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