Tuesday, January 22, 2013

New SNRAS/AFES research will help improve livestock production in Alaska

Cows were fitted with rapid-collection Global Positioning System (GPS) collars which collect data on one-second intervals. (Photo by Norm Harris)

Yes, Alaska is big but that doesn’t mean the state has expansive cattle ranches like Montana or Wyoming. The majority of Alaska’s livestock is raised on small chunks of land.

With that in mind, UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences Associate Professor Norman Harris has launched a new research project at the Matanuska Experiment Farm in Palmer. The goals are to define an animal unit appropriate to Alaska’s environment and to quantify the effectiveness of techniques to distribute grazing activities in small pastures.

“Many ranches have 20,000 acres but that is not what we have in Alaska,” Harris said. “Here 10 acres is considered a big pasture. I wanted to study how to get better distribution of animals on a small pasture.”

The five-year project began this year and Harris has conducted feeding trials to determine how much forage and haylage the animals consume. Nationally, a 1,000-pound cow with or without a calf will consume 600 to 800 pounds of forage (dry weight) in a month and Harris wants to see if that is comparable here.

His subjects are five dry heifers, predominantly Angus beef cattle. Harris has outfitted them with global positioning system (GPS) collars that track each animal’s position every second as they move around the pasture. Harris can tell what the cattle are eating by the places they visit. “We can see what the patterns are,” he said.

With an eye on his computer, Harris is able to tell if the animals are grazing, walking or resting. Each position is time stamped, allowing the researchers to see how the patterns change over time.

This could give producers information about what types of grass to plant. Should the animals need to be encouraged to move to other areas, techniques such as burning or fertilizing could be used to accomplish that.

“We want to find out better ways to raise livestock in Alaska and increase our red meat products and food security,” Harris said. He hopes this research will help more people start raising animals, which could help the state’s economy and improve Alaskans’ health.

While Harris began the project with cattle, he will eventually add horses and sheep to the study. Then he would like to include some type of alternative livestock, possibly yak.

The research is funded by the Hatch Act formula funds, which benefit agricultural research at state Agricultural Experiment Stations.

GPS data for four cows (different colors) showing three distinct activity patterns: 1) clustered points indicate resting/ruminating, 2) a line with space between points indicates walking/running, and 3) a sinuous line with closely spaced points indicates grazing.

Dan Hall watches as Beth Hall, research technician, weighs forage remaining at end of previous day's feeding while Jim Ericksen, herdsman, fills container with fresh haylage to be weighed out for current day's feeding. (Photo by Norm Harris)

No comments: