production without the need to buy livestock or property.
Though the livestock nutrition industry is competitive, Miller sees opportunity for young professionals to enter the business. He encourages young people to remain positive if a dream job doesn’t immediately materialize, develop relationships with people across all segments of the industry, and stay open-minded about careers.
If you have a love for cattle, a desire to interact with people on a daily basis, and can put in the time and effort to learn the hard science of ruminant nutrition, a career as a cattle nutritionist might be the perfect way to pay the bills. It often means long hours and many miles, but the reward is working with the people who put meat and milk on our tables and playing a critical role in that process.
We would like to hear from you. What interests you about livestock nutrition? Have you considered a career in the industry? If you already work as a cattle nutritionist, drop us a line and let us know about the most challenging and rewarding parts of your job.
Send us your resume, and if you have questions about this or any other career profile we have written, please email Logan West at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now go feed those cows. They’ll thank you for it, and so will we.