Two years ago, North Dakota State University opened a beef cattle research facility unlike any other at a U.S. university.
The state-of-the-art feeding system at NDSU's Beef Cattle Research Complex allows researchers to feed different diets to cattle in the same pen at different times of the day and monitor each animal's intake.
Since then, NDSU's Beef Cattle Research Complex has helped raise awareness of beef cattle research and education in North Dakota to a national and international level.
"North Dakota beef producers are excited about the new Beef Cattle Research Complex," says Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association. "It features state-of-the-art equipment that gives researchers the ability to conduct very specialized feeding trials that will help the beef industry answer critical questions regarding feed efficiency and related topics."
The complex, dedicated in the summer of 2011, can accommodate up to 192 cattle. It consists of a feeding area, cattle handling system, calving pens, an office and laboratory area, and a facility for mixing and storing feed. Fewer than six facilities of this caliber exist in North America.
"We conduct a broad range of research that encompasses what happens in the beef industry in North Dakota," says Kendall Swanson, an associate professor in NDSU's Animal Sciences Department. He, along with associate professor Marc Bauer, oversees the complex. "Our goal was to have a facility that conducts research on growing cattle, finishing cattle and mature cows."
NDSU researchers have conducted 11 experiments at the complex, including three on growing cattle, three on pregnant cows and two on finishing cattle. They've studied alternative feed ingredients, feeding management, feeding behavior, carcass quality, reproduction, fetal development, hormones and environmental impacts.
In experiments with alternative feeds, for example, they found that feeding dried distillers grains plus solubles (DDGS) only on alternate days decreased forage intake but didn't negatively impact cow weight, or body condition or composition, and that supplementing medium-quality hay diets for growing cattle with DDGS increased the animals' growth performance and forage intake.
Work with pregnant cows indicates that nutrition can impact blood flow to the uterus, which affects fetal development and could result in differences in the calves' development after birth.
A computerized feeding system is one of the features that make the complex a first-class facility, according to Swanson and Bauer. It allows researchers to feed specific amounts of different diets to animals in the same pen and at different times of the day.
"Feed intake is one of the most variable and laborious measures to take when doing animal research," Bauer says. "So we do what is easy: measure intake of a pen of cattle, divide by the number of cattle in the pen and arrive at an average intake for the whole pen. This is good, but it doesn't tell us anything about individual animals. With our new system, we not only know how much they ate but also when they ate."
He envisions numerous other uses for the feeding system.
"For instance, we generally assume that cattle that eat fairly constant amounts from day to day are more efficient," he says. "I even teach this in animal nutrition classes. But we really don't know this. With our new system, we can test this theory."
Now researchers also will be able to study issues such as how cold temperatures affect feed intake.
"This provides us great opportunities to develop experiments on several subjects related to feeding and beef cattle production, but it also provides challenges in data handling and analysis, as we are collecting very large amounts of data every day," Swanson says. "This has probably been the area that we have grown the most over the first two years in the facility, and there is great potential to further improve this aspect of our research programs to be able to gain the most information from the data we collect."
Being able to study animal feeding behavior has been another major benefit of this facility.
"The data we're getting from this are really interesting," Swanson says. "It's related to nutrition and how animals change their feeding behavior relative to their diet."
The cattle handling system also is a highly important part of the complex. It allows researchers to weigh cattle and take a variety of samples, and it gives students taking the Animal Science and Veterinary Technology courses an opportunity to work with cattle and learn good animal-handling techniques in a properly designed animal-handling system.
Six to eight undergraduate students work at the complex part time during the school year and one works there full time during the summer. That gives them experience in operating equipment, feeding cattle, and cleaning and maintaining cattle facilities. Also, five to 10 graduate students are involved in research projects at the complex at any given time.
Researchers have shared their study results with producers through meetings and the annual "North Dakota Beef Report," online. They've also presented their findings at scientific meetings throughout the U.S. and are preparing articles to be published in scientific journals.
In addition, Swanson, Bauer and facility manager Trent Gilbery have led about 150 tours for local, state, regional, national and international groups from beef and other agricultural industries, as well as those not directly associated with agriculture. NDSU also has hosted several producer and industry meetings at the facility.
Researchers already are planning future experiments and have been talking to several groups about opportunities for collaboration on research projects.