Maine Farmcast Episode 03: Western Beef Cattle with Scott Jensen

On the third episode of the Maine Farmcast, Dr. Colt W. Knight, Associate Extension Professor and State Livestock Specialist for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, has a late-night conversation with Scott Jensen, Extension Educator at the University of Idaho. Scott conducts applied research and extension programs in beef cattle, range and pasture management. He co-coordinates the Idaho Beef Quality Assurance program and conducts the longstanding Lost Rivers Grazing Academy. In addition, Mr. Jensen is the President-elect for National Association of County Agricultural Agents (NACAA) and works diligently with Extension Agents across the country and its territories offering professional development opportunities to those of in the field. I got a chance to sit down with Scott at the Winter Board Meeting for the NACAA in Dallas, Texas in December 2023  to talk about some of the differences in Western vs. North Eastern Beef production.

Episode Resources

To learn more about Mr. Scott Jensen please visit:


Colt Knight: 00:19

Welcome to the Maine Farmcast. My name is Dr. Colt Knight. I’m an Associate Extension Professor at the University of Maine, and I am joined today with Mr. Scott Jensen. He is a beef cattle Extension guy from the great state of Idaho. Scott, it’s great to have you here with us.

Scott Jensen: 00:37

Well, it’s great to be able to join you, Colt. I look forward to visiting.

Colt Knight: 00:42

So, Scott, what’s your background in the cattle industry?

Scott Jensen: 00:48

So my background, I guess, if I go back to when I graduated from college, I spent 4 years on a purebred Charolais ranch in eastern central Texas. But I’m an Idaho native and got drawn back to home. And so not too long after I went back home, I spent a few years teaching high school agriculture, and then began working for University of Idaho Extension. And so now, 23 plus years later, that’s mainly what I do is beef cattle work. And so that anyway – that’s kind of where I’m at.

Colt Knight: 01:28

Yeah. started out as a beef cattle guy mostly, and I worked as the herdsman for an Angus ranch when I was doing my master’s degree in Texas. So I think we’ve got that little bit in common.

Scott Jensen: 01:42

A little bit. Yeah.

Colt Knight: 01:43

But after I got done with graduate school, I didn’t stay in the West, I came to Maine. You know, there’s some really stark differences between the cattle industries in the eastern and western United States.

Scott Jensen: 01:58

I’m certain definitely are.

Colt Knight: 02:01

And it’s, like, in the Western United States, you supplement protein. In the Eastern United States, we have to supplement forages, or the energies usually because of the winter time and the lack of forages in our winter times.

Scott Jensen: 02:17

Sure. And I mean, we end up a little bit the same way because winter time for us too, although we don’t get that nearly as severe a cold as what you do in Maine, we still get some cold weather, and definitely dormant season, And so we do feed, you know, hay and other things in the several months at least in the winter time. So we definitely do some of that for sure.

Colt Knight: 02:46

And I imagine Idaho is mostly a cow calf state, or do you have some feed yards up there as well?

Scott Jensen: 02:52

We do have a few feed yards, but we’re definitely predominantly cow calf. We have a couple of large ones, Simplot, livestock. They have a big feed yard in, actually, just outside of my county where it’s about 130,000 head capacity. But overall, Idaho is certainly not like the Midwest when it comes to feeding cattle.

Colt Knight: 03:19

And are most folks running commercial cattle, or do they have Angus, or…?

Scott Jensen: 03:26

So we predominantly run commercial cattle, and a variety of breeds, but I would say definitely better than 50% are Angus influenced at least. And most of those commercial cattle are crossbred cattle. A lot of Angus, a lot of Hereford, there’s some Charolais and Simmental influence in some of the herds that – probably those four or five breeds there make up the bulk of commercial cattle.

Colt Knight: 04:02

And would you say that when they’re – when producers in Idaho are selling their calves at weaning time, or past weaning time, are they doing private treaties? Are they taking them to the sale barn? Or..?

Scott Jensen: 04:21

Most of the large ranches anymore are marketing on video. Superior and Western are the two main, I think, across the country, but, definitely those are the two main marketing services that are used by Idaho producers. Smaller guys still, we see a lot at sale barn, and there – seems like with the whole – with all the COVID stuff, you know, there was more development of some private treaty, and direct marketing that way, but still predominantly, they’re sold on video.

Colt Knight: 04:58

Yeah. In Maine, we don’t have traditional auctions or stockyards. And almost all the beef cattle production is retained farm to table.

Scott Jensen: 05:10


Colt Knight: 05:11

Direct sales to the consumer. You know, some folks have got some online sales, and some grocery store sales, or maybe a restaurant or two, but by the most part, it’s almost – most of it’s custom slaughter or sold on farm stands.

Scott Jensen: 05:27

And I – you know, we certainly have some of that, but we’ve got a lot of ranches that are, you know, fairly large in size. And when I say that, I would say that our 300 to maybe 1500 head cow calf operations, and so that makes it a little more of a challenge to be able to direct market that much beef, you know.

