This story also appears in our University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Agricultural Research Center Magazine. Stop by your local Research Center to pick up a copy! You can view the magazine online by clicking here: Road to Discovery.
Among the 1,200 acres at the Wurdack Research Center is nearly 300 acres of pasture ground. Cattle utilize the majority of that pasture, rotating throughout the land for grazing purposes.
Wurdack is home to between 80 and 110 cows each year. Like other farms, good animal husbandry is key to the operation at the Center.
“As one of the University of Missouri’s Agricultural Research Centers, our main focus is on helping producers through research efforts,” said Dusty Walter, superintendent of the Wurdack Research Center. “Some individuals may not see what we’re doing as realistic farming. All of our operating budget, however, is a result of calf sales. Like any working farm, we rely on our cattle to be productive. While our herd is also used in research projects, the reality is that we have to pay the bills. Our operating dollars come from our cattle.”
Good animal husbandry is having an understanding of what the animal needs on a day-to-day basis. For the cattle at Wurdack, that means finding ways to reduce stress, such as good forage, easily accessible and clean water, and shade.
“All of this begins with a familiarity with the herd,” Walter said. “Our cows are extremely important for our farm – so it’s critical that we have an understanding of what they’re going through each day. We then manage them and their movement accordingly.”
Brent Booker serves as the farm manager at the Wurdack Research Center and has a deep understanding of what the cattle at the Center need. Booker interacts with the herd daily.
“We’re extremely fortunate to have Brent at Wurdack,” Walter said. “If there is something a little off with just one heifer, Brent is on it.”
Booker’s devotion to the Wurdack Research Center herd has paid dividends throughout his time at the Center. He notices small differences in the cattle, such as them favoring a leg or moving slowly.
That eye for detail came into play recently when Booker noticed several heifers in the herd weren’t acting normally. One day they were limping on one leg, the next day another leg was bothering them. Booker also noted that the heifers seemed to have stiff joints and were moving a little more slowly than normal.
“The symptoms were quite odd, and the problem was that the symptoms fit a ton of illnesses,” Walter said.
Walter and Booker decided to do blood work on the cattle to see what they were looking at.
“Two things really jumped out at us – a good portion of the cattle tested positive for Lyme disease and anaplasmosis,” Walter said. “Both are tick-borne disease. Now, there is still some interpretation on these results. We have to do more testing to verify that this is the actual problem.”
Walter plans to have the ear tissue tested in the cattle that tested positive for Lyme disease. The tissue test will give a better picture of what exactly is going on.
“We’ve talked with several researchers who have questioned the results,” Walter said. “It is a little shocking to see results like that, honestly. That’s why we want to be as thorough as we can be. This is something that we’ll keep an eye on and see how it plays out. We don’t overmedicate our herd, so when we see them acting differently we want to nail down the exact problem or disease.”
Wurdack has practiced rotational grazing since the early 1980s. They make sure to keep fresh forages in front of the herd. Booker makes sure the forage is extremely high quality as well. Cutting hay at the Center at the perfect time is also important. That hay is fed to the herd during the winter months. Cutting and storage is key so that the hay is fresh, which helps maintain herd health and performance.
“Moving the herd to fresh pastures maximizes the utilization of the forage and the nutrition of the forage,” Walter said. “Rotating the cattle also gives them a fresh food source. Healthy forages are important to healthy cattle.”
Clean water sources are also vital for a healthy herd. Not only is that water important for hydration purposes, but when cattle want to cool off they oftentimes take a dip in a nearby lake or pond.
The rest of the acreage at the Wurdack Research Center is made up of timber. Walter is using some of the cover to provide shade for the cattle.
“We’re obviously not going to put cattle across the entire timber ground,” Walter said. “There are certain areas that we’ll try to manage to provide shade during the summer months when it’s incredibly hot outside.”
Stress reduction is an important part of the animal husbandry equation. Less stress is going to relax the cattle and make them more productive.
“We want our pregnancies as stress free as possible in order to deliver a healthy calf,” Walter said. “We then want that calf to put on weight. If the stress level is low, there is a high chance that the pregnancy and calf weight gain will go well.
“Cattle are just like us when we’re stressed – we’re not at our best and not as productive. We appreciate it when we’re not stressed.”
The Wurdack Research Center has taken Temple Grandin’s advice when it comes to animal husbandry. Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, stresses the importance of alleviating anxiety in the herd.
“We have to recognize the needs and create a good environment for our cattle,” Walter said. “We have to stay aware of how our cows act – and address any issues that arise. The environment, genetics and animal husbandry all have a role to play in creating and maintaining a productive herd.”