*Krissa Welshans holds a bachelor's degree in animal science from Michigan State University and a master's degree in public policy from New England College. Welshans has long been involved in agriculture and has worked with numerous agricultural groups, including the Animal Agriculture Alliance.
NEW wiring and computer network upgrades at a University of Illinois research facility located more than 200 miles south of the main campus are allowing 24-hour video access to the cattle housed at one of the country's largest beef research centers.
The video cameras, newly installed in the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center (DSAC) cattle barn, will give University of Illinois faculty, researchers, students on campus and others beyond campus the next best experience to being on site to observe procedures such as calving or vaccinations being administered -- all in real time.
"The cameras are a big piece of the whole picture," Frank Ireland, University of Illinois animal science researcher and superintendent of the research facility, said. "The DSAC animal science program, particularly beef cattle research, is one of the largest in the country because of the available acreage of land here. There's a need for it because fewer and fewer places have the number of cattle that we do."
Ireland pointed out that a recent report out of Texas A&M University noted that most land-grant universities had reduced the number of beef cattle for research at their facilities during the last five years.
"If that is true, it leaves (Illinois) as one of the few land-grant universities that has not reduced its numbers because we have Dixon Springs as a resource," he said.
There are currently 1,400-1,500 head of cattle in the University of Illinois system, with 850-900 of those cows at DSAC. The center spans 5,000 total acres, facilitating research in animal science, agronomy and natural resources and environmental sciences.
"This allows us the opportunity to do research that other universities can't," Ireland said. "From a size and scope perspective, what we can do in a one-year research trial with 900 cows could take other facilities four years to complete using the same number of animals, which has really lent itself for (us) to be a leader in beef cattle research."
Looking beyond the opportunities for University of Illinois research, Ireland said the vision is to allow not only Illinois researchers, students and veterinarians access to the broadcasts from the cattle barn but to give access to other universities and programs.
"Some colleges have teaching facilities with no live animals, and livestock judging is often done online using pictures," Ireland said.
He also noted applications such as using the cameras to help in discussing and diagnosing illness or injuries in the cattle with off-site veterinarians as a benefit of the cameras.
"Instead of me placing a phone call and describing what is happening with the cow, I can give the veterinarian the IP address, and we could both be viewing the animal at the same time," he said.
Engineering and installation of new network infrastructure at DSAC has allowed the center to move to a high-speed internet connection that now enables connectivity among the center's 10 buildings, as well as the capability to broadcast video via the internet from the facility. The network upgrade now provides upload and download speeds of 100 megabytes per second at the facility.
In addition to expanded wireless internet and the ability to broadcast real-time video, the upgrades will assist in tracking data that are part of the university's GrowSafe program used to collect feed intake data for each animal.
For now, three network-based cameras have been installed in the barn, positioned to capture different angles of the chutes and other areas of the barn. From a remote computer, the user can control the angle and zoom of the camera. For example, Ireland pointed out that when cows are calving in the stalls, the camera can be zoomed in on the cow to see if she is lying down, drinking or breathing rapidly.
"There are vet students who graduate from vet school and never see a calf born," Ireland said. "These students will be going out in May and starting in a practice with cattle producers. They may have to assist in difficult deliveries, but they have never seen a calf born. Now, we can put cows who are calving in the chutes and broadcast that to a classroom of 130 vet students."
During a recent research trial on behavior involving measuring bulls' reactions to being electro-ejaculated, Ireland said the cameras could have allowed students to observe from their on-campus classroom and logged and recorded movement of the bulls during the process, without having to go down to the research center.
"This has applications for research," he explained.
"Students could watch us take blood samples from 50 or 100 cows to see how we go about it, how to halter and position heads to get to the jugular vein, etc.," Ireland said. "A still photo doesn't show them that. There are a lot of tremendous educational opportunities here for university students or the public."
In addition to the cattle barn, all of the facilities at the research center, such as the crop sciences greenhouse and the Illinois Forest Resource Center, have also been wired for the capability to install and use cameras for distance learning.
October is a traditional weaning and culling time for spring-calving herds. Oklahoma State University extension cattle reproduction specialist Glenn Selk said this is a time when producers decide which cows are no longer helpful to the operation and which heifer calves will be kept for future replacements.
According to Selk, selecting against ill-tempered cattle has always made good sense, because wild cattle are hard on equipment, people, other cattle and the bottom line.
In 2006, Mississippi State University researchers conducted research using a total of 210 feeder cattle consigned by 19 producers in a "Farm to Feedlot" program to evaluate the effect of temperament on performance, carcass characteristics and net profit. Temperament was scored on a one to five scale, where a score of one equaled nonaggressive and docile and five meant very aggressive and excitable. Three measurements were used: pen score, chute score and exit velocity.
Measurements were taken on the day of shipment to the feedlot. Exit velocity is an evaluation of temperament that is made electronically by measuring the speed at which the animal leaves the confinement of the chute. Exit velocity and pen scores were highly correlated. As pen scores increased, so did exit velocity. As pen score and exit velocity increased, health treatments costs and number of days treated increased, while average daily gain and final bodyweight decreased.
For Selk, the outcome makes perfect sense. Other studies have shown that excitable temperament can diminish immune responsiveness, with more temperamental calves having a reduced response to vaccination when compared with calm calves.
In the Mississippi study, as pen temperament score increased, net profit per head tended to decline. Pen temperament scores and net profits per head were as follows:
* 1 = $121.89;
* 2 = $100.98;
* 3 = $107.18;
* 4 = $83.75, and
* 5 = $80.81.
Selk said while feed and cattle price relationships have changed since the data were collected in 2006, similar impacts would be expected from the temperaments of cattle under today's economic situation.
A ranch family in Okmulgee, Okla., recently lost $100,000 worth of purebred cattle after several head of cattle were stolen during a two-week time period.
In the largest theft that has happened in Langford Herefords' 75 years, eight cows, nine calves and two bulls — as well as years of genetic planning — were stolen, leaving the family devastated.
Special ranger Bart Perrier said nearly 100 cattle thefts happen in Oklahoma each year, but this one is different.
"The cattle are very unique," Perrier told Oklahoma's Channel 6. "Anytime you get into embryo transplanted livestock, the genetics are unique and special, and they're a little bit more distinctive."
Each animal has the ranch's brand, and the ears are also tattooed. Investigators won't release how the cattle were stolen, but two of the family's best bulls were in the bunch.
There is a $10,000 reward for anyone who has information that would lead to an arrest, and individuals with information are asked to call (800) 242-7820.