Frank Ireland Dixon Springs Ag

Frank Ireland checks on bulls at the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center. He and six full-time employees manage a 1,000-cow herd on about 5,000 acres deep in Pope County.

Nat Williams, The Southern News Services

SIMPSON — Funding cuts that led to the shuttering of the agronomy portion of the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center haven’t dramatically affected beef research here. At least not yet.

The University of Illinois research farm, in Pope County, boasts one of the largest herds in the state and is among the biggest livestock research centers in the country.

The cutoff of state money has affected the beef center, but it survives largely because of the revenue it generates.

Frank Ireland, who has managed the operation since 1990, is responsible for continuing its mission.

“The significant challenge for all of the programs is that we lost our state funding for salaries at the center a couple of years ago,” Ireland said.

About 1,000 cows roam Dixon Springs. The Angus-Simmental herd represents the largest beef research center east of the Mississippi River, Ireland said. The staff of six full-time workers help with the calving of about 850 animals each fall.

Dixon Springs is one of three beef research centers operated by the University of Illinois; the others are on the Champaign campus and at the Orr Center near Quincy. Volume is key to conducting effective studies.

“It takes lots of numbers to do all the varying research, particularly with some of the reproductive work to show statistical significance,” Ireland said. “It takes thousands of observations to show differences in some of the treatments.

“All the animals are on research projects. They are on reproductive studies at the same time they may be on nutritional studies. Sometimes we run the same trial for multiple years to get numbers for observations. We’ve got more projects lined up than we’ve got animals to put on them.”

The center has mostly achieved its goal of being revenue-neutral through the years. That has been a factor in its survival, while the agronomy research at Dixon Springs was axed last year, after more than 80 years of existence. The university also closed agronomy research at its Brownstown, DeKalb and St. Charles locations.

“We’ve been able to break even, which is our goal on an annual basis, even with the ebbs and flow of the cattle cycle,” Ireland said. “This year is going to be a challenge because cattle prices have dropped off, and we have less money to spend on facilities, equipment and other things. Being able to do what we’re doing and coming up with a source of funding through sale of livestock is critical.”

Though grain prices are higher in the region than in other parts of the state due to nearby river terminals, the center’s herd still makes enough money to cover most expenses. And despite the extensive pastures, Ireland’s team does not make hay, instead supporting the local economy by purchasing it from other producers.

The center encompasses nearly 5,000 acres, including 3,900 acres of pasture. The beef center gained 40 acres transferred from the crop sciences program.

That’s plenty of elbow room for handling cattle, but there are challenges. A good portion of the space is part of the Shawnee National Forest, owned by the federal government and leased to the university.

Because of federal regulations, no chemicals may be applied to Forest Service land. That was a problem several years ago, when an armyworm infestation destroyed some pastures and necessitated replanting.

At any time, there are as many as a dozen separate studies being conducted at Dixon Springs. Ireland cites a number of contributions to livestock production, including research on early weaning.

“Work we’ve done here that has shown we can dramatically improve carcass quality by putting them on a high starch-based diet,” Ireland said. “That’s a method to be considered, particularly with first-calf heifers. We also see a 7 to 10 percent improvement in conception rates.”

The University of Illinois was among other schools whose work on estrous synchronization has revolutionized artificial insemination. Another project showing promise involves injection of minerals in cows, providing more consistent benefits to livestock than feeding supplements.

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