Like much of the Midwest, southern Illinois has been hit hard by drought this summer. Cattlemen from Iowa who rode a bus on the 2012 Iowa Beef Tour for three days July 16-18 from southern Iowa, through Missouri and into southern Illinois, saw it firsthand.
They saw the nearly 4,000 acres of dry pasture at the University of Illinois Dixon Springs Ag Research Center, and soon after they arrived and got off the bus a downpour hit. Frank Ireland, an animal scientist at the center, said the region is 14 inches below its normal amount of rainfall for this time of year. "It's impacting our research projects here at the station," he notes, adding that it has delayed a PhD student's research there one year.
The drought has impacted pastures, including warm season annuals that grazers rely on during summer months. "We just didn't get the rainfall for those grasses to come up," Ireland notes. The center usually has 1,000 big bales of hay to feed the 1,000 head of cattle on site; there will likely only be half that amount this summer. "This year is going to be a challenge," says Ireland.
Early weaning of calves is leading to improved feed efficiency for cattle
Despite this, Ireland notes that the research center has recently completed, or is close to completing studies that should prove beneficial to producers across the board. Many of these findings relate to feed efficiency, and Ireland points out that one of these findings involves early weaning.
With calves averaging about 65 days old, and ranging from 40 to 80 days, he says these calves weaned early have a potential conversion rate of 4.2 to 1 versus the normal 7 to 1. "The feed efficiency is tremendous on them," he adds. "We pick up about a 35% increase in carcass quality."
At the same time, cows with calves that are early weaned have an increased conception rate- -- up to 11% to 12%, Ireland says. "That's another advantage," he notes. This early-weaning method can be particularly effective in years like 2012, as it can increase a pasture's carrying capacity by 25% by allowing the calf to move to a feedlot. This can also be beneficial in reducing a cow's protein requirements, as a cow not lactating requires 8% protein versus the 13% of a lactating cow. "But early weaning isn't for everyone," Ireland says. Some producers want to increase milk production in their cattle, "so early weaning may not be the best thing for your replacement heifers."
Looking at impact of using pyrethroid insecticides to control insects
Other research is looking at other aspects of cattle production, like a recent study of the possible effects of cattle-approved, pyrethroid-based pour-on insect control. And fly tags. Those practices have drawn attention recently due to a University of Missouri study revealing pyrethroid insecticides when applied to barns with animals present, may have a negative impact on fertility among bulls. "We're not seeing any negative effects," Ireland says. This study will also benefit the research center, as it uses these fly control methods. "We want to know ourselves, are these products having a detrimental effect?" he asks.
Among other findings regarding feed efficiency is a study emphasizing the influence of genetics compared to daily amount of nutrients consumed. "What we're seeing is the cattle eating the most feed aren't necessarily gaining the most," Ireland says. The next step is identifying which specific genetic qualities contribute to feed efficiency, like has been done in the pork and poultry industries. "The beef industry has not been able to do that previously," he points out.
What are the effects of improving cow nutrition on late pregnancy?
Another study is investigating the effects of cow nutrition in late pregnancy on fetal development and subsequent performance.
"It's a follow-up to our early weaning studies," Ireland explains. By early weaning calves and putting them on a high starch diet, carcass quality can be dramatically improved. "It's possible the genetic potential for carcass quality, as well as reproductive performance of female offspring, may be affected by the diets cows receive while carrying the fetus."
Recently, the UI Animal Sciences department has installed a GrowSafe feeding system at the Dixon Springs Ag Center. This allows for collection of individual feed intake data on calves in research trials. By using this system in a controlled environment, Ireland says researchers hope to identify genetic markers for feed efficiency -- on both grain and forage diets. "There still are lots of questions to be answered," he says, noting the positive results from studies with early weaning. "If we can make it work here, you can make it work at home."