NDSU cattle complex among best in nation
FARGO -- Trent Gilbery can tell you how much feed any steer in the herd ate on any given day and how long it took the animal to eat. He can also feed specific diets to certain animals within the same herd without separating them. North Dakota Sta...
FARGO -- Trent Gilbery can tell you how much feed any steer in the herd ate on any given day and how long it took the animal to eat.
He can also feed specific diets to certain animals within the same herd without separating them.
North Dakota State University has feeding cattle down to a science.
"We're trying to find out what's best for the animals in terms of their performance, their growth, not just how fast they grow, but also how does it impact their carcass quality," said Gilbery, facilities manager and animal care specialist for NDSU's Beef Cattle Research Complex.
The facility is one of the best in the nation. It uses radio frequency identification (RFID) and a feeding system developed for the dairy industry in Europe to allow high-producing cows to eat more than low-producing cows.
The complex, which consists of a feeding area, animal handling, calving pens, office, laboratory and a feed storage and mixing area, was dedicated in 2011.
"It's a big industry in North Dakota and the sustainability of that industry is an investment," Gilbery said. "We're trying to increase profitability for the producer in North Dakota, that's really why we're here."
The high-tech cattle-weighing system is faster, more efficient and safer for the animals and their handlers, said Kendall Swanson, an associate professor and researcher in NDSU's animal sciences department.
"It's associated with better performance," he said. "If they're less stressed, they're probably going to eat more, they're going to be more relaxed and burn less energy by being stressed. They're less apt to get sick, all kinds of things."
The chute is designed to be quiet so operating noises don't stress out the cattle.
"The old chutes were all manually operated," Gilbery said. "The new ones now, with this hydraulic feature, they're so much easier on the handler and they're actually better for the animals because they're quieter and they don't put too much pressure on the animal. They're actually pressure sensitive so you really can't hurt the cattle."
A computer system compares the animal's current weight against its last weight to determine approximately how much each steer gains a day.
"If you look at the feed costs for producers, that's probably their highest cost so feed efficiency is really an important thing in terms of their profitability," Gilbery said.
The cattle wear RFID tags to track their weight, feed intake and feeding patterns. The tags also help make sure they're eating the correct feed by only opening troughs that contain the feed they're supposed to have.
"There's a 15-digit number sequence and these numbers have to be entered into our feeding system or the feed trough won't open and let them eat," Gilbery said. "Every time that animal steps in for a meal, everything he eats, in terms of how long he ate and how much is recorded with that ID, which is his ID. It's like a Social Security number, really."
Researchers can use data on the animals' feeding behaviors and how much they eat to try to determine diets that will aid in optimal performance for developing calves, breeding heifers or growing cattle for market, he said.
"With the feeding system, we can measure every single feeding event that occurs throughout the day," said Swanson. "In the past, that hasn't been as easy to do."
Swanson is nearing the end of an experiment to determine whether removing oil from distillers grain affects the feed's quality.
"The ethanol industry is taking more of the oil out of the distillers grain so we want to know does that influence the quality of the feed," he said "Distillers grain is a really good feed for cattle, but if we take some of that oil out it might decrease the energy a little bit."
Researchers still have to run the statistics, but so far, Swanson said, it looks like it doesn't make that big of a difference.
"That's a good thing actually for the industry, because then it's still a really good feed that we can use and lots of it's available," he said.
Swanson said the complex has helped attract students to the university.
"Some of the students who work here, one of the reasons they're coming to NDSU is because of this facility," he said.
Mary Rodenhuis is a master's student studying animal sciences at NDSU. She focuses specifically on ruminant nutrition and said the cattle complex is really nice to work in.
"It's a very technologically up-to-date facility," she said. "It's a great facility for us to have because it puts NDSU on the map. The Insentec feeders are very unique to a university. Not a lot of universities have that technology."
The complex will be part of a breeding research project over the summer.