May 22, 2024

Billions of data points collected by researchers at Purina farm

Animal Innovation

GRAY SUMMIT, Mo. — As dairymen feed replacements for their herds, the focus should be on developing cows — not raising heifers.

“There is a key difference and the incremental investment it takes to raise a heifer right is minuscule in relationship to the return that mature animal will give you,” said Kevin Dill, director of dairy technical innovation at Purina.

“I’m not saying you should spend to spend, but you have to put the right amount of nutrients in the calf to develop the rumen and grow the calf,” said Dill during Media Day at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center.

“The calf’s genetic expression is capped out mostly by six months and a higher majority by two months and you can’t get it back,” he said.

“You’re not going to save your dairy in a positive cash flow position by saving $50 per ton on calf feed that calves eat for 12 weeks.”

The 300-cow dairy herd is one of numerous species of animals involved in research at the 1,200-acre farm.

The research facility was established in 1926 when William H. Danforth purchased 260 acres for $500.

At the Calf Answer Center, bull calves born on the farm are fed utilizing BioControl boxes so researchers can track individual eating patterns and individual intakes.

“With these plasticized rumens you can see the size of rumens and the difference in the rumen papillae development,” said Kevin Kapelski, national farm production consultant leader at Purina.

“You can see what the feeding programs do — this one is lighter in color and the papillae are much smaller versus this one with full papillae.”

Research shows the feed calves eat impacts cows’ milk production.

“If you feed the AMPLI-CALF program, the cows will produce 2,788 more pounds of milk during the first lactation and 6,588 more pounds of milk over three lactations,” Kapelski said. “The payback is huge and we know why because we can see the differences in the rumens.”

In the Adult Cow Facility, cows are housed in groups and fed with the Calan gate system.

“We have 128 gates which allow us get individual intakes,” Kapelski said. “Every cow has a transponder on her neck and we may be doing two or three treatments per pen.”

The cows are milked three times a day with a Double 5 Bypass parlor.

“The parlor works well for research because they can come in and leave as they please,” Kapleski said. “The cows are in randomized groups and they are weighed three times a day.”

“About a year ago, we went through a free-stall update,” Dill added. “We put in orange fiberglass neck rails which really flex when a cow gets up. We have a tremendous amount of cow comfort in this facility.”

The beef unit at the farm includes a 120-cow herd.

“The beef unit has the most acres on the farm,” said Rod Nulik, customer relations manager at Purina. “The base of the cow herd is black baldies and they are bred with Angus bulls so they are close to 75% Angus.”

The beef barn is divided into 16 pens and researchers can look at four different treatments in each pen.

“We have 128 Calan gates here to measure feed efficiency and average daily gain on an individual basis and we can do four treatments in each pen,” Nulik said.

The Beef Innovation Center was opened in 2014. In this facility, researchers are measuring eating behavior such as when the cattle come to the bunk, how long they are there and how much they eat at each feeding.

“We’re not feeding the cattle. We’re feeding the microbiome,” Nulik said. “We want to affect that to make the rumen more efficient.”

Purina researchers are focused on how to get the most out of land resources.

“We want ranchers to get as much nutrition for cattle out of the resources as they can and to spend the least they need to on supplement feed,” Nulik said. “What you supplement and how you supplement the cattle can optimize how much of the resource you can get through them.”

Cattle graze on 15 fescue pastures on the farm.

“We have an area for our body condition scoring cows to help train sales people to help producers manage their cow herd,” Nulik said.

“The outside feedyard has 12 pens that hold 10 head per pen,” he said. “We weigh the cattle every three weeks and we weigh the feeders to know exactly how much the cattle have eaten.”

In addition to dairy and beef cattle, researchers are evaluating feeds for numerous other species, including pigs, horses, sheep, goats, poultry, rabbits, deer and fish.

“We collect four billion data points annually across all species,” Kapelski said.

“The horse unit includes 60 acres and we utilize different types of horse management including pasture, dry-lot and stalls with runs,” said Gretchen Riley customer relations manager for Purina.

“We have 70 to 80 horses including four cannulated horses which is the largest herd of fistulated horses and we’re adding some more.”

“We have a data set of over 4,000 samples collected from employee and customer horses to build a database of a normal microbiome for a horse,” Riley said. “We are hoping to get some samples from health compromised horses to understand what a non-normal microbiome looks like.”

In the exercise and physiology building, researchers utilize a high-speed treadmill to help them understand in real time how Purina feeds are helping to support horse performance.

“This treadmill was custom-built on site and it is in this room so we can control as many variables like temperature and humidity as possible,” Riley said. “It can incline to a 10% pitch to help us create a working environment for horses.”

A Bluetooth heart monitor is used while a horse is on the treadmill.

“We take a blood sample every 60 seconds as they are moving through their trial,” Riley said. “We evaluate what their blood composition looks like and how it helps to support their performance and activity.”

Once all the researchers collect all the measurements, they can determine how many calories the horse has burned.

“It is a fabulous way for us to evaluate new products or a change in a product,” Riley said.

The backyard chicken research area includes a variety of breeds.

“We developed a technology called Oyster Strong which is a time-released way to introduce calcium to the bloodstream of chickens,” Riley said.

“Chickens deposit the shell of their egg at nighttime, but they’re not eating at that time, so if they don’t have enough calcium flowing through their system, they’ll draw it out of their skeleton,” she said.

“Oyster Strong is a way to provide calcium for shells without any detrimental effects on the skeletal system, so we get a healthy hen and a really strong shell.”

A lot of studies with the New Zealand White rabbits focus on reproduction.

“We have 29 does and nine bucks,” Riley said. “Rabbits have eight cycles per year and we are looking for eight kits per litter.”

The rabbits are in drop nest boxes which mimic how rabbits take care of their babies in the wild.

“When the rabbits are ready to kindle, we give them shavings and all does pull out their belly fur to make a nest for their babies,” Riley said.

An important benefit of having many species of animals involved in research at the Purina center is the ability to share data.

“Since both rabbits and horses are monogastric, hindgut fermenters, we can do some preliminary work with rabbits and take it to the horse level,” Riley said.

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor