On-Farm Research With Livestock
|Since 1986, Iowa farmer Dick Thompson has demonstrated his innovative on-farm research to close to 9,000 people during farm tours. “The new ideas we share come by inspiration and perspiration,” Thompson says. |
– Photo by Jerry DeWitt
On-farm research with livestock poses different challenges from conducting research with cropping systems. While sometimes difficult to execute, conducting research on livestock systems can yield substantial rewards if properly carried out.
“I can lay out plots for crop trials: zip, zip, zip, but livestock work is certainly challenging,” said Dick Thompson, a diversified farmer from Boone, Iowa, who has conducted on-farm research for 40 years. Yet, “I have learned a lot about my livestock (beef cattle and swine) and my farm by doing the research.”
Tom Frantzen, a diversified hog farmer near New Hampton, Iowa, uses on-farm research to evaluate new methods to produce pork and beef organically. “If you believe in it, if you have the commitment and if you have the facilities, on-farm livestock research will work for you,” he said, “With electric fence and temporary water lines, it is much easier to set up pasture trials.”
There are several types of on-farm livestock research.
Animal-to-animal comparisons are the simplest and easiest studies to conduct because you can manage all of the animals in the same pen or group. The trial has multiple replications because every animal is a replication. Running tests with individual animals works well when the treatment can be administered individually, thus each animal is an “experimental unit.”
For example, if you want to evaluate implants in beef steers, you would give one-third of the steers implant A, one-third implant B and no implant to the remaining third. The last group would be your “control” – or test group that you leave untreated. Just as in crop research, be sure to apply the treatments randomly.
In this scenario, you should manage all steers together in one pen. Each steer would be weighed at implanting, a few times on a regular schedule, and then at the end of the trial 60 days later. This trial would enable you to compare, 1) implant A to implant B, and 2) implants to no implants. The cost of the implant could be compared to the improvement in weight gain.
Many times, animals cannot be treated individually, such as a trial when all the animals are fed from one feeder. In this case, you would designate the pen of animals the “experimental unit” and use several pens of animals to achieve replication. Your housing or the size of your herd may be limiting factors for pen-to-pen studies.
Livestock are important on Thompson’s farm. The cattle and hogs complete the nutrient cycle by consuming the grain and forage and returning manure to the land to improve soil tilth and crops. To learn whether feeding oats to piglets could offset the stress of weaning, Thompson conducted several feeding trials.
Using a pen-to-pen comparison, he divided a group of nursery pigs randomly between the pens. He fed one pen a diet with oats and the other pen a diet without oats. He compared pig weight gain, feed efficiency, sickness incidence and mortality. He repeated the trial several times until he decided that using a partial oat diet was right for his operation.
The experiment compared complete pens, with all pigs in each pen receiving the same diet. “Weaning is a stressful time” for piglets, Thompson said. “The oats really help combat that stress.”
|Comparing two systems under a SARE grant, paul Klamm found he could earn $15.80 more per acre planting summer annuals such as oats and barley and grazing cattle than raising wheat. |
Photo by Ken Schneider
Seasons affect animal performance. Some trials are set up to examine the seasonal effect of a certain treatment. These trials are often repeated over several years. Each year of such long-term studies becomes a replicate.
Tips for on-farm livestock researchers:
Have good reliable scales for livestock, feed, forage, etc. Check them often with something of known weight.
Use several pens or paddocks of the same size for side-by-side, pen-to-pen comparisons.
Use two or more feed storage bins for feeding trials, if you are using different diets.
Allot or assign animals to the treatments carefully. The pens need to be as much alike as possible, with equal numbers of heifers and steers grouped together in one pen or both larger and smaller animals included in each pen.
Weigh animals. Cattle, especially, can have varying amounts of feed and water, or fill, in their digestive tracts. The rumen in a mature cow’s stomach can hold 42 gallons, or 350 pounds. Weigh the cattle in the morning before they are fed, under the same conditions. If the cattle are on pasture, they should be penned in a dry lot the night before weighing.
Animals unexpectedly die during experiments. Record the date, cause of death and weight of the dead animal as soon as it is discovered. These records are helpful in accounting for the feed and gain of the dead animal.
Use a team approach. Feed suppliers, veterinarians, extension or university staff and electric fence suppliers make great team members. Link with other livestock producers with similar interests.
Think about what you are measuring. Animal growth or weight gain, feed intake, days on feed and milk production are common measurable livestock outputs.
Write it down! “I carry a little notebook with me at all times,” Thompson said. “I keep my notes and go back to them year after year.” Observations may be as important as actual data.
Start small and keep it simple. Don’t design elaborate comparisons, particularly at first.
Use available technology. ATVs, cell phones, ear tags, electric fence, freeze branding and plastic water pipe make many studies possible.
Data Analysis and Interpretation
Analyzing research data involves the use of statistics. Statistics allow you to determine whether the apparent difference between treatments occurred because of the experiment or because of chance variability. Many computer spreadsheet programs conduct statistical tests.
If an on-farm research experiment involves more than two treatments, analysis of the data becomes somewhat more complex. But don’t let that scare you. With help, any farmer can use the more complex designs to conduct scientifically valid and practical research. Seek assistance when designing your project, and again for data analysis. If you do not have access to research professionals locally, see “Resources”.
“If not done properly, on-farm research can generate inaccurate and misleading information,” said Rick Exner, a farming systems specialist with Practical Farmers of Iowa, a group supporting Iowa farmers who want to carry out their own research. “Done properly, research will lead to the most promising ways to reduce costs and improve farm stewardship.”