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Awards / Honors

CSU's beef-feeding innovator is Citizen of the West

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.

John Matsushima, a retired CSU Animal Sciences professor, pioneered a grain-processing technique that's still used in beef-cattle feeding. He is pictured at the Kuner Feedlot owned by JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding. 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.

Greatest discoveries at CSU

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.”  

2013 Citizen of the West 

Each year, Matsushima and his late wife, Dorothy, have gathered with their family at the National Western Stock Show in Denver.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.”

Pioneering process

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.

'Genius of the feedlots'

Matsushima became a professor at CSU and conducted beef-feeding research at the old Rigden Farm east of Fort Collins.“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.

A big idea

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.

A long way from his beginning

Matsushima grew up near Platteville, Colo., and was valedictorian of his class at Platteville High School. He attended what is now Colorado State University.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.

Hard work and success 

He got his start in beef-cattle feeding and nutrition while showing steers at the Weld County Fair in Greeley.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.

Japanese heritage drew bigotry

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.

Returning to CSU

A milestone of his career was helping to open Japan as a market for U.S. beef exports.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.”

Crowning achievement

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.

Matsushima received the 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.”

John Matsushima’s influence

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:

  • Pioneered the use of steam to transform corn kernels and other feed grains into flakes, increasing digestibility. This greatly boosts feed efficiency in cattle – by 10 percent or more in some cases – cuts the amount of corn needed in feedlot rations, and increases profitability for cattle feeders.
  • Taught an estimated 10,000 undergraduate students at the University of Minnesota, University of Nebraska and Colorado State University. Served as major adviser to 53 graduate students pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees.
  • Partnered with Colorado cattle feeders to put discoveries into action, propelling beef to its status as a $3-billion agricultural sector in Colorado and the state’s top commodity. Colorado is ranked as the fifth state in the nation for cattle on feed.
  • Helped establish cattle feeding worldwide, with focused efforts in Africa, Italy, Australia, Canada, China and Japan.
  • Worked closely with Japanese officials to open that country and other Asian markets to U.S. beef exports in the 1980s. This meant developing guidelines for import and export, and addressing knotty legal, economic and food-safety issues.
  • Began use of antibiotics as an additive in cattle feed, which significantly reduced incidence of liver abscess and other health problems.
  • Examined use of hormone implants in feedlot cattle to stimulate gain and improve carcass quality.
  • Perfected feedlot rations through scientific studies of moisture content, inclusion of alfalfa and distillers grains, and vitamins and minerals, among other additions.
  • Helped develop equipment, including mobile mixing trucks, to process and deliver feed. 
  • Established and served for 20 years as superintendent for the Fed Beef Contest at the National Western Stock Show, the nation’s premier carcass contest. Event promotes data-based decisions among cattle growers, feeders, packers and retailers by looking beyond cattle appearance to measures of carcass and meat quality.
  • Has authored numerous scientific papers and books, including a self-published autobiography, titled “Broad Horizon – I Fear No Boundaries,” released in fall 2011.

Other honors for Matsushima

  • 1983: Top Choice Award from the Colorado Cattle Feeders Association, now the Colorado Livestock Association.
  • 1984: National 4-H Alumni Recognition Award from the National 4-H Foundation.
  • 2002: Best Teacher Award from the Colorado State University Alumni Association and Student Alumni Connection.
  • 2003: William E. Morgan Alumni Achievement Award from the Colorado State University Alumni Association. This is the association’s highest honor and is awarded to alumni who have excelled nationally and internationally.
  • 2009: Japanese Emperor Citation, or “Tenno Hosho,” presented at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. He was honored for promoting quality beef in Japan, pioneering steam flaking of corn, and teaching thousands of animal science students. The award typically is given only to national dignitaries and corporate leaders.
  • 2010: Colorado Agriculture Hall of Fame induction by the Colorado FFA Foundation; inducted into the Colorado 4-H Hall of Fame the same year.

Citizen of the West

  • The honoree embodies the spirit and determination of the Western pioneer. The Citizen of the West, selected annually by a committee of community leaders, is committed to perpetuating the West’s agricultural heritage and ideals.
  • The recipient is celebrated at a Western gala that attracts about 800 people and raises money for 74 scholarships granted each year by the National Western Scholarship Trust. The scholarships are awarded to college and university students in Colorado and Wyoming who are studying agricultural sciences, large-animal veterinary medicine, and medicine for practice in rural communities.
  • The Citizen of the West honor roll is a regional Who’s Who – political, business, educational, philanthropic, and agricultural leaders who have advanced the West and its people. Past honorees include Kenny Monfort, Bill Coors, Ben Houston, Bill Farr, Sue Anschutz- Rodgers,  Hank Brown, and Dick and Eddie Robinson.
  • John Matsushima is the third Colorado State University faculty or staff member to be named.
  • Others who have worked for CSU are Fum McGraw, football legend and former athletic director, honored with his wife, Brownie, in 1997; and Albert C. Yates, former university president, honored in 2002.
  • The 35th award dinner will be Jan. 14, 2013, at the National Western Stock Show Events Center Arena.