Primin’ the prime: A trip to the Beef Center

By Gus Bode

Over the course of the next few months, a doctor and her students will feed 144 steers four different types of food to see which kind, if any, adds significant weight to their 575-pound-plus frames.

At its end, the study could show the steers’ weight increasing by 100 pounds or more.

The goal is to produce large quantities of high-quality meat.


The benefits are that it will provide life-long lessons for students and develop data that could prevent cows from acquiring the most common grass-related disease in the United States.

Goals of the study

by: Diana Soliwon

One hundred and forty-four steers defiantly bellowed as three student workers coordinated their separation into 24 pens Monday.

Rebecca Atkinson, an assistant professor in animal science, food and nutrition, was on hand to oversee what she dubbed a ‘feed ’em and weigh ’em’ trial, a study being funded by Cooperative Research Farms and conducted at the SIUC Beef Center. Studies such as this one help meat companies make a bigger profit by increasing an animal’s performance, Atkinson said.

In other words, a fatter, healthier cow equals a bigger, tastier steak. Of the eight grades established by the United States Department of Agriculture, only the top three – Prime, Choice and Select – are typically sold at retail.

‘ ‘We always want to try to make sure our meat grade’s at Choice or Prime, so those are the kinds of things we’re studying,’ Atkinson said. ‘Have we met the consumer demand of quality, palatability, tenderness?’


For about the next three months, every six groups of cattle will receive a different type of feed. Every 28 days, they will be corralled into a weighing station where Atkinson and her students will record data and compare it to each steer’s daily intake.

Atkinson said the main goal is to find a way to avoid the effects of fescue toxicosis, the most common grass-related disease in the United States and the consequence of eating the prevalent hay available in southern Illinois. The disease namely causes cows to lose weight and produce less milk.

By testing three nutrient-based supplement feeds versus the control, fescue hay, Atkinson and her team should be able to identify which nutrient – fiber, protein or starch – has the best success.

Success is often measured by efficiency, and the meat industry is no different. The less feed it takes, the better.

‘Feed efficiency is the amount of feed it takes to gain one pound. You want that number to be low,’ Atkinson said.

Atkinson said she expects the steers to gain 100 to 150 pounds by the end of the trial. The steers will then be transported to Illinois State University and used for another research study before they are slaughtered.’

The study costs $27,500, which Atkinson said pays for supplies and the wages of two students. Others volunteer to help for the experience. The College of Agriculture’s biggest achievement is giving students the opportunity to apply what they are learning in school, she said.

‘When we get research funded, we utilize as many students who are eager to learn,’ Atkinson said. ‘It’s not just teaching the students in the classroom that’s important, but it’s also coming out here to the farms and actually learning with hands-on experience. This kind of opens their eyes up a little bit.’

Shooting the project

by: James McDonnough

Few student jobs come with perks such as being stepped on, drooled on and kicked by 600-pound animals. Fewer still offer the opportunity to do this seven days per week, regardless of rain, snow, freezing temperatures or miserable southern Illinois heat.

The SIUC students who have these jobs, however, probably would not trade them for any other job on campus.

I had the good fortune of spending Friday and Monday at the University Farms Beef Evaluation Center with some students and faculty as they processed steers being used in a study. I jumped at the chance to take this assignment because in a former and younger life, I, too, was an ‘Ag kid.’

Friday started with a phone call that the cattle would be at least two hours late. This delay left time for a tour of the facility and an overview of what to expect over the course of the weekend. When the trucks still hadn’t arrived, it was time to seek constructive employment.’

Eager to help, Matthew Galloway, a senior from Louisville, Ky., agreed to give a short interview. This ‘interview,’ however, rapidly devolved into a session of trading stories about Ag classes, farm experiences, and rodeo.

Once the two trucks arrived, both drivers were leery of the difficult turn-off from the road into the driveway. On one side was the muddy yard of the Evaluation Center, and on the other were a ditch, a fence and a power line pole.

At this point, it should be explained that there are certain types of people who subscribe to the ‘bigger hammer’ theory of accomplishing difficult tasks. I always knew farmers swore by it and now it is apparent truck drivers also practice this technique.

With the perfect combination of speed, skill, a tractor and a chain, 144 steers were now ready to be unloaded at their new temporary home.

Work began promptly at 7 a.m. Monday and I was 20 minutes late. I was the only late arriver. At 7:20 a.m., the workers were not drinking coffee or discussing the day ahead of them.

At 7:20 a.m., the day was well under way.

Before lunch, Seth Waggoner, a senior from Windsor, got kicked in the thigh by a steer, and no one asked if he was hurt. Everyone, Seth included, just laughed.

At the end of the weekend, things happened much as I expected they would. A lot of work was done by a few people who had no complaints and no coffee breaks.

If there is a student who comes to any of your classes in filthy jeans and dirty boots, take a moment to talk to that student. You may be impressed by what they have to say. That student may know more about biology, physiology, chemistry or zoology than you would ever guess. Even if they don’t, they could most likely tell you a few outrageous stories.