W3012: Optimizing and Characterizing Sustainable Beef Cattle Production in Forage Based Systems on Western Rangelands

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Active

W3012: Optimizing and Characterizing Sustainable Beef Cattle Production in Forage Based Systems on Western Rangelands

Duration: 10/01/2019 to 09/30/2024

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Statement of Issues and Justification

Extent of the Problem and the Need for the Research

Recently (June 26, 2018), a disturbing headline hit the national news, “Farmers in America are killing themselves in staggering numbers” https://www.cbsnews.com/news/american-farmers-rising-suicide-rates-plummeting-incomes/. This article quoted Chris Hurt of Purdue who said, “Think about trying to live today on the income you had 15 years ago.” The article further stated that finances are the major reason for the increase in this rural tragedy. Costs of production continue to rise while the price for agricultural commodities decline. Although the challenges facing agricultural commodities may be less extreme for beef cattle production than for large scale crop and dairy production, there has still been considerable volatility in the prices received for weaned calves. In a comparison of calf price data from the National Ag Statistics Service for the period from 2011 to 2018, the difference in gross weaned calf market value from the highest market price (2015) to the lowest market price (2011) was $760. For the median value market price over this time span, the difference was $565.

In the midst of declining market power, beef cattle production on western rangeland needs to embrace efficiency of production. Optimal beef cattle production is not necessarily the same as maximal cattle production. Astute producers realize that cows need to produce a calf every year without heavily subsidizing this production with purchased inputs. Yet they also have learned that strategic additions to the management system are necessary to avoid biological insults to the ranching operation.

In addition to managing financial and labor inputs in rangeland ranching operations, it is important to define and characterize the “optimal” cow herd upon which calf production relies. Cow size in the U.S. has been getting larger for at least the last 20 to 30 years and it has been a matter of investigation for cows grazing rangeland in recent research (Scasta et al., 2015; Williams et al., 2018a).

A quest to find “adapted” cows to fit rangeland environments has been a focus for scientists in the West for many years. Earlier efforts sought to identify ideal breed compositions to match differing environments (Kress and Nelson, 1988). Today, we continue to pursue the “holy grail” of an ideal, efficient cow to match western environments. As a rancher stated in a recent presentation made at the 2015 Range Beef Cow Symposium (Olsen, 2015), “The area of production efficiency, and specifically feed efficiency, has plenty of room for improvement in the nation’s cow herd.” Beef producer focus groups were conducted throughout Idaho by the Beef Program of Distinction in 2015. A pertinent finding was, “Recognition that increasing cow size has corresponding feed needs but the amount of available grazing and pasture land is constant. The University of Idaho was encouraged to look at ways that cattle can become more feed efficient.”

Our goal is to characterize beef cattle that effectively use rangeland and forage based systems in the West. We will also seek to expand understanding of how to enhance the ability of these cows to utilize lower quality and variable forage that often prevails on rangeland. For example, environmental conditions interact with cow biological type in how they use and access rangeland (Sprinkle et al., 2000; VanWagoner et al., 2006; Wyfels et al., 2018).

Should we fail to continue with this research, the economic benefits of an “ideal cow” and the strategic inputs necessary to manage her may not be conveyed to beef producers in the West. Cows may continue to be inappropriately paired to the highly variable conditions that exist throughout this region. Inefficiencies in livestock production may continue to be perpetuated, adding to the economic stress brought about by a highly competitive market. Additionally, producers will not have access to information regarding management strategies to minimize environmental impacts in areas populated with threatened or endangered species.

Need for a Multiple Institution Approach

The expanse of knowledge gained through research for the critical need identified above is best accomplished through a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional approach, and a myriad of contributing factors must be studied. Mechanisms of adaptation by beef cattle in the Western range landscape include both behavioral and physiological modifications. Cattle change behavior to maintain homeothermy, access preferred forages, acknowledge social dominance and interaction, engage in exploratory activity, and fit their daily activity to the grazing environment. Livestock also have unique physiological responses that introduces variation into the utilization of native rangeland and introduced forages.

Participating scientists and Extension specialists in this project have skills in determining forage intake of grazing animals, strategic supplementation, animal physiology, animal behavior, genetics and epistatic effects of selection, statistical models and inferences, rangeland management, nutrient acquisition and utilization, laboratory forage and plant-wax (e.g., alkane) analyses. With this multistate research group, we are able to interact with each other in a symbiotic way to better investigate livestock grazing nutrition and efficiency in a variety of grazing environments. Since the inception of this project over 30 years ago, participation has included many Western States. Currently, we have participants from California, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. We believe that the challenges that are shared among the Western states are best addressed by combining the expertise and resources from all the states.

National Priorities

W-2012's goals are aligned with the USDA 2014-2018 Strategic Plan's Goals 1and 2: 1) Assist rural communities to create prosperity so they are self-sustaining, re-populating, and economically thriving. 2) Ensure our national forests and private working lands are conserved, restored, and made more resilient to climate change, while enhancing our water resources. We also align with the USDA-NIFA 2014-2018 Strategic Plan's Science Goal 1: Catalyze exemplary and relevant research, education and extension programs. Specifically, priorities addressed by the project include the NIFA Sub-Goal 1.1 (Advance our Nation’s ability to achieve global food security and fight hunger), Sub-Goal 1.2 (Advance the development and delivery of science for agricultural, forest, and range systems adapted to climate variability and to mitigate climate impacts), Sub-Goal 1.3 (Optimize the production of goods and services from working lands while protecting the Nation’s natural resource base and environment), and Sub-Goal 1.7 (Ensure the development of human capital, communities, and a diverse workforce through research, education, extension and engagement programs in food and agricultural sciences to support a sustainable agriculture system). Our primary stakeholders are farmers, ranchers, and state and federal land managers in states represented by scientists participating in the project, but there is broad applicability of our work nation-wide. Our secondary stakeholders are the consumers of animal products that benefit from the reduced prices associated with efficient animal production systems. Our tertiary stakeholders are the citizens of communities whose economies are improved by profitable and sustainable animal industries and that benefit from the multiplier effects these industries have on community economies.

Probable Impacts

Further research to cow size efficiency and feed efficiency (residual feed intake) may assist in identifying cattle that not only eat less (Herd et al., 1998) but also use rangeland more sustainably. As part of our research on forage and pasture utilization, strategies will be developed to assist producers in mediating the negative effects brought about highly variable forage quality. Thus, optimal beef production can be developed that will improve financial solvency of western range livestock production.

Related, Current and Previous Work

Relationship to Previous Work and Extension of Knowledge

Critical underpinnings for cow adaptability in a rangeland setting include grazing behavior, diet selection, forage intake, harvesting efficiency, nutrient partitioning, strategic supplementation, complementary forages to extend grazing seasons, and maintaining a yearly calving interval. Technological advances have enabled scientists to be more precise in the discovery of optimal, sustainable beef production on Western rangelands. For example, GPS technology became available in the 1990’s to use for determining livestock grazing distribution (Turner et al., 2000). Two-axis accelerometers became available on commercial grazing collars in the late 1990’s and showed promise for determining daily grazing, walking, and resting time (Ungar et al., 2005; Augustine and Derner, 2013). Recently, low-cost GPS data loggers and 3-axis accelerometers (Bailey et al., 2018) have shown great promise for equipping experimental animals with tracking and activity capability at a very affordable price. Members of this Multistate Research Group have successfully utilized these technological advances in field trials, including assembling low-cost GPS and accelerometer grazing collars. This has enabled us to multiply the number of experimental units in our studies and increase the statistical power for discovering mechanistic and behavioral responses to an ever changing landscape.

We have employed the use of specialized equipment (GrowSafe Systems, Ltd., Airdrie, Alberta, Canada) to first classify beef cattle with respect to residual feed intake (RFI), which is expressed as the difference between expected feed intake (based upon body weight and growth) and actual feed intake (Koch et al., 1963). Cattle with negative RFI scores (less feed intake; more efficient) will have reduced feed intake. Industry has embraced the adoption of using RFI data for bull purchases. Research from Montana indicates that beef producers are willing to pay more for an RFI-efficient bull (McDonald et al., 2010). In a recent survey (Wulfhorst et al., 2010), beef cattle producers were evaluated for their perceptions about the adoption of RFI technology. There were 49% of commercial producers who indicated they were willing to adopt RFI as a measure of feed efficiency. Despite the willingness of producers to adopt RFI as a measure of overall efficiency, little is known about how RFI might affect other desirable traits, such as longevity and beef cattle efficiency on rangeland. Therefore, it is important to evaluate divergently ranked cattle for this trait in a rangeland environment.

Preliminary work done in Idaho by a member of this committee (J. Sprinkle, unpublished data) comparing efficient vs inefficient cattle on rangeland suggests that cattle with greater appetite (high rankings for residual feed intake) spend more time at lower elevations when temperatures elevate in late summer. Most likely, this is due to greater metabolic heat loading engendered by a larger digestive tract (Sprinkle et al., 2000). Other findings in the unpublished dataset from Idaho suggest that inefficient cows initiate grazing earlier in the afternoon when temperatures are not elevated and that cattle placed in rotated pastures vs continuously grazed pastures in late fall spent 1 hour less per day walking. Presumably, the cattle with access to rotated pastures were spending less time searching for a quality diet.

It is apparent that the increased selection which has occurred for RFI, and the influence of this trait in a rangeland environment, necessitates the need for additional research in a variety of environments. Similarly, the complexity of the interactions of environment and cow size and age warrants further investigation. A series of studies were recently conducted in Montana by a member of this committee (Williams et al., 2018a, b; Wyfels et al., 2018) to assess how cow grazing distribution, resource use, and supplement intake varied among cows classified by weaning weight ratio and body weight in a winter, native rangeland, grazing system. They utilized SmartFeed Pro self-feeder system (C-Lock Inc., Rapid City, SD) to determine individual supplement intake behavior, and grazing behavior/distribution on fall/winter rangelands. The application of Growsafe, SmartFeed Pro, and Supersmart feeding systems in extensive rangeland environments will provide data that was not possible to obtain in the past.  Specifically, we can measure supplement intake on a per animal basis as well as a per day basis.  Coupled with environmental data, we now have the tools to fine tune strategic supplementation of beef cattle for improved animal health and optimal management of beef cattle in limited nutrition environments.

Several popular press articles and limited past research have suggested that smaller cows are more efficient in arid to semi-arid rangelands of the western US.  Most of this research has been hampered by the inability to adequately measure intake and often involves intake measurements that are estimated as a percentage of body weight. Limited research exists that compare mature cows on extensive rangelands in respect to cow age, body weight, condition, productivity (ie % body weight weaned) that account for actual intake and input measurements. Research designed to evaluate cow size is often confounded by breed type of genetic lines within breeds that result in the variation in frame and size. Likewise, cow weight and body condition is often confounded by cow age with 5 to 8 year old cows usually being the heaviest and most conditioned (Williams et al., 2018a). This project will evaluate cow size as well as other metrics that might be useful in identifying beef cattle genetics that fit western rangeland environments.

Recently, a new member of this committee from New Mexico led a group of researchers who discovered that cattle that climb higher on extensive rangelands could be identified with genetic markers (Bailey et al., 2015). By extending this research throughout the West, it may become possible to apply selection pressure on recently weaned calves with a blood sample (DNA) and a genotype test to identify replacement heifers that will at least behaviorally fit rugged rangeland pastures. We need to discover if this genetic trait for “hill climbing” is related to or complementary to genetic selection for feed efficiency. Recent studies with a larger animal database have identified a correlation between feed efficiency and “hill climbing” (Pierce, 2019).

The determination of forage intake is key for assessing range cow adaptability and efficiency in extensive environments. Forage intake is directly correlated with forage utilization and stocking rates, thus effecting the distribution of fixed and variable costs for the ranching enterprise. Animals are highly variable for forage intake as well as the manner in which they access and harvest forage (Sprinkle et al., 2000; Bailey et al., 2001). Members of this committee have focused on forage intake and diet selection in the previously approved project using alkane procedures (Lewis et al., 2016; Vargas et al., 2019). At least in extensive grazing systems, where the botanical mixture is complex, the use of alkanes alone is likely inadequate to reliably estimate dietary choices and feed intakes of individual cattle. Importantly, the lack of such information challenges our ability to manage resources and animal requirements. This project serves as a forum for development of collaborative studies and research projects that are complementary and work to solve issues associated with ruminant production in extensive landscapes. We seek to continue work in this area to develop methodologies to assess forage intake by grazing animals and development of scientifically sound nutritional management tactics for livestock in variable and often extensive conditions.

Strategic Supplementation

Despite the efforts to match the cow type and production to the rangeland environments, most western livestock producers are dependent on supplemental and harvested forage during the year.  High elevation rangelands/ranches often have extended periods of snow cover. While a great deal of effort is made to reduce the reliance on harvested forage, most of the alternatives (stockpiled forage, straws and other crop residues) are also limited by nutritional quality and need substantial nutritional inputs to meet the nutritional demands of the cow/calf. Strategic supplementation is important for these producers and often critical to their success (DelCurto et al., 2000; Kunkle et al., 2000).

Most research on strategic supplementation to optimize the use of low-quality forages is based on group, pen, and/or herd averages. We have limited information about individual animal variation in the intake of supplements and the limited research available is often dependent on the use of markers to estimate intake. While marker derived data does indicate that substantial variation exist among individual animals (Bowman and Sowell, 1997), this procedure usually involves taking a series of fecal samples (usually 4 to 7 days) which limits our ability to evaluate daily variation in intake. As a result, we have limited knowledge of how environmental extremes impact supplement intake and supplement intake as a function of time. New technologies that include Growsafe, SmartFeed, and Supersmart Feed measurement units will provide data that will assist in refining current management with cattle grazing dormant, low-quality, rangelands in the late fall and winter period.

While most research documents that dormant senesced forage is limited in nutritional value, little data exist in respect to the dynamics of fall/winter forage quality and how fall/winter environmental extremes impacts the quality of the available vegetation. Vegetation quantity and quality varies within seasons and across years. Likewise, the western US is characterized by extreme weather conditions with high elevations and northern latitudes often experiencing cold stress. Information about the impact of environment on vegetation quality as well as beef cattle requirements is limited.

The following research project will provide information that helps ranchers and land managers optimize the use of western rangelands during the fall and winter months. Optimization will primarily focus on maximizing the use of these land resources for beef cattle production while maintaining or enhancing the vegetation diversity and the biological process that are mediated in part by healthy soils and desirable plant communities. The use of supplements to optimize the intake and digestion of the low-quality forages will be a focal point of the research. In addition, we will look at beef cattle types as well as metrics to evaluate traits that are important for beef cattle production and the cow’s ability to be productive in a restrictive physical and nutritional environment. Finally, we will readily adopt new technology to study beef cattle grazing extensive rangeland environments.  The use of electronic feeders, global positioning systems (GPS), geographical information systems (GIS), and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) will be incorporated into the research protocols to meet our research objectives.

Previous Accomplishments

The outcomes and impacts of the previous 5 year period of this project are summarized below:

  • Given the complexity of the botanical makeup of Western rangelands, the use of alkanes alone as dietary markers is inadequate to estimate diet composition and intake of free-grazing cattle.

  • The new NRC 2016 Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle verified the need for research into the shortcomings for predicting intake. New guidance in this document included findings from the Coleman and colleagues (2014) publication which resulted from the 2014 ASAS symposia organized by W-2012.

  • Successfully organized and executed the 5th Grazing Livestock Nutrition Conference held July 17-19, 2016 at the Canyon Resorts in Park City, Utah. There were 18 invited speakers and 21 volunteered posters for this symposium and 139 individuals from around the world attended.

  • The list of research achievements, publications, and student theses that are the product of the collaborative work of members of the Project is extensive. From 2015-2017, approximately 105 refereed publications, 53 proceedings, 72 technical bulletins, 7 book chapters, 51 popular press articles, and 90 abstracts have resulted.

  • Since 2015, our members have participated extensively in and gave presentations each year at extension meetings, nutrition conferences, professional society sponsored national and regional meetings, and annual W-2012 meetings to promote the exchange of ideas, information and data. Since 2015, the members of W-2012 have reached over 9,000 stakeholders in the different states served by this Multistate Research Group. Several Extension Specialists are part of W-2012 and we will continue to lead outreach efforts in the states served by this group.


Related research by other Multistate Research Groups


A search of existing multistate projects resulted in three cattle grazing or efficiency projects with differing objectives. Project SERA41 (2015-2019) Beef Cattle Production Utilizing Forages in the Southeast to Integrate Research and Extension Programs Across State Boundaries: Development is focused on replacement heifer development strategies in a more humid environment. Project NC1181 (2014-2019) Enhancing Resiliency of Beef Production Under Shifting Forage Resources is centered in the Northern Great Plains and has objectives to utilize cover crops and crop residues as part of a year round forage system. It does not address grazing behavior or cow efficiency. Project W2010 (2013-2018) Integrated Approach to Enhance Efficiency of Feed Utilization in Beef Production Systems seeks to better understand feed efficiency in both feedlot and forage based systems. This group seeks to discover the physiological aspects and genetic markers for residual feed intake. They also desire to work on developing genetically enhanced EPDs for feed efficiency. In our project, the overarching goal is to seