NDSU’s Beef Research Complex Finding Answers
Two years ago, North Dakota State University opened a beef cattle research
facility unlike any other at a U.S. university.
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
"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
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
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
"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
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 at
http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/cattledocs/research-reports. 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
Researchers already are planning future experiments and have been talking to
several groups about opportunities for collaboration on research projects.