Colt Knight: 05:55

Oh, I bet.

Scott Jensen: 05:56

So, yeah. They definitely have to rely on some other…

Colt Knight: 05:59

What’s the stocking rate?

Scott Jensen: 06:01

So that varies a lot depending where you’re at. The county that I live in is predominantly high desert rangeland. It’s – 80% is public land between most of that being Bureau of Land Management, and then we have some state sections of land. But annual precip down in the lower elevations along the Snake River can be under 10 inches of annual precip. And then higher elevations in the county, maybe as much as 24 inches. And so it varies across that. And sometimes, it it maybe takes 10 or 12 acres in pretty good range to run a cow for a month. And some places it might take 20 or 25 acres to run a cow for a month. And so just depending on where you’re at, and elevation, and how much, especially in the low country, we have a lot of manual invasive grasses that have moved in following fires and other disturbances that some of that country is really pretty tough.

Colt Knight: 07:17

Now with your… What would you say the average size in acres is that you’re dealing with on those ranches? Or do you measure them in sections?

Scott Jensen: 07:33

Well, we still generally talk about, you know, rangeland pastures as by acres. And so – but a typical rangeland pasture could be anywhere from, say, 3,000 to maybe 8,000 acres in size. And so it’s, you know, that comes with some challenges, and some of those challenges are, you know, being able to find your cows because it’s not just flat topography either. And so a lot of, mountains, and draws, and valleys, and things, and so sometimes it might take a week or two just to get the cows gathered up from one pasture to rotate them into the next one.

Colt Knight: 08:25

Yeah. The research ranch that I was a part of in Arizona was about 70,000 acres. And it was a long, narrow ranch, so it was probably 30 something miles long. And the cows started off kind of in the desert type region, and they moved up to, like, a more of a wooded savannah type area. And then they ended up about 7 or 8,000 feet elevation in a pinyon pine forest, and then they just rotate back down to the other side of the ranch to get there. And it would take about a year to get through that full rotation.

Scott Jensen: 09:02

So we typically – the cattle for the most part in southwest Idaho, they spend the winter on private land, down at the ranch. And then, depends on where you’re at, but could be as early as maybe the 15th of April or May 1st, but then they’re able to go out on some of the the BLM allotments. And they do similar. They start at a lower elevation, and then as the summer progresses, they move to different pastures to a higher elevation. The only thing for us is that usually at the end of the grazing season, which, depending on the allotment, could be anywhere from the 1st of October to the 1st of November, then those cattle just have to come all the way home. The challenge though is getting cattle out of those very large, you know, high elevation pastures. And the best thing for us is that we start to get some inclement weather. Snow does way more for getting cows home than, you know, you could ride for weeks and still have cattle out. But snow tends to make them develop a desire to to drop down and go home.

Colt Knight: 10:28

And are folks still using horses out there? Are they transitioning over to vehicles, and ATVs, and things?

Scott Jensen: 10:37

Well, in most of those pastures, it requires still cowboy and horseback.

Colt Knight: 10:45


Scott Jensen: 10:46

There just is no way you can – you know, you can certainly access some areas a little bit with an ATV, but it’s predominantly horseback country.

Colt Knight: 10:59

I miss gathering cows on horseback. Kind of a romantic western notion, but it is really a lot of fun. And it’s so peaceful because, you know, there’s not an engine roaring. You’re not worrying about flat tires or…

Scott Jensen: 11:14

Yeah. That’s one of my favorite things. I have a couple of producers that I’m fairly good friends with and have worked with quite a bit over the years, and I’ll go help them. I’ll ride a day or two here and there with them, and I tell them it’s mental therapy for me. I get out and just enjoy the outdoors.

Colt Knight: 11:37

And you’re really connected with the land. When you’re moving at a horse speed, you get to see everything, you know. And you’re able to notice changes or when things start becoming different. Whereas if you’re out riding in the truck or the the ATV, you’re just looking in front of you, and you might not see a lot. So it’s…

Scott Jensen: 12:03

Yeah. Very true. And especially too, just because you can you access a lot of areas where maybe the cattle hang, but you can’t see those areas from the road, and so you just, you know, you just get all over the range pasture and get a lot better view of what’s going on, for sure.

Colt Knight: 12:23

When I first started my my PhD, I was going to, monitor cattle eating in that upper rangeland in Arizona. And I was gonna see what they eat, how many bites they took, so we could kinda roughly calculate their intake off that. And I can remember going up there and watching the cows, and then they would kinda, like, walk over a little hill, and then I’d get to the top of the hill, and then you’d just never find them again for the rest of the week. I was camped out up there, so we had to had to scrap that project. And that’s how I got into working with GPS collars is because they’re so hard to find, those cows, in those big expensive type range lanes.

Scott Jensen: 13:05

Yes. We did a research project several years ago where we had four cows that had fistulas in them, and so every two weeks, we had to find those cows in one of those pastures and get them in. We had some portable panels that we took up, and so we’d get them in and we’d collect some samples out of the rumen, and then we sent those off for analysis, but what we would do is that we had to completely evacuate the rumen. And down to the point we used a shop vac to get all the fluid out that we possibly could. And then we would turn those cattle out for about an hour, and we’d trail along behind them and just observe what they were eating. And so – and then we tried to clip what they were actually eating.

Colt Knight: 14:02

Oh, yep. Yeah. You gotta do the clip samples.

Scott Jensen: 14:05

And then we get the cows back in and we take samples out of the rumens. Then, of course, had to put all the original contents back in the rumen. But we sent there the samples we took out of the rumens in for analysis plus what we had clipped, and had that analyzed separately, and it was very interesting that the cows always selected –

Colt Knight: 14:28

They do a lot better job, don’t they? – Than what we thought we observed them selecting. It also is interesting how what they selected differed at different times of year because there were times, for example… Oh shoot, the really thorny bush that that grows, it’s slipping my mind right now, the name of it. But, really thorny bush that – greasewood. And yet we observed in the early spring, there was a time when cattle just were eating the tips of the greasewood like crazy. And I’d stopped. You know, originally, I thought, boy, they’d never eat that kind of stuff. And then when we sent in some of that for analysis, well, at that point in time, it was 22% crude protein. It’s amazing. And it – but – and they only ate it just – there was about maybe a two week period of time, and then never touched it the rest of the the season. But we observed a lot of things like that that were – that I just found fascinating how they select.

Colt Knight: 15:35

I can remember in really severe drought years in West Texas, you could see the cows eating prickly pear cactus. And the pads would just be stuck to their face. And they just stick their tongue out and kinda peel them off, and eat them. And it amazes me what they’re willing to go through when there’s nothing else around to eat.

Scott Jensen: 15:58

Yeah. They’re pretty resilient and figure that stuff out.

Colt Knight: 16:05

Well, one of the things that you’re really handy with is reproduction and artificial insemination. And are you still teaching a lot of AI clinics and…?

Scott Jensen: 16:19

Yeah. We do teach quite a bit. do at least one AI school a year, sometimes two. And I’m not sure – I honestly, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the price of bulls that has caused so much increase in interest, but I would say in the last maybe six or seven years, the interest level we’ve had from folks wanting to learn how to artificially inseminate cattle has really just gone off the charts. And so we – the school we do, it’s four days and fairly intense. And we just – we fill up way early. And even the last couple of years, we’ve had access to a lot more cows. We’re fortunate. We’ve got a lot of dairies in our area, and so we’re able to use cull cows at the dairy, and so we have lots of lock ups and access to a lot of animals at the same time. And so we’ve had as many as, I think, 35 people in a class, which is very challenging from the instructor side. Not so much in the classroom, but when we get out to palpating, boy, it’s a challenge. And just keeping up with that many people. But there really has been just a lot of interest in the last bunch of years in learning to AI cattle.

Colt Knight: 17:52

I’ve seen a big uptake in Maine over the last couple years of folks contacting Extension and asking about whether they were offered any AI clinics or anything. So I hope maybe one day in the future, we can invite you up to Maine and maybe do an AI clinic or something.

Scott Jensen: 18:11

That’d be awesome. That’s one thing I’ve done a lot of. I just enjoy it, and it’s taken me a lot of places that I never expected to go. And so it’s been, been really good, and it’s really enjoyable to help other people learn and develop the skill.

Colt Knight: 18:34

On your class, how intensive is it? Is it like a multi day or…?

Scott Jensen: 18:38

Yes. It’s – we – I don’t know. We say it’s four days, but reality is we start right after lunch on the 1st day, and we end by lunch time on the last day. So really it’s three full days. We palpate cows in the mornings, and then we do classroom stuff in the afternoons. The reason we have it set up the way that we do though is because the dairies lock up cows in the morning. So after they’re milked, they feed them, and they have automatic lockups there, and so that’s when they do all the herd health checks and everything else on the large dairies. And so that’s when we have access to the cows. So we start in the afternoon before so we can work with some reproductive tracks, and do some basic anatomy, and that kind of stuff, so then when they get to the cows the next morning, they have at least an idea of what’s going on. But we have three full mornings of palpation practice, and then three afternoons of lecture and some other hands on activities. And so anyway, we’ve had a lot of success, and really, I don’t know. I calculated it out, actually I did a presentation at our National Ag Agents meeting last summer, and I figured that in 22 years, I’ve done 42 AI Schools.

Colt Knight: 20:06

Oh, wow.

Scott Jensen: 20:08

And so some of those, there’s – I don’t know. There’s probably 10 or 12 of those I’ve done in other countries so it’s been quite a bit. But yeah. I really enjoy it, and I think it’s a great skill for folks to be able to learn.

Colt Knight: 20:24

Well, Scott, it was great having you here with us. We hope to hear more from you in the future.

Scott Jensen: 20:32

Sounds good. Great to be there with you, Colt.

Colt Knight: 20:34

Thank you. You bet.

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