Research Animal Scientist Frank Ireland (right) explains how the GrowSafe units operate at the University of Illinois’ Dixon Springs Agricultural Center on a tour that was held during the Illinois Beef Association Summer Conference.
Research Animal Scientist Frank Ireland (right) explains how the GrowSafe units operate at the University of Illinois’ Dixon Springs Agricultural Center on a tour that was held during the Illinois Beef Association Summer Conference.

SIMPSON, Ill. — Beef cattle research projects have been ongoing at the University of Illinois’ Dixon Springs Agricultural Center for the past 75 years.

“This center was established in 1938 with the idea there needed to be research done in southern Illinois to help the poor economic status of the region,” said Frank Ireland, U of I research animal scientist.

Ireland, who joined the U of I staff in 1990, has seen a lot of changes at Dixon Springs, which includes 5,000 acres, most of which are owned by the U.S. Forest Service.

“When I came here, the herd was 130 cows, and this fall, we have 850 females to calve,” explained Ireland to beef producers on a tour as part of the Illinois Beef Association’s Summer Conference.

“Dixon Springs is an extremely important unit to our research program,” stressed Doug Parrett, interim head of the U of I Animal Sciences Department. “Last year, animal science at Illinois was voted the No. 1 research animal science department in America.”

When a research project is initiated, he said, the researchers know the genetic makeup of every animal.

“Most cattle are on two or three projects,” he noted. “Every animal born here is used in a trial, which allows us to get measurable replications for meaningful results.”

The cowherd at the center is mainly Angus and Angus-Simmental crossbreds.

“The heifers will start calving about the middle of August, and the cows are due the first of September,” Ireland reported. “We went from a spring calving herd to a fall calving herd to fit our forage program.”

One of the major barn renovations during the past year included installing 16 GrowSafe units. Currently, 138 heifers are on a test to evaluate feed efficiency associated with high forage-based diets in this facility.

“With the GrowSafe units, the feed bunk is weighed constantly,” the researcher explained. “When the calf sticks its head through the bars, the antenna reads the calf’s ID tag.”

The heifers are fed a ration that is 50 percent alfalfa and 50 percent cornstalk baleage.

“We are targeting 1.25- to 1.5-pound average daily gain, so the heifers are big enough to breed by Thanksgiving,” Ireland said. “The goal is for them to weigh 700 to 750 pounds at breeding, which is about 65 percent of their mature weight.”

DNA samples are taken from all the heifers.

“We are trying to identify gene markers we can use for feed efficiency on forage-based diets,” the scientist said. “When the heifers are 3 to 4 years old, we will put them back into this barn for more data.”

Pastures at Dixon Springs range from 140 acres down to five acres.

“Our main fertility program is to frost seed clover into existing pastures at about 6 pounds,” Ireland said. “We seed mostly red clover about the third week of February to the first week of March.”

About every two or three years, one-quarter to one-half of a pound of white clover is added to the mixture.

“We get a lot of volunteer white clover, so we have to be careful to avoid the possibility of bloat,” Ireland noted.

“About 17 years ago, we started early weaning calves from 40 to 90 days of age,” he said. “Today, we wean the calves at 65 days of age at the time we synchronize and AI the cows.”

The researchers have found that the highest conception rate occurs when the calves are weaned 48 to 72 hours before timed AI of the cows.

“We pick up 11 to 12 percent improvement in conception rate by early weaning, and we’ve seen it year after year,” Ireland reported.

Once the calves are removed from the cows, the cows graze on stockpiled forages for the remaining portion of the winter.

“That decreases the energy requirements of the cows almost by half,” the scientist said. “We do bale hay for emergency situations, but a significant part of our cowherd graze forages the entire winter.”

When early weaned calves are fed a high starch-based diet such as corn, Ireland said, there is a 35-percent improvement in average choice to prime carcasses from those calves.

“It takes about 500 pounds more grain to finish those calves. However, we would be feeding the cow about that much to supplement her while she’s nursing the calf,” he explained. “So it’s about a wash for the amount we’d feed.”

A study in its second year at Dixon Springs is evaluating the effects of pyrethroid insecticides on bull fertility. The study includes 24 bulls that are used for cleanup following AI.

“Semen is collected from these bulls every Wednesday for 11 weeks,” Ireland said. “Half of the bulls are treated with fly tags and pour-ons, and the other half are treated with fly tags, pour-ons, a daily spray, as well as the barn stalls are sprayed with premise spray.”

The study involves veterinarians from the U of I College of Veterinary Medicine.

“The veterinarians are looking at sperm motility,” Ireland explained.

“Most reproductive studies looking at fertility use the experience of the researcher to access the quality of the semen,” he said. “But the veterinarians here are using a computer sperm analysis program to calculate the motility of the sperm.”