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Published August 04, 2011, 12:59 PM

NDSU’s high-tech feeding site crosses enterprise disciplines

FARGO, N.D. — North Dakota State University livestock researchers are just testing out the complex controls of a new research complex that increases cross-connections between feeding studies and reproduction, genetics and genomics disciplines.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — North Dakota State University livestock researchers are just testing out the complex controls of a new research complex that increases cross-connections between feeding studies and reproduction, genetics and genomics disciplines.

The $3.3 million Beef Cattle Research Complex is one of only four of its caliber in North America, and the only one of its type in a land grant university, says Greg Lardy, animal science department head. About 80 percent of it was paid from state funds.

The complex allows the running of at least three major studies at any given time, involving 40 to 60 cattle each, depending on the protocol.

“It allows all sorts of research related to cow-calf production,” Lardy says. “We think the research will be across the entire spectrum, but we’re serving the North Dakota niche first — cow-calf, backgrounding industry — first. If you look at the data that’s out there, the feed efficiency research focus has been primarily on the feedlot cattle side. We think there’s some opportunity in the cow-calf as well, and forage-based diets.”

State of the art

The new facility is a new front for NDSU agriculture — a kind of graphic statement that this is a land university connected to agriculture. Lardy says the facility offers a “unique bridge” between what NDSU researchers do in their laboratories in Hultz Hall and elsewhere on campus with the research and production going on throughout the state.

Lardy says that while it is important to strengthen research at the Research and Extension Centers throughout the state, it is vital to keep an intensive connection with the main campus. The campus staff has 25 faculty members, including 22 doctorates. Across Interstate 29 to the east are the existing cattle facilities, which were designed mostly to house cattle in the wintertime, and are analogous to what farmers might have. These most often are used for student access for classes.

The main structure of the facility is a monoslope roof design with an interior feeding area of 41 by 300 feet. The new facility includes six pens with a capacity of 32 head per pen — space for at total of 192 animals.

The facility includes offices for the manager Trent Gilbery and an assistant. The feeding area includes computer controlled equipment for individual animal monitoring and even controlling intake. That adjoins an animal handling area, with high-tech equipment from Moly Manufacturing. A separate feed mixing building includes both wet and dry feeds.

Some environmental features aren’t apparent to the untrained eye. Runoff water runs across an alley which is designed to settle out the solids. The water goes into a water spreading area that allows for some evaporation, while the solids are land-applied.

Getting started

Scientists, including Kendall Swanson, plan to fill the barn in the fall, and start larger experiments. Since May 27, the facility has been host to 23 replacement heifers for preliminary studies.

Among the “inaugural” studies, researchers are test-feeding a supplement to cows, comparing that with a conventional backgrounding diet. Distillers’ dried grains are offered in a trough where all animals have access, but researchers control the intake using the automated equipment. Certain animals are allowed 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of supplement feed per day, and others 2 kilograms, with limited access to hay. NDSU has intake data from a number of studies, but this will be the beginning of a new data base with a more complex picture.

Another project this fall will be one-year or more study growing cattle,” — 600- to 900-pounders — fed a forage-based diet with different levels of supplementation of distillers’ dried grains. One of the issues is how cattle perform with different DDG levels but also to find out why some in animals are more able to respond to higher levels than others.

Lardy and Swanson say inaugural projects will give background-feeding North Dakotans, who have an abundance of forages, the same kind of information the same level of information available to feedlot operators farther south.

“I think some of the differences in efficiency is related to the differences in physiology of metabolism within tissues among different animals,” Swanson says. “We’re starting to learn that for animals fed grain-type diets, but now we’re starting to learn that for forage-type diets as well.”

Lardy says the new research complex, on the west of I-29, replaces one that was built in the 1950s in the same location. That one was designed to do research with a variety of species. There were two cattle barns and another wing for sheep, swine and a feed mill. Through time, those became outdated.

Time for an update

“In the 1980s, with the budget situations, that wasn’t repaired or maintained as it should have been,” Lardy says. “In the 1990s, a couple of faculty members came in and did some remodeling.” Some of the inside bunks were placed outside, so that fence line feeding and mechanization in feeding, but it still needed an update.

In the 1990s, the Northern Crops Institute built a feed mill, which provided specific rations for tests.

In 2003, NDSU officials started seriously discussing the need to replace it all together. Ken Grafton, director of the NDSU Experiment Station and now also dean of the College of Agriculture, Food Systems and Natural Resources, gathered input from stakeholder groups.

In 2007, the State Board of Agricultural Research and Education – with the urging of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association and others — got the facility listed as one of the top capital priorities for the experiment station. That year, the Legislature authorized $1 million in spending authority and appropriated $80,000 to do permitting work and drawings for the facility. The Experiment Station acquired a $700,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for Phase I. The 2009 Legislature appropriated $2.6 million to complete Phase II, including equipment.

Construction started in spring 2010.

“The key specialization here is the ability to measure a lot of things about feed intake — feeding behavior, with an interest in feed costs, feed efficiency,” Swanson says. “This building and the equipment in it give us the ability to do a lot more things from nutritional management perspective.”

In a pen of 32 animals, the radio frequency identification — RFID — ear tags are recognized by the feeding system, which allows the researcher to determine what an individual animal will eat on a daily basis and can monitor when they ate it, and how big the “meals” are — almost on a second-by-second basis.

Exponential upgrade

“It allows us to know whether the meals are consumed at midnight or 7 p.m., and it can also be used to limit the intake of a certain diet,” Swanson says. “It lets us make animals No. 1, 3 and 5 to get six pounds of this particular feed, and can control the equipment to allow them to do that.”

This capability allows feeding trials to cross over into reproductive physiology, meat quality, nutrition management and other disciplines.

Compare that with the facilities of the past, when there were 24 pens and each received a certain diet, with no opportunity for researchers to look at how different diet types interact with different feeding behaviors. It allows about six to 10 times as much information per pen as in the past.

An example of the benefit of this new capability is a study that compares a diet of 60 percent concentrate — a typical backgrounding diet — with a 90 percent concentrate diet.

One of the issues is what happens to overall production when socially dominant animals are in a pen with less aggressive animals, and how the diet makeup itself can change that behavior.

“Typically, a dominant animal will be the first one that goes up to the bunk and generally consumes bigger meals,” Lardy says. “That might be good — or it might not be good — for feed efficiency. It might be good where you’re feeding a limited amount of concentrate, but not as good with high-concentrate.”

Swanson says the facility will have capabilities across the spectrum, but the research certainly will address the niche topics unique to the cow-calf and stocker-grower or background cattle operations.