The newest kid on the block for researchers at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) is a world-class facility that brings together under one roof all aspects of raising livestock in a sustainable and environmentally responsible manner.
The Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence is a $38-million world-class complex of field and science laboratories. The centre operates three distinct research and teaching units. While each focuses on certain aspects of livestock production, they are fully integrated to encourage collaboration between scientists and students from a range of disciplines. Plant, soil and animal scientists from the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, veterinarians with expertise in infectious diseases as well as in animal behaviour from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine and environmental engineers from the College of Engineering are all working on research projects with considerable overlap, breaking down silos to work together.
“This research is so complex, we can no longer research one aspect in isolation. By combining the research, you can be more effective and you are using your dollars more wisely. Ultimately, you are also getting more insight into the answers that you want,” says Kris Ringwall, who began working as the centre’s director on Nov. 1, 2018.
The mandate of the research centre includes providing livestock producers and consumers with solid, research-based information on emerging issues related to beef cattle health, reproduction, nutrition, genetics, and public safety, as well as plant breeding for forage crops, grazing management and the environment.
The Beef Cattle Research and Teaching Unit (BCRTU) and the Forage and Cow-Calf Research and Teaching Unit (FCCRTU) are located across the road from each other and are south of Clavet, SK. Two laboratories and sample preparation areas, equipped with a centrifuge, near-infrared spectroscopy machine, industrial drying ovens and sample grinders, are located at the BCRTU and will be used by researchers at both units.
The beef cattle unit is a 1,500-head feedlot. Animals for the first research projects in the feedlot arrived at the BCRTU in July and August. One study is comparing conventional feedlot practices, including the use of hormone implants and prophylactic antibiotics, with natural practices.
The BCRTU also houses a state-of-the-art metabolism barn.
“While we call it a ‘barn,’ this really is a lab, not a barn,” said Greg Penner, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan and the university’s Centennial Enhancement Chair in Ruminant Nutritional Physiology.
The barn is a living laboratory that’s unique in all of North America. Within each of its 24 stalls, researchers can precisely measure several factors on an individual animal, including body weight as well as feed and water intake. The stalls make collecting blood, fecal and urine samples safer for the animals and those working with the animals.
The individual water system is a critical component for water quality research. The first study in the metabolism barn is focused on identifying how dangerously high levels of sulphates in water affect beef cattle. It’s research that would not be possible without the LFCE’s new barn and adjacent laboratories.
“We can manipulate the quality of water and measure the quantity of water delivered at an animal level, something we can’t do in outdoor pens and something we couldn’t do in our previous facility. And the design of the stalls prevents animals that are side by side from drinking each other’s water,” said Penner.
Across the hall from the barn is the sample preparation laboratory, equipped with ample bench space, a fume hood, a centrifuge, water baths, and plumbing of carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas lines.
Dr. Greg Penner
While this lab isn’t needed for the sulphate study, access to those resources will increase the research that can occur using equipment designed to simulate feed digestion, reducing the number of animals needed for studies and making research more cost effective.
“We will use artificial rumens or rumen fluid within test tubes to digest feed outside the cow to evaluate new feed additives or to better characterize the feed that we are providing. By doing screening outside of animals, using models that represent parts of the animals, we are able to narrow down the number of treatments, find treatments that could be winners, and use fewer animals,” said Penner.
The forage and cow-calf unit will house a herd of 300 breeding females. They are currently located east of Lanigan, SK at the university-owned Termuende Ranch. In addition to outdoor cattle pens, the FCCRTU has a calving barn and a cattle handling area where animals will be weighed regularly and treated as needed.
Both the beef cattle and the cow-calf units include a cattle handling area with hydraulic alley and handling chute, designed to minimize the need for people to move the cattle through the chute. These systems will allow for weighing, examination, sample collection, vaccinations and treatments of animals.
“All research is tied to data. Every year, data on hundreds of animals will be collected using the equipment in these multi-purpose units. That data will then be used to improve cow-calf operations and feedlots in Saskatchewan and beyond,” said Ringwall.
The third unit is the Goodale Research Farm. It will remain at its present location, southeast of Saskatoon, and will be upgraded starting this spring. In addition to 165 breeding females, Goodale houses horses, bison and deer for research.
“The University of Saskatchewan should be proud of this centre. This is a major advancement in the world of international agriculture. It is something that we can toot our horn about,” says Ringwall, who had been the director of the North Dakota State University’s Dickinson Extension Centre since 1992.
Ringwall, who moved from NDSU to take on this new role at the U of S, reports to the deans of both the College of Agriculture and Bioresources and the Western College of Veterinary Medicine.
Funding for the Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence was provided by the University of Saskatchewan, the federal and provincial governments, several organizations, corporations and individuals.