It´s as true for livestock as it is for humans -- what animals eat has a big impact on their health and performance. That´s why researchers at K-State´s Southeast Agricultural Research Center are working to find the best forages for cattle that can be grown in that part of the state.
"We´re a little different here - our agriculture is more like what you´d see in the southeastern U.S. than like the rest of Kansas," said Lyle Lomas, who is an animal scientist and head of the research center. He cited the area´s shallow claypan soils, a longer growing season and higher average precipitation totals than the rest of the state. Because of those differences, the center´s forage research focuses on introduced forages rather than the native forages that grow in much of the rest of the state.
Given the value of Kansas´ cattle industry to the state´s economy, coupled with the challenges facing the beef industry including high input prices, Lomas believes that now more than ever, it is important for the center´s researchers to help producers find ways to raise beef as efficiently as possible.
"The Southeast Agricultural Research Center has the only KSU grazing research program dedicated exclusively to introduced forage species," he said. "Native grasses predominate in other parts of the state and at other K-State research locations."
Some of the species studied at the center include tall fescue, bermudagrass, smooth bromegrass, and crabgrass.
"Our grazing work can be divided into two major categories," Lomas said. "One is the supplementation of grazing livestock and the other is evaluating forage systems with different varieties or species of forages - the quality and quantity - that grow well in this part of the state."
One recent project on which Lomas and forage agronomist Joe Moyer collaborated, involved supplementing grazing stocker cattle with distillers grains - a byproduct of the ethanol industry. The team is trying to determine how a distillers grain supplement affects grazing, as well as finishing performance.
One study conducted in 2005-2007 using steers grazing smooth bromegrass pastures and another in 2006-2007 with steers grazing bermudagrass showed that steers supplemented with dried distiller´s grains (DDG) at the rate of 0.5 percent or 1.0 percent of body weight had significantly higher grazing gains and gain per acre than when steers were fed no supplement. Feeding DDGs at that level had no effect on forage availability during 2005 or 2006, but in 2007, overall forage availability was higher on bromegrass pastures where the steers were supplemented with 0.5 percent or 1.0 percent DDG.
"Because pastures were assigned to the same supplementation treatment during each year of the study, it is possible that the effect of supplementation on forage availability was cumulative and not detected in bromegrass pastures until after the third year of grazing," Lomas said.
In addition to the Parson site, which includes 450 acres, the research center has another 400 acres near Mound Valley, Kan., where cattle from grazing studies are finished. Once the cattle reach market weight, they are slaughtered and the carcasses are evaluated.
"Most of our grazing studies utilizing stocker cattle are followed by a feedlot phase to determine the effect of grazing treatment on subsequent finishing performance and overall profitability," Lomas said.
Other projects the team is involved in include comparing grazing and subsequent finishing performance of stocker cattle grazing non-erogot alkaloid tall fescue, Midland 99 bermudagrass and wheat double-crop system, and Red River crabgrass and wheat double-crop system.
The researchers are also evaluating the effect of interseeding of legumes in bermudagrass pastures on beef cow performance.
"Fescue is both a blessing and a curse in southeast Kansas," Lomas said. "It can be easily grown, but cattle don´t perform as well on it as some other forages if it contains the endophyte."
The endophyte refers to a fungus within the grass that affects grazing animals and the grass itself.
One of the challenges faced by cattle producers in southeast Kansas is the gap between when cool season grasses and warm season grasses peak, in terms of nutrient quality, Moyer said.
"We´ve been studying crabgrass to fill that gap. We´ve been a little surprised at how well cattle perform on crabgrass," he said.
Forage crabgrass is the same species, but a different cultivar as the type that plagues homeowners´ lawns, he said.
Information gleaned from the research findings is passed along to producers and others through county agricultural extension agents, as well as field day presentations, publications and newspaper articles.
"The research conducted at the SEARC is crucial to my success as an extension specialist in aiding producers in southeastern Kansas," said Karl Harborth, Southeast Area livestock specialist with K-State Research and Extension. "For example, if a producer has a question on which particular variety of a grass he should plant, I can use data generated locally at the SEARC to help make these educated decisions.
Without this local data, I would have to make decisions based on assumptions of the variety in question. This variety may not perform the same in southeast Kansas as it would in other locations and that could ultimately cost the producer time and money."
In addition, the K-State Southeast Agricultural Research Field hosts the Beef Cattle and Forage Field Day at the Mound Valley site every year on the first Thursday of May. That event is planned for May 7 this year. Other events are also held at the center during the year.
"Forage is probably the most underappreciated crop we have in Kansas," Lomas said. "A lot of universities don´t do applied grazing research anymore because of limited opportunities for extramural funding. Producers know it´s important but there´s no `product´ produced - it all goes through the animal. Plus there´s no commodity group working to make sure that research in this area is supported," he said.
Information about the center´s research, events and staff is available on its Southeast Agricultural Research Center Web site.