The first scientific study in the Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Assn. Metabolism Barn at the University of Saskatchewan's Livestock & Forage Centre of Excellence (LFCE) will identify how different levels of sulfates in water affect beef cattle, according to an announcement from the university.
“A lot of marginal land is used for growing grass and is suitable for raising cattle, but sometimes the only source of water isn’t that great. In some cases, cattle can survive drinking poor-quality water, but they won’t necessarily thrive,” said Colby Elford with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture.
Elford and Leah Clark, both livestock and feed extension specialists based in Moose Jaw, Sask., are leading the sulfate research project that is funded under the new Strategic Field Program through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP), a federal/provincial initiative. The extension specialists contracted University of Saskatchewan associate professor Dr. Greg Penner to conduct the research, the announcement said.
It’s research that would not be possible without LFCE’s new barn and adjacent laboratories, the researchers said.
“We can manipulate the quality of water and measure the quantity of water delivered at an animal level -- something we can’t do in outdoor pens and something we couldn’t do in our previous facility. The design of the stalls prevents animals that are side by side from drinking each other’s water,” said Penner, who is also the university’s Centennial enhancement chair in ruminant nutritional physiology.
However, the LFCE metabolism barn is much more than a barn; it's a living laboratory that is "unique in all of North America," the university said, explaining that within each of the 24 stalls, researchers can precisely measure several factors on an individual animal, including bodyweight as well as feed and water intake. The stalls make collecting blood, fecal and urine samples safer for the animals and those working with the animals.
“We are trying to understand why things happen and how things happen, not just what happens,” Penner said.
The barn is environmentally controlled to provide a high comfort level for the cows, complying with and exceeding guidelines from the Canadian Council on Animal Care, the university said.
With infrared cameras installed in the barn, scientists can study animal behavior in real time during the day and night and in a non-invasive way. They can calculate how much time an animal stands and lies down, how often it changes position as well as the amount of time it spends eating and drinking.
Across the hall from the barn is the sample preparation laboratory, equipped with ample bench space, a fume hood, a centrifuge, water baths and plumbing of carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas lines. These resources will increase the research that can occur using equipment designed to simulate feed digestion, reducing the number of animals needed for studies and making research more cost effective, according to the announcement.
“We will use artificial rumens or rumen fluid within test tubes to digest feed outside the cow to evaluate new feed additives or to better characterize the feed we are providing. By doing screening outside of animals using models that represent parts of the animals, we are able to narrow down the number of treatments, find treatments that could be winners and use fewer animals,” Penner said.
Water quality guidelines
The main goal for the LFCE’s research program is improve livestock and forage practices for producers — and that’s why the sulfate study is so critical, Clark and Elford said.
When cattle drink water with high sulfate levels, those sulfates bind trace minerals in the animals’ rumens, which means those bound minerals can’t be absorbed by the cattle. The consequences can include diarrhea, reduced fertility and milk production, slow growth, a depressed immune system and polioencephalomalacia.
“We have anecdotal evidence regarding water quality. Right now, there isn’t any science to support those recommendations,” Clark said.
The Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, Alberta Agriculture & Forestry and Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada each have slightly different water quality information on their respective websites, the University of Saskatchewan said.
This research project is a "first step" in establishing consistent, science-based recommendations, the university added.
In December, the first 70-day trial began with 16 heifers. Each animal is housed in an individual stall with a separate water bowl. Four groups of four heifers each receive drinking water with varying sulfate levels. One group is a control group that receives water with no sulfates added. The other groups receive water with 1,000, 2,000 or 3,000 mg of sulfates per liter to mimic real levels experienced by Saskatchewan cattle producers.
To determine the effects of water with different sulfate levels, Penner and two graduate students are taking blood samples at the beginning and end of the study. They are weighing the heifers every two weeks, in addition to recording how much water and feed each animal consumes.
The researchers will repeat the study with another 16 heifers starting in March.
The Canadian Agricultural Partnership is contributing $82,900 toward the sulfate research. The Roy Romanow Lab, located in Regina, Sask., is providing in-kind water testing that's estimated to cost $16,200.
Clark and Elford see this project as the first step to improving the well-being of cattle. Once the researchers determine the effects of different levels of sulfates in drinking water, they hope to conduct further research in order to recommend how to properly compensate for elevated sulfate levels in water by providing cattle with mineral supplements, the university said.
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