January 7, 2013
by Coleman Cornelius
In 1936, when he was 15 years old, Johnny Matsushima raised his first Hereford steer as a 4-H project and showed it at the Weld County Fair in Greeley alongside a 4-H rival named Kenny Monfort.
Monfort, who would become a Colorado beef mogul, had the grand champion steer at the fair that year. But the diminutive Matsushima – an inquisitive boy dwarfed even by the short cattle of the time – had an idea.
He took his steer back to his family’s Platteville farm. He fed the steer a bit longer, hauled the animal to auction at the Denver Stockyards, and fetched top dollar.
Beef-cattle feeding – yielding greater efficiency, profitability and carcass quality – soon would become his forte as an educator and researcher. Matsushima’s greatest discoveries came during his 30-year career as a professor in the Colorado State University College of Agricultural Sciences. His innovations helped modernize and expand U.S. beef production with scientific underpinnings, data-based decision making and global reach.
Matsushima’s evolution into a foremost scientist in beef nutrition helped drive the arc of Monfort’s own career as a captain of the nation’s cattle feeding and packing industry.
“I don’t think Colorado would be a top-five cattle feeding state if it weren’t for Johnny’s work,” said Daryl Tatum, a professor in CSU’s Department of Animal Sciences, who is among those carrying Matsushima’s torch in understanding links between nutrition and meat quality. “Johnny did as much as anybody in teaching and research to elevate the commercial cattle-feeding industry in Colorado and elsewhere. He was a game-changer.”
For his achievements, Matsushima will be honored on Jan. 14 as 2013 Citizen of the West by the National Western Stock Show. At age 92, he will join a roster of Western luminaries that includes the late Kenny Monfort and W.D. Farr, Matsushima’s close industry partners from the heyday of Colorado cattle feeding.
“Johnny represents the best of the world of academia. He has an inquiring mind that hungers for knowledge, and I just can’t say enough about his impact on students. He also represents the best of the world of agriculture. What he has accomplished with people and leaders over the decades is enormous,” said Pat Grant, chairman of long-range planning for the National Western and co-chair of the Citizen of the West Steering Committee. “Certainly in the world of beef, I do not know anyone who has had more influence than Johnny Matsushima.”
As feedlots were expanding across the state and nation in the 1960s, Matsushima pioneered the process of using steam and mechanical pressure to macerate corn kernels into corn flakes. The process makes starch more digestible in a cow’s four-chambered stomach, thus improving feed efficiency by about 10 percent, reducing the amount of grain needed in feedlot rations, and improving profit margins. The innovation remains a cornerstone of global cattle feeding.
“Efficiency has never been more important than it is today,” said Randy Blach, a former Matsushima student and executive vice president of CattleFax, which provides industry analysis. “The technology he developed 50 years ago has more value today than ever before. That’s phenomenal.”
Blach continued, “Even a 1-percent change in feed efficiency can make significant changes in cost and profitability, so the things he brought the industry have become more and more valuable over time.”
The late Kenny Monfort, an early adopter of the technology, joked that he flaked more corn than Kellogg’s at his feedlots.
“Although researchers at many universities were working on flaking at the same time, I think Johnny’s work was the best and most significant,” Monfort told The Denver Post for a feature about Matsushima, headlined “Genius of the feedlots” and published in 1967. By then, Monfort was assuming leadership of Monfort of Colorado Inc. from his father, Warren, and was helping establish the first 100,000-head cattle feedlot near Greeley.
“We thought enough of it that we changed our whole feeding program,” Monfort said of Matsushima’s new, flaky rations. “It’s cut down the number of days we have to feed an animal, and we get better conversions of feed to beef. We ran some tests, then we built a plant to make the flaked feed, designing it, mainly, just by listening to Johnny.”
Each workday morning, Matsushima obsessively monitored the amount of feed that cattle had consumed – or left behind – in bunks at CSU’s old Rigden Farm on the east side of Fort Collins, where the researcher conducted nutrition trials and jotted observations in daily record books. It was part of pinpointing technologies and rations that increased weight gain and decreased time to market.
Such constant questioning sparked Matsushima’s big idea in 1961. It was a frigid morning, and he was eating a breakfast of hot cereal with some cattle feeders. Then it hit him: Maybe hot grain would appeal to feedlot cattle. The idea launched his research in steam-flaked feed grains.
“He’s one of the pioneers who started developing modern cattle-feeding procedures,” said Paul Clayton, senior vice president for export services with the U.S. Meat Export Federation and another former student. “Innovation was one of the things we were really pressed to work on at CSU. He motivated us to think about problems in a different way.”
Matsushima recently visited the Kuner Feedlot, a 100,000-head feedyard established by Monfort of Colorado east of Greeley in 1974; it is now owned by JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding. A pen of Angus-crossbred cattle watched as Matsushima scooped up a handful of feed from the bunk and examined the mix of flaked corn and bits of silage, distillers grain and molasses-based supplement.
“It hasn’t changed much,” he noted to Kallen Moore, a young feeds professional who oversees milling at the Kuner Feedlot. The yard was a familiar stop for Matsushima during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, as he worked with large feeders to perfect research discoveries for practical industry application.
“This was a laboratory, definitely,” Matsushima said, gazing across the pens, with Longs Peak rising to the west. “I was also able to take the information I learned here to other parts of the world. After all, food is a big issue in many countries, and beef is the choice of animal protein.”
Moore laughed when discussing the complexities of modern rations. “Sometimes we thank you, and sometimes we cuss you. But either way, you changed everything,” he told Matsushima.
It was a long way from Matsushima’s beginning to his standing as an industry pioneer. He credits his late wife, Dorothy, their children, Bob and Nancy, and other family members, friends and colleagues for forgiving his absences and supporting his tireless work and travels. His perseverance was also essential.
Matsushima was born Dec. 24, 1920, to Japanese immigrants at Mercy Hospital in Denver. He was named Kiichiro and lived his early years in what he describes in his autobiography as a wooden shack near Lafayette. His cradle was an apple crate.
His family spoke only Japanese, and when Kiichiro arrived for first grade at Davidson School in Boulder County his teacher was confounded by the language difference and renamed him “Johnny.” It stuck.
The Matsushima family was poor, but his parents, who had eight children, saved $4,200 cash at the outset of the Great Depression and bought an 80-acre irrigated vegetable farm near Platteville. They focused on farm work, and as an adolescent Matsushima began contributing to family income by trapping and skinning muskrats, then selling the pelts for up to $2 each. He used some of the money to buy dairy calves, which he raised and sold for more profit.
He advanced to officer positions in FFA and 4-H, later using project income, combined with scholarships earned for graduating as valedictorian of his class at Platteville High, to attend what is now Colorado State University.
It was a struggle financially. Matsushima worked his way through school and wore the same shoes for two years, patching them with cardboard and rubber from a local tire shop. He obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in animal science in 1943 and 1945, then was recruited to the University of Minnesota for doctoral studies in the fledgling field of beef nutrition; his dissertation reported fattening performance of feedlot steers. It was Matsushima’s launching pad for teaching and research.
World War II was under way as Matsushima studied in Fort Collins, and his college life changed dramatically when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. It didn’t matter that he was born and raised in Colorado; Matsushima’s Japanese heritage drew bigotry.
Local grocery stores hung signs ordering that “Japs Stay Out.” Matsushima and his roommates, also Japanese-American, couldn’t buy food. So a fellow member of the livestock judging team bought their groceries and delivered them to Matsushima’s basement apartment in the dark of night. Matsushima was banned from a Fort Collins movie theater while out with the judging team, was refused a lift home in a snowstorm, and was denied membership in an academic honors fraternity.
The indignities eventually waned. Matsushima finished his schooling with a growing passion for teaching and research in feeds and feeding. His first job was at the University of Nebraska, where his findings in beef-cattle nutrition got the attention of area cattle feeders. These included Warren Monfort, the prominent cattleman Matsushima knew from Weld County, who was spearheading a novel approach of year-round cattle feeding with crop surpluses.
The elder Monfort encouraged Matsushima to return to Colorado State University, where he was hired with the promise of a research facility that could annually handle more than 3,500 beef cattle and an appointment that included working with the Colorado Cattle Feeders Association to understand and solve problems.
As Matsushima’s reputation expanded over the years, he became a seminal figure in opening Japan as a market for U.S. beef exports. Central to this role were his technical knowledge, cultural proficiency and language skills, which he had improved with childhood lessons at Japanese summer school.
“Dr. Matsushima’s heritage was a big benefit,” Clayton, of the U.S. Meat Export Federation, observed. “The fact that he was able to get markets to open and give the U.S. the ability to have access to foreign markets is very big, and getting those markets open was very, very difficult. That’s a milepost of his career.”
His crowning achievement was earning the Japanese Emperor Citation, or “Tenno Hosho,” presented in 2009 by Emperor Akihito at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Matsushima was honored for promoting quality beef in Japan, for pioneering steam flaking of corn, and for teaching some 10,000 animal science students at three universities. The award typically is given only to national dignitaries and corporate leaders.
It was “perhaps the happiest day of my life,” Matsushima writes in his autobiography.
Matsushima formally retired from CSU in 1992 – with 480 unused sick days – but with his emeritus professor status has maintained an office in the Animal Sciences Building. For a time, he continued to teach, and even now is often in his campus office at 6:30 a.m. for phone calls and emails, before heading home to tend his rose garden, mow his lawn, rake leaves or shovel snow.
“He calls me several times a year and wants updates on data,” Blach, of CattleFax, said. “That tells you it never has been a job for him. He has a passion for the industry.”
As Matsushima recently stood in the Kuner Feedlot surveying cattle, he explained his ongoing quest to gain and share information. “Knowledge,” he said, “never goes out of season.”
Matsushima embodies the land-grant university mission of teaching, research and outreach – factors that drive education, innovation and a robust economy. His work in beef-cattle nutrition, beginning in the 1960s and spanning some four decades, has been unique in its emphasis on improved efficiency for cattle feeders and meat quality to fulfill consumer demands. His career highlights: