The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is known for conducting important beef industry research, and Simmental genetics are a significant piece of this program. | By Lilly Platts
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has been a leader in beef industry research for many years, and for much of this time, the Simmental breed has played an important role. The research done at UIUC brings together students, education, and the improvement of the greater beef industry. From feed efficiency to improvements in reproductive technology, an overall focus on sustainability guides the UIUC beef program. The system is comprised of three research stations, and with 900 SimAngus™ feedlot cattle, 850 heavily Simmental-influenced commercial females, and 200 registered SimAngus cows, the Simmental breed is an important part of this program.
A Beef Cattle Background
Livestock has been a key part of UIUC since its inception. The University was founded in 1867, and the School of Agriculture followed shortly in 1873. The animal husbandry department was formed in 1901, later becoming the department of animal science in 1947. “From the beginning, the first head of the department, Herbert Mumford, was a livestock person and thought that every species should have someone as a champion for their cause. Beef was definitely one of the strong programs,” explains Dr. Daniel Shike, Professor of Animal Sciences and Faculty Advisor for the UIUC beef herds. Simmental cattle came into the picture in the 1980s. Other Continental breeds had been housed at the University, but with an increased need to study feed efficiency, it was decided to choose one Continental and one British breed to eliminate variation and improve the clarity of research findings. Travis Meteer, UIUC Beef Extension Specialist, explains, “The reason we have utilized Simmental and Simmental-Angus cross cattle is because we feel it is a relevant cross for the industry.”
Shike adds, “A big part of that decision was because of the amount of data and the database that the American Simmental Association was putting together. This has always been a progressive beef cattle operation in terms of using data to make selections.”
The overall goal of the UIUC beef program is to provide producers with the right tools to remain profitable and produce high-quality beef more efficiently. Early and notable research includes the development of estrus synchronization protocols, the first uses of growth promotants, and early weaning research focused on finding the optimal time to wean calves for continued female productivity and animal gain. For many years, UIUC’s Dr. Jon Beever has done extensive research on genetic defects in beef cattle.
UIUC was one of the first to install GrowSafe® systems, and feed intake and efficiency research have been a major focus. The University has partnered with several breed associations, including ASA, on improving the data flow of this information. Some of the first and most significant datasets for feed efficiency utilized by ASA were submitted by UIUC. Shike explains why this effort is important: “We are partnering with breed associations so they can get quality feed intake and efficiency records on large numbers of cattle in a similar management structure. Then they have the data they need to develop EPDs that seedstock producers can use to make their selection decisions.” He continues, “If seedstock producers are selecting more efficient cattle, that means the bulls they are producing are more efficient, and that the commercial cattleman buying bulls from a reputable seedstock producer will hopefully purchase more efficient cattle.”
While research on areas such as feed efficiency has to flow through larger entities like breed associations to be useful, UIUC also conducts research that is directly applicable for producers. For example, cows at the Orr Center are kept in dry lots throughout the winter, which is a typical situation for producers in the midwest. This allows UIUC researchers to experiment with alternative low-cost feedstuffs, track animal performance, and in turn, help producers make their own management decisions. Meteer explains why it is important for the University to put effort into these projects, “Without an unbiased research program, it would be a daunting task for producers to sift through all of the claims out there.”
The driving force behind the larger research projects conducted at UIUC is data collection, submission, and daily management of the cattle. Wesley Chapple is responsible for overseeing, organizing, and submitting data on all Simmental cattle, as well as purebred Angus. His home station is at the Orr Center, which houses the 200 head of registered SimAngus females. UIUC has been a Performance Advocate for several years and has maintained a detail-oriented data collection system, providing valuable data on a variety of traits to ASA. This data is also utilized in selection decisions within the program. Chapple explains, “We often use our own production data to select females and replacement bulls. We’re not limited to the normal set of data. We have the ability to select potential replacements based on their individual dam’s or maternal granddam’s feed intake records.”
The Orr Center is responsible for producing clean-up bulls and replacement heifers for the whole beef program. Selection of these replacements is based on a balance of traits. All females are bred AI through Select Sires’ young sire program, and at random for research purposes, so an overall balance is critical to maintain. “We take into consideration all EPDs. We try to keep everything balanced — for example, we won’t sacrifice growth for carcass or maternal traits,” says Chapple.
(Photo: A beef facility has been a part of the UIUC campus for many years, however, a new facility with greater research capacity was built in 2004.)
Value in Variation
The UIUC has three beef cattle research stations across the state, allowing for a variety of research to be conducted. The Orr Beef Research Center is located two and a half hours west of Champaign in west-central Illinois near John Wood Community College. “We have a unique opportunity being located close to the community college. We use this research station, in collaboration with all of the things we are doing, as a tool to extend through the community college as well,” Chapple explains.
Near the UIUC campus, the Urbana Beef and Sheep Field Laboratory houses 170 purebred Angus cows and 900 SimAngus feedlot cattle. The University was an early champion of GrowSafe systems and utilizes 120 of the bunks to collect valuable feed intake data. The on-campus facility also offers students a variety of opportunities for working with cattle and conducting research. The Dixon Springs Agricultural Center (DSAC), is home to 850 commercial cows in southern Illinois. The commercial cow herd is mostly comprised of SimAngus females. Progeny are primarily sent to the campus feedlot facility for research, where data such as feed intake and carcass performance are submitted to the ASA.
Education and Outreach
Throughout the UIUC Beef Program system, there are a variety of opportunities for students. At the Orr Center, Chapple instructs an Applied Beef Skills class. Similarly, on campus, students can take classes at the farm focused on animal husbandry, cattle handling, reproduction, and much more. Undergraduate and graduate students have the opportunity to conduct research, and with the diverse stations throughout the state, the options are numerous. Meteer and Shike interact with undergraduate and graduate students through a variety of classes and research projects.
The combination of research, education, and outreach make the UIUC Beef Cattle Program a pivotal part of the greater beef industry. “Farmers just feel really confident in the information coming from the University, and that it’s accurate, reliable, and unbiased,” explains Meteer.
Shike adds, “Our goal is to improve the industry. If we do work that improves the profitability and sustainability of our beef cattle operations, then that is going to keep producers in business.” He concludes, “The kind of research I want to be involved in contributes to the greater good and improving the sustainability of beef cattle production.”