by Randy Weckman
James Strickland's arrival in Kentucky from New Mexico State University in March 2003 to establish the Forage-Animal Production Research Unit signaled the beginning of a new, permanent collaboration between the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the University of Kentucky, a partnership that promises to improve Kentucky's forages and its grazing animal industry.
"We believe that the work of
the new Agricultural Research Service's
scientists coupled with the remarkable
work of scientists here at the University
of Kentucky will help Kentucky farmers
become more efficient and profitable," said
Nancy Cox, associate dean for research
for the College of Agriculture.
"In the short term, the Forage-Animal
Production Research Unit will provide
scientific capabilities that will enhance
the considerable strength of UK's research;
in the longer term, these efforts should
lead to large improvements in the way
forages benefit animal productivity
and health," she said.
Dr. Jim Strickland, USDA research
leader for the Forage-Animal
Since his arrival, Strickland has hired several scientists, technicians,
and support staff who will work alongside College of Agriculture
scientists to apply the technology of genetics to forage and its
use by animals. This modern technology is already applied to food
crops, but less so to forages.
Because most of those in Strickland's group are now just putting their shoes on to work, so to speak, the precise research programs haven't been determined. The research agenda soon will be set in collaboration with UK scientists and industry leaders.
Likely, the ARS-UK research unit will study forage stand persistence, nutritive unit values, insect resistance, and palatability (how appetizing forage is to animals). The result of this research will be better health and performance of grazing animals. In turn, that research should advance Kentucky's pastured and grazing animal operations. Beef operations, for example, which depend on forages, account for between $1.5 and $2 billion in farm income annually, nearly half of the state's farm income each year.
"Kentucky lies in the center of what agronomists call the transition zone between northern, cool-season pastures, and Deep-South warm season pastures," Strickland said.
"This area, which includes the entirety of Kentucky and Tennessee and parts of states that border them, faces both grand opportunities and huge challenges to make its pastures more productive," he said.
In Kentucky, there is a preponderance of fescue pastures--5.5 million acres--that are mostly infected with a nearly invisible fungus called an endophyte. The endophyte lives peacefully within the fescue plant and helps it remain lush and lovely. It can, however, make grazing animals sick and is particularly harmful for pregnant horses.
"The fescue endophyte is a real challenge," Strickland said.
It is likely that some of the ARS group's research will evaluate fescue infected with types of endophytes that confer protection to the host fescue plant but don't cause poor performance in grazing animals, he said.
Kentucky's researchers are already improving Kentucky forages and pasture operations. Here are three of those projects that are under way:
Managing Infected Pastures through New Feed Additive
of Kentucky animal scientists Don Ely
and Debra Aaron are attacking the endophyte
problem in still another way. They
are conducting tests of a new product,
a food supplement marketed by Alltech that is intended to adsorb
the toxins produced by the endophyte. Scientists have determined
that two alkaloid toxins associated with the endophyte, ergovaline
and loline, cause what's commonly called "summer
slump," a syndrome marked in cattle by high core body temperatures,
poor performance, and low conception
rates. In extreme cases, summer slump syndrome can lead to cattle
death. (Horses, too, and sheep are affected by endophyte-infected
"Economic losses to the cattle industry due to fescue toxicosis may exceed a quarter of a billion dollars each year," Aaron said.
Curiously, the ergovaline toxicity in humans was noted centuries ago and was described as St. Anthony's fire; its effects included numbness, blue limbs, and absence of peripheral pulses. St. Anthony's fire, which apparently was an outcome of ingesting endophyte-infected cereal grains such as rye flour, also may have been associated with the odd behavior of some individuals condemned during the Salem Witch Trials. Some suggest that the myth of werewolves is an embellished description of odd behavior of Eastern Europeans resulting from ergovaline toxicity.
During the last several years, the two University of Kentucky animal scientists have been evaluating various dosages of the FEB-200™. Their research isn't simply a "feed 'em and weigh 'em" approach; it is trying to unravel the exact mechanism by which the two toxins--ergovaline and loline--cause poor performance in cows. Because high internal body temperature is one of the animal responses to the endophyte toxins, they are measuring core body temperatures. To do this, they are using ear-implanted thermometers, a novel technique for registering body temperature in cattle.
Early data suggest that the FEB-200™ mitigates the effects of the toxins on body temperature and body condition. Calves whose mothers were fed the FEB-200™ also showed higher rates of gain.
"Because the losses to the cattle industry are so high, even a small improvement in alleviating the summer slump would pay huge dividends," Ely said.
Maintaining Hay Quality
Cattle producers Merritt and Savannah Wade of Fayette County work with Alison Smith (center), former extension associate with the Master Cattleman program. Smith is now with the Kentucky Beef Council.
Farmers can lose up to 40 percent of their hay's nutritive value if it isn't stored properly; commonly 25 percent of hay's nutritive value is lost throughout Kentucky. And that 25 percent cuts into performance--and profits--for farmers. The Kentucky Agriculture Development Board's Model Hay Storage Program helps farmers prevent loss of hay quality through better storage facilities. College of Agriculture scientists and extension agents provide research and educational support for the program.
"The hay storage project was begun in late 2002 as a cost-sharing and knowledge-sharing program to help farmers learn about and build new hay storage facilities," said Doug Overhults, extension agricultural engineer, who is working on the project with colleague Jose Bicudo, also an extension agricultural engineer.
The program provides a 50 percent cost share for farmers in counties where the local board has adopted the model program. Seventy-five county ag development boards have adopted the program thus far, and some 2,500 hay storage facilities have been built. The Agriculture Development Board has provided $9.6 million, and farmers have matched that amount with their own resources. To date, facilities to store some 200,000 tons of hay have been built in Kentucky.
"Better hay means better, more profitable animals, whether they are beef or dairy cattle, sheep, or horses," Overhults said.
Keeping Track of Animals for Health and Performance
UK's leadership in a five-state project to improve beef production in Kentucky, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois has placed it in the national spotlight for beef identification programs. That spotlight of national prominence burns even brighter as a result of the diagnosis of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in a dairy cow in Washington last winter.
"We were in the midst of implementing a program to allow beef producers to track the progress of their cattle from the farm all the way through slaughter, when the first case of BSE in the U.S. was diagnosed. Because we had already investigated the technology of tracking animals, we became one of the places with lots of research and background to form the basis of a national program for health identification," said Jim Akers, extension associate and integrated beef management coordinator.
The Five-State Beef Initiative identification program was developed to allow beef producers to collect data on their cattle after they were sold so they could adjust their production program to improve the calves they produce.
Coupled with the Five-State Beef Initiative is the Kentucky Master Cattleman program, an intensive educational program to position Kentucky cattle producers to be the very best in the country.
But with the discovery of BSE, the nation's attention focused on tracking cattle for health, and as Akers said, "we had the best information available in the world about tracking devices and management of information." He noted that the development of the tracking system relied on Kentucky's best and brightest industry leaders for guidance, including members of the Kentucky Beef Cattlemen's Association, the Kentucky Beef Network, and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture's state veterinarian as well as scientists at the UK College of Agriculture.
The tracking program developed through the five-state project, which now is serving as a source of information and knowledge for the national program of health identification, involves a small, round disk that is implanted in the ear of the calf. It is about the diameter of a half dollar and about three times as thick. A small chip inside the disk provides for the storage of a 15-digit identification number that can be monitored by an electronic system at the rate of about one calf per second. Information about the animal can be entered into a data storage and retrieval system each time a calf changes ownership.
"The Kentucky Master Cattleman program and the Five-State Beef Initiative, especially its identification program, will enhance Kentucky's reputation for producing quality beef, said Larry Turner, associate dean for extension."Both programs are great examples of taking research findings and putting them to very practical applications."