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Agricultural Research Service

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A System to Get Cows FIT

By Amy Spillman
April 18, 2002

Just how good is that grass? Farmers in the future may be able to more accurately answer that question when it comes to feeding their livestock, thanks to a Feed Information Technology (FIT) expert system now being developed by Agricultural Research Service scientists in Madison, Wis.

The information provided by the FIT system could help farmers boost their herds' productivity by fine-tuning animal rations. It could also benefit the environment by reducing excess nutrients in animal manure.

Many variables affect the nutritional value of forage, including the crop’s maturity at the time of cutting, how it’s preserved and how it’s processed. The FIT expert system combines laboratory data about the chemical composition of forage with information provided by the user, such as the forage’s growing environment and its harvesting, processing and storage conditions.

Dairy scientist David Mertens and agricultural engineer Richard Muck, both at ARS’ U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center in Madison, have developed equations that describe how most of these variables affect a crop’s nutritive value. However, the relationship between a crop’s growing environment and the environment’s effects on plant chemistry and animal absorption of plant nutrients is poorly understood.

For years, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. has collected extensive nutritional and yield information on corn silage hybrids grown throughout the world. Under a cooperative research and development agreement with ARS, Pioneer scientist Donald Sapienza is providing ARS scientists with a five-year data set on several corn hybrids that were grown on multiple sites throughout the United States. ARS, in turn, is working with the Department of Soil Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to gather the daily weather and soil conditions for each site.

By integrating the information in these two databases, the researchers, led by Mertens, will be able to identify, define and evaluate relationships between a plant’s growing conditions and its nutritive value. They will then incorporate this information into the FIT expert system.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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