GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. – It may have been the wrong day to visit the University of Minnesota beef cows in Itasca County.
It was too nice to really show how difficult weather conditions were for the cattle through the last seven months.
On this beautiful 70 degree day in May, about 175 head of Black Angus cows with calves grazed quietly on young grasses. Pine forests surrounded the North Central Research and Outreach Center (NCROC) where the cows are kept.
It was the kind of day where tourists flocked north to visit the Headwaters of the Mississippi River – not like most days when strong winds and torrential spring rain pummeled the herd.
This past winter, there was so much cold and snow that even hardy northern Minnesotans complained. From Dec. 28-March 7, 2019, Grand Rapids nighttime temps reached below 0 F at least 44 out of 69 days. Windchills were minus 60 degrees for a week.
Yet here, in mid-May, were the U of M cows – with an average body condition score of 6-7 out of 10 – peacefully grazing in growing grasses.
“You can see most of them are in really good shape. That’s a testament to our good crew at the center. They did a good job feeding them this winter,” said Eric Mousel, University of Minnesota Beef Team Extension associate professor.
“There’s not too many cows in this part of the country that are a little overly fat,” he explained. “A lot of them are pretty thin, which worries me a bit for preg rates.”
Mousel works primarily out of NCROC and also farms/ranches about 20 miles south of the Research and Outreach Center.
His primary responsibility is to apply beef research to the harsh real world conditions of northern Minnesota – where temperatures are sometimes colder than in Canada. If cows can thrive here, they can do fine anywhere in Minnesota and beyond.
“One of the things I’ve figured out is there aren’t too many grasses that can handle the cold up here,” he said, adding that the acidic soils of Minnesota’s forest lands also make it difficult to grow much of anything unless lime is added to the soil.
The center includes about 220 acres of permanent pasture located between its headquarters on Highway 169 and its South Farm located about 15 minutes to the south.
“Most of it is Quackgrass, Kentucky Bluegrass and there might be a little bit of Orchardgrass,” he said. “Those are the three grasses we can’t seem to kill.
“We certainly could come tear these up and reseed them. But the fact is this is the pastures up in this country, most of them are going to have this in it.”
Mousel is interested in breeding Quackgrass that is less coarse and has wider leaves. It’s an important goal he hopes to accomplish.
Another exciting project is the development of a multiyear perennial ryegrass by Nancy Jo Ehlke, from the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota. In May, Ehlke’s ryegrass paddocks were growing tall. More applied research results will be coming soon from these trials.
University of Minnesota Angus program
The NCROC has had cattle since it opened in 1896, but the main U of M beef herd moved from the Rosemount Research and Outreach Center to Grand Rapids in the late 1980s. The site is managed by Dan Braaten, NCROC operations manager and agronomist. There are three fulltime employees that work with the cattle, two or three part-time employees that work with cattle and crop/feed production, and grad students/undergraduates involved.
In addition, Alfredo DiCostanzo, University of Minnesota professor in Beef Cattle Nutrition and Management, works with the program, as does Megan Webb, University of Minnesota assistant professor and Beef Extension specialist.
The Grand Rapids-based U of M herd spent only a few days indoors this winter – during calving. They were fed corn silage through the winter, but the majority of the time, the cow herd is rotationally grazed.
Two and three-year-old females calve at the NCROC headquarters where staff can keep a close eye on them.
“The three-year-olds will be rotated into the mature herd on the South Farm and they won’t come back,” Mousel said. “The replacement first-calf heifers will come back up here in the fall once they are bred, and they will calve up here one more year before they go back to the South Farm.”
In recent years, staff members converted a storage room into a four-pen calving barn with swinging gates and a headlock if needed for difficult births.
“This has probably done more for us to keep calves alive than anything else we’ve done here on the center,” he said. The design has also kept staff safe, especially when working at night.
In 2017-18, half of the calf crop stayed in Grand Rapids for a research project where they grazed on cover crops and grass and were then finished in the NCROC feed lot. The finished cattle were harvested at the beef plant in Aberdeen, S.D.
The other half of the calves were trucked to Rosemount and put in a research project with DiCostanzo.
At the South Farm, there are 128 acres of paddocks each about 7.5 acres.
Mousel mentioned a study he conducted a few years back when he was looking for something to feed the cows during one winter. They seeded some paddocks with millet and allowed it to grow through the fall.
“Something that would stick up through the snow and the leaves wouldn’t fall off like corn or fall down like sorghum,” he said.
Despite 42 inches of snow over three months, the cows grazed on the millet from Nov. 1 to Feb. 1 for a measly cost of just $9 per cow per month.
“They were so fat that it was just unbelievable,” Mousel said. “So that was a fun deal.”
Fun and profitable is how the University of Minnesota Beef Team likes to make beef production – so producers keep raising beef cattle. The team reports on their findings through private consultations, meetings, articles, published academic journals, social media and much more.
“One of the things we’ve really wanted to focus on is what is the feed efficiency of the herd, and how is that translated through our genetic program,” he said. “Genomics is going to be the future of what we do in the beef industry and up here at the Grand Rapids center.”
With many institutions conducting basic research, it’s up to places like the NCROC to conduct applied research – what happens when research is put to the test in a real life setting.
It is with this information that beef, ruminant and crop producers gain new insights that can improve their operations going forward. The studies conducted at the NCROC help advance the beef industry.