- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2002

As Scott Barao scans a small herd of Black Angus cattle grazing in a field on the Eastern Shore, he pays particular attention to the details. Like udders.

A good, healthy udder signifies success for the University of Maryland's Wye Research and Educational Center, a facility devoted to the century-old idea that higher education's role is to promote efficient and sustainable agriculture.

Udders that hang low enough to swing like a pendulum on a grandfather clock get dirty easily and transmit bacteria to calves. Udders with teats close together make feeding harder for the young.

A good udder hews tightly to the underside of a cow, giving a calf room to eat and grow strong. It's a trait worth encouraging as the Wye herd nears its 25th anniversary under the tutelage of the university.

"All the breeding is very strategic," said Mr. Barao, director of the center and a professor of animal sciences in College Park.

The Black Angus cows, famous for their high quality and sometimes stiff prices, lie at the heart of what Mr. Barao and his small staff do at the Wye center. They breed and study cows, and pass the information and the product on to cattle farmers in Maryland and beyond.

The center, nestled next to the Wye Plantation where Arabs and Israelis tried and failed to negotiate a lasting peace in the waning days of the Clinton administration, is part of the "extension" services of the University of Maryland. Extension, a term so antiquated that Mr. Barao often speaks of "outreach," describes the work of universities that were founded in the 19th century to bring research knowledge to farmers, and farmers' data to researchers.

Doing that part of his job, Mr. Barao, 44, spends many days on the road, mostly in the rolling hills of north-central Maryland, helping farmers solve their problems. A doctoral-degree holder from Michigan State University and a child of Massachusetts dairy farmers, he fields questions that run the gamut from any of Maryland's roughly 5,800 beef farmers.

"A typical call would say, 'My cows should be calving, but half of them are not pregnant,'" he said.

Solving problems like these or others about feed, grazing and the weather are the business of Mr. Barao, an academic who stays out of the ivory tower. He doesn't teach in the classroom and he doesn't wear a coat and tie to work.

In the 16 years that Mr. Barao has worked at the university, he has also encouraged farmers to think more about the consumers of beef. Their farming practices, their use of chemicals and their treatment of animals matter more and more to people who buy beef.

"One of the messages I hammer home is 'you're not a cattle producer, you're a beef producer,'" he says. "People eat this stuff."

But the prized Black Angus herd keeps Mr. Barao busy, too.

The bulls and cows carry a white brand burned into their hides with liquid nitrogen that spells out "Wye" inside a diamond. Arthur Houghton, an industrialist who made a fortune in the glass industry, donated the herd to the University of Maryland in 1978, a gift then worth $3.8 million.

Mr. Barao, along with a small staff, breed the cattle and collect detailed information on their growth and development. Each April, buyers have a chance to bid on Angus cattle whose genes they would like to see become part of their herd. The data the center collects informs future breeding decisions.

The sales a bull sells for about $4,000 while a cow fetches up to $5,000 cover the operating costs of the research center, Mr. Barao says.

To raise those healthy cattle, Mr. Barao and the day-to-day manager of the center, Eddie Draper, get their feet dirty sometimes too dirty if they don't watch their step.

They both hop into an old Chevrolet Suburban to check out a part of the herd that was grazing near the Wye River. Driving past historical markers noting that the Wye Plantation was once the property of William Paca, the first governor of Maryland and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, they pass over the movable electrical fence that keeps the herd in one area, and jump out.

The roughly 40 cattle, at first oblivious to the presence of humans, emit a rising cacophony of "moos" as Mr. Barao and Mr. Draper check them out. The occasional sound of gushing liquid reminds them that fresh cow patties are near. The cattle begin sniffing the Suburban.

Scientists above all, both men peer at the yellow ear tags that identify each of the cattle, along with the bull that sired them and the cow that bore them.

Not all of the roughly 80 calves that are born each year will be attractive enough for the buyers who plug in via phone and Internet from near and far for the annual cattle sale in April.

"In the end, 20 or 25 of them will be good enough to sell," Mr. Barao said.

The trick is finding the right candidates.

They pay special attention to the calves that are now about three months old, taking note of two particular standouts. Mr. Barao consults a small red notebook to investigate their lineage, and concludes that they are hot prospects.

"If I see a calf I like, I want to check whether its big because it's old or big because its genetics are good," he says.

Mr. Draper concurs that they have at least two winners in bunch.

"That's going to be the race this year between those two calves," he says.


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