The department's early activities with beef cattle were limited because such cattle were of little financial importance in Pennsylvania's agricultural economy until the middle of the twentieth century.
Most farms had a mix of animals including dairy cows, swine, sheep, poultry, and horses for farm power. In 1900 the state's sheep population numbered about a million head, largely concentrated in the southwestern corner of the state. However, the earliest statistics that separated beef cattle from dairy cattle were found in the 1920 census that listed 30,000 beef and 893,000 dairy animals.
Beef cow numbers declined to 12,000 head by 1940, and then reached a high of 247,000 in 1982. Beef breeding herds have usually been a secondary enterprise or located on part-time or hobby-type farms. Many farmers who had quit the dairy business and/or those who had jobs in town put beef cows on their land to utilize their pastures and hay crop acreage.
In contrast, steer feeding was a major enterprise in southeastern Pennsylvania because of the demand for "kosher" beef by slaughter plants located in Philadelphia and New Jersey. Many slaughter cattle were shipped by rail from Chicago and other mid-west assembly points. Steers in Pennsylvania weighing 500 pounds or more were reported at 121,000 head in 1920 and reached a high of 294,000 head in 1977.
When the Department of Animal Husbandry was formed in 1907, it was noted that they owned only four beef animals. Such limited numbers were a serious handicap to teaching and research work. The 1920 college catalogue reported having both Angus and Shorthorn cow herds.
Early research work with beef cattle was with fattening steers, comparing housing systems (open shed vs. enclosed barn), types of roughage, and cottonseed meal vs. "Ajax" flakes. No information seems to be available as to what the latter contained.
Franklin L. Bentley was the first professor in the department with full responsibility for beef cattle teaching and research until the late 1940s. Alex Buchan was the first full-time beef herdsman. He was hired in 1923 and retired in 1963.
The Pennsylvania Legislature passed the Livestock Improvement Act in 1949 that allocated funds for the improvement of the herds and flocks at Penn State. It was a revolving fund in which the proceeds of livestock sales were returned to the fund. James Christian was on the resident staff and in charge of beef cattle from 1947-49.
Glenn Kean joined the faculty in 1949 and taught the beef courses until 1954, when Herman Purdy was hired as "Coordinator of Beef Cattle." Purdy retired in 1972 and was replaced by Erskine Cash. Under Purdy and Cash, the quality of the beef herds improved.
Many show champions have been exhibited in the Angus and Polled Hereford breeds, and numerous outstanding sires have been produced from the departmental herds.
In the 1970s the measure of an animal's worth gradually moved from show ring winnings to the concept of beef performance testing. Over the years, Penn State has owned and worked with herds of Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn, Charolais, and Simmental cattle. With the help of long-time beef herdsman Don Nichols, the college has been in the forefront in producing top quality Angus cattle. All of the present-day purebred beef cattle are Angus.
In the mid-1950s, a cooperative agreement was worked out with the Rockview Correctional Institution for a long series of research trials comparing steer grazing systems, crossbreeding, and sire evaluation. All of the beef produced was slaughtered at the University's Meats Laboratory and returned to Rockview.
The present beef cattle barns were completed in the late 1960s, with one entire wing devoted to feeding research. Trials are currently being carried out at this location utilizing food industry by-products as well as general beef nutrition studies. Harold Harpster and John Comerford direct these studies.
The Haller Research Farm enabled the department to carry out long-term studies on grazing systems, crossbreeding, and management systems under the leadership of Lowell Wilson. Wilson coordinated a cooperative research effort with the Agronomy and Agricultural Engineering departments, which made use of the Haller farm unit.
Pictured on this page are some of the beef bulls and steers that lifted Penn State to national prominence.
Author: Lester A. Burdette, Professor of Animal Science