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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Healthy Animals Newsletter

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Issue 12, September 2002
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Improving Livestock Diet and Nutrition

According to the old song, mares eat oats, and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy. But what do cows and goats eat? Would they rather eat something else? And how would it affect their health and production?

The availability of forage throughout the year, from crops grazed on rangelands and pastures or harvested as hay and silage, ensures livestock nutritional requirements are met. A well-fed, well-nourished animal is a healthy and productive animal.

The U.S. livestock industry contributes more than $60 billion in farm sales every year to the economy. Forage-based livestock production ensures that forage is available and of ample quality to meet the nutritional requirements of farm animals. Producers need dependable resources and management practices that benefit livestock health.

An ARS national program, Rangeland, Pastures and Forages, is concerned with the sustained and productive use of our nation's natural resources. The program focuses on plant resources, forage management, grazing management and how it affects livestock production and the environment, as well as management of weeds and other pests. Resulting technologies and management strategies help maintain our rangelands and pastures.

A related national program, Food Animal Production, wants to improve growth and reproduction in livestock and poultry, while also maximizing production efficiency. Part of its mission is to examine how animals absorb and use nutrients. In order to improve animal nutrition, the program directs research in the chemical composition and availability of nutrients in feedstuffs. Researchers are exploring ways to achieve more efficient use of nutrients while also minimizing non-productive nutrient losses. They are determining the nutritional requirements of grazing and non-grazing animals, with special attention on functions such as reproduction, growth and lactation.

Across the country, ARS laboratories under the direction of these national programs are finding solutions to problems affecting the health and performance of livestock.

For example, researchers at the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center in Madison, Wis., want to improve digestibility and nutrition in forage crops such as alfalfa and corn silage by modifying their cell walls so animals can extract more nutrients from the crops. Studies there found red clover might be better silage in than alfalfa in the Midwest. Cows eat less red clover silage but produce the same amount of milk, and less nitrogen is excreted as waste.

Researchers in Madison are developing an expert system using equations that describe how variables affect the nutritional value of forage, including the crop's growing environment, maturity at harvest time, how it's preserved and how it's processed. The Feed Information Technology (FIT) expert system combines data about the chemical composition of forage with information from the user to help better understand just how nutritious the forage is.

ARS researchers also are addressing specific animal health problems that producers often encounter.

Researchers at the Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory in Miles City, Mont., have found that if heifers are fed to maximize their growth from weaning to breeding, their skeletons and pelvises will be large enough to deliver their first calves more easily. Earlier, the Miles City researchers found that proper dietary levels of fat may help calves withstand cold temperatures.

Henry F. Mayland of the Northwest Irrigation and Soils Research Laboratory in Kimberly, Idaho, and colleagues bred a hardy, new tall fescue grass, "HiMag," to help protect cattle, sheep and goats from an affliction known as grass tetany. HiMag is unusually high in magnesium, so it should protect against a deficiency of this mineral in grazing animals' blood. Taste tests showed that the animals found the grass to be very palatable.

Mayland and other researchers also analyzed tall fescue grasses to see what chemical and physical properties grazing animals preferred. In another study, Mayland and colleagues found that cattle, sheep and goats favored hays harvested in the afternoon. Shifting the mowing of alfalfa hay from morning to late afternoon increased the animals' preference for the plant. The same results held up in grazing studies. Increased sugars in afternoon forage could explain the increased number of bites counted in afternoon grazing versus morning grazing.

These are just a few of the projects in these national programs addressing livestock diets and nutrition. For more information, visit the Web sites describing the Rangeland, Pastures and Forages or Food Animal Production national programs.

Or contact the following researchers:

Neal P. Martin, Madison, Wis.
Rod Heitschmidt, Miles City, Mont.
Henry F. Mayland, Kimberly, Idaho

Research Briefs

Agriculture officials from the United States and Mexico recently commemorated the 30th anniversary of a joint commission to eradicate the screwworm.

Although it's been almost 60 years since the United States rid itself of a tick that transmits bovine babesiosis, the tick can still be found on cattle in Mexico. ARS researchers have identified ways ticks can become resistant to pesticides used in Mexico, and they found a way to spot resistance more quickly.
Felix D. Guerrero
(830) 792-0327
John H. Pruett
(830) 792-0385

ARS scientists and their cooperators found improved performance, heat tolerance and reduced mortality in chicks kept in higher than normal temperatures for the first thee days after hatching.
John McMurty
(301) 504-8803

ARS researchers are using Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technology to track cattle. Managers want to disperse cattle more effectively on their pastures and this technology can one day help them better predict where cattle will roam and forage.
Dave Ganskopp
(541) 573-8922

The Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory recently broke ground on an expansion of its main complex. The ARS facility in Miles City, Mont., focuses on beef cattle genetics and reproductive physiology, range animal nutrition and range ecology and management.
Rod Heitschmidt
(406) 232-8200

ARS researchers recently found that the legume pigeonpea could help fill a gap in the year round availability of nutritious forages for livestock producers.
Strinivas C. Rao
(405) 262-5291

A protein could be used to treat or prevent bacterial infections that cause mastitis in dairy cows. ARS researchers cloned the gene that produces the protein and recently filed for a patent on it.
Dante Zarlenga
(301) 504-8754

An automated feeding system developed in Europe eliminates the need for crating sows during pregnancy. An ARS-funded project is testing the system in the United States.
Julie Morrow-Tesch
(806) 742-4214

ARS researchers are joining cooperators in testing roundworms to fight pesky flies. The research will aid cattle producers in finding reliable alternatives to chemical insecticides, which must often be reapplied as fly populations rebound or migrate from other sites.
David Taylor
(402) 437-5267

Malignant catarrhal fever (MCF) is caused by a group of viruses and can be harmful to bison and cattle. ARS researchers and colleagues have developed tests to help researchers and veterinarians detect and identify the disease transmitted by domestic sheep.
Hong Li
(509) 335-6002

The same amounts of bacteria and other potentially harmful microbes are found on chickens bred to be featherless as are found on the skin surfaces of feathered chickens, according to ARS researchers.
Jeffrey Buhr
(706) 546-3339

A newly released catfish line consumes 10 percent more feed and grows 10 percent faster than channel catfish now in production.
William Wolters
(662) 686-3597


David L. Suarez, Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory, received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) for research on how chickens and turkeys contract avian influenza and for his contribution to several new types of vaccines.

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Last Modified: 2/6/2007
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