Cattleland Feedyards, a 25,000-head feedlot situated just north of Strathmore, Alta., has long been known for running one of the largest bull tests of its kind in North America. Four years ago, the company officially opened its research centre to facilitate custom research trials for commercial clients and expand its in-house research program.
Fifty small isolation pens to accommodate up to 20 head each were built to compliment the eight GrowSafe pens and 11 large pens for groups of 100 to 150 cattle. In all, the research and bull test unit accommodates 5,000 head.
“The president, Greg Appleyard, and vice-president, Karen Gregory, recognized an opportunity to offer more research services to the Canadian cattle industry. They were seeing lots of research that could have been done in Canada going to the States,” says research manager William Torres. “Here, we can work with our type of cattle, in our weather conditions and with products available in Canada.”
The commercial research involves exclusive and confidential trials to validate new pharmaceutical and feed ingredient products and/or protocols that enhance weight gain, have a health benefit or reduce handling and stress.
The in-house component is geared toward improving efficiencies of Cattleland’s feedlot, backgrounding and cow-calf operations, as well as adding value for producer clients in the bull test program.
Toward that end, most of the in-house research at the moment is focused on net feed efficiency or residual feed intake (RFI) testing. RFI is defined as the difference between an animal’s actual feed intake and its expected feed requirements for maintenance and growth.
“This is important because a five per cent improvement in feed efficiency could have an economic impact four times greater than a five per cent improvement in average daily gain,” Torres explains. “RFI can be used to select cattle for lower maintenance and feed consumption, without adversely affecting body size and growth rate.”
The leptin gene, which has been linked to feed efficiency in cattle, is also of interest. Genetic selection for cattle with the homozegous “TT” leptin gene results in progeny that eat less without sacrificing growth performance, Torres says. A current research project involves examining how a product affects genotype.
Cattleland uses bulls known to have “TT” genetics in its own breeding program on about 1,500 cows. The company has also formed alliances with cow-calf producers to produce calves with the desired genetics. Cattleland supplies the “TT” bulls with an agreement to buy the progeny for the feedlot.
“Our aim is to have a better product and better market,” Torres says. The ultimate goal is to build a model that brings together genetics and feed programs to accurately predict a specific date animals can be marketed at a specific grade.
The GrowSafe pens have been integral to RFI testing, since it was first introduced at Cattleland in January, 2005. Each of the eight pens are fitted with five nodes (individual feed bunks) and accommodate about 30 head. Each node has its own certified weigh scale and an antenna that reads radio frequency identification tags to identify individual animals when they eat. A wireless connection to the associated computer program in the office lets Torres and Mick Taylor, assistant research manager, monitor when feed is delivered, how often each animal eats, how long it stays at the bunk, how much feed it consumes at each
visit, as well as peak consumption and low-intake hours for the pen.
Aside from collecting data to establish an RFI rating for each animal, Torres says a lot can be learned from watching for patterns in the data. For example, he is able to predict illness three or four days in advance of an animal outwardly showing symptoms. Studying animal habits and weather effects are other potential uses.
The GrowSafe pens are used in the bull test program for producers who want RFI data on their bulls. This is growing in popularity, Torres adds. Cattleland handles the data collection and does the analysis, then sends it to a third party for validation.
Alberta is a pioneer in the study of RFI. The first tests in North America were conducted at the Lacombe Research Centre when the GrowSafe system was installed in 1999. Dr. John Basarab, a research scientist with Alberta Agriculture, led this project, which was an initiative of Alberta Agriculture, the University of Alberta, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Beef Booster Inc.
The GrowSafe nodes are manufactured by GrowSafe Systems Ltd. at Airdrie, Alta. Today, more than 50 GrowSafe bunk systems have been installed at research institutes and commercial facilities across Canada and the U.S.
Alberta Environment has already approved three beef protocols that could be used in the feedlot sector for the purpose of marketing carbon credits in Alberta’s carbon offset trading program. The protocols are developed one by one in accordance with a rigorous process set out by Alberta Environment. Each protocol must be based on sound science proving that a new production method provides a measurable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions relative to the practice it is replacing. As of September, a fourth protocol related to selecting for RFI in beef cattle was in draft form under review by the expert panel and peer technical group.
“Cattleland is one of two commercial feedlots in Alberta that is currently undergoing carbon credit aggregation for future sale,” Torres says. Credits have been aggregated on the farming side and negotiations are aimed at complete aggregation of the cropping, trucking and feedlot operations once the RFI protocol has been approved.
The farming division crops 18,500 acres. In addition to it and the feedlot, cow-calf and backgrounding operations, the company offers trucking, cattle and grain marketing and commodity hedging services. Earth Renew Resources, an independent company situated at the feedlot, processes manure into fertilizer pellets for crop production. In all, Cattleland Feedyards employs about 60 people.
Torres hails from Laredo, Texas, where his family runs about 12,000 head on 35,000 acres. He is a reproductive physiologist with bachelor degrees in animal science, biology and physics from Texas A&M. His career began with an 11-year stint with the U. S. government, mainly writing protocols and procedures manuals. In June, 2000, he joined the Texas Veterinary Medical College at Texas A&M, where he again developed written protocols to enhance quality management systems. He left his position there as research supervisor in 2006 to become assistant director for Global Laboratories for Sexing Technologies, which is an international company that specializes in separating sperm cells into female and male populations for the cattle industry. This position brought him to Calgary on occasion as a consultant. In the fall of 2008, he decided to make his home in the Canadian West.
Taylor’s degree is in agricultural science with a major in animal science from the University of Queensland, Australia. He worked for a spell as a nutritional consultant with a livestock feed company, then moved west to manage the largest watermelon farm in Australia. Itchy feet brought him to Alberta in the spring of 2007, where he gained experience in the feedlot industry working at Easterday Farms near Lethbridge. The research and bull test facility at Cattleland is of particular interest because it offers an opportunity for him to be involved in the advancement of the Canadian cattle industry through the use of new technologies and practices. He feels that research focused on areas that will help producers improve their bottom line is absolutely essential.
For more information, contact Cattleland at 403-934-4030, or visit www.cattlelandfeedyards.com.