Beef cattle research has been in progress at the University of Illinois’ Dixon Springs Agricultural Center for the past 75 years. I wonder how much data has been generated from this facility over that time period.

I had the opportunity to tour the facility recently as part of the Illinois Beef Association’s Summer Conference. I knew the center encompassed a large area, but now I have a whole new appreciation of the size and scope, as well as the important work in progress by the university researchers.

The center includes 5,000 acres of which most are owned by the U.S. Forest Service. As Frank Ireland, research animal scientist, gave us the tour of the center, he said, “With the grassland, rolling hills and terrain, I can’t think of a better place more suited for beef cattle production.”

I think he hit it on the head. The pastures at Dixon Springs range from 140 acres down to five-acre paddocks. Much of this pasture is tall fescue.

“We check every animal, every day and any treatment or illness is documented,” the researcher said.

Ireland, who joined the U of I staff in 1990, has seen a lot of changes at the center over the years. When he first arrived there, the herd included 130 cows.

This fall, 850 females will calve at the center located in Johnson County. The heifers are due about the middle of August, and the cows will follow around Sept. 1.

Since the females are bred by timed AI, Ireland said, “I’ve got about 540 cows due to calve on Sept. 1.” This provides a great educational opportunity for the U of I students.

“We tag and tattoo all our calves at birth, as well as weigh and vaccinate them,” the scientist explained. “So the students experience what it’s like to go out in the pasture and tag baby calves.”

The cowherd consists of Angus and Angus-Simmental cross females, and many of the animals at the center are involved in two or three trials. Ireland talked about several current research projects during the tour, including the heifers on feed in a barn that had major renovations this past year.

This renovation included the installation of 16 GrowSafe units that have the ability to capture individual feed intake data. Every time a calf sticks its head into the feeder, an antenna captures the calf’s ID tag.

“Data comes in every two seconds,” Ireland noted.

The research trial is looking at feed efficiency associated with high forage-based diets. The ration consists of 50 percent alfalfa and 50 percent cornstalk baleage, and the goal is for the heifers to achieve 1.25 to 1.5 average daily gain.

“The goal is for them to be big enough to breed by Thanksgiving,” the researcher said.

For the heifers, Ireland utilizes EPDs to select light birthweight bulls.

“Out of 850 females, I don’t assist more than two or three of them,” he said.

All the cattle produced at Dixon Springs go into research projects.

“We don’t sell anything until they go to market,” the scientist said. “And then we get carcass data on every calf that goes to slaughter.”

What a neat tour of a well-run, expansive research center. I recommend any beef producer in the southern Illinois area should stop by Dixon Springs and check out the work in progress there. I bet you will learn at least one or two tips that you can utilize at your operation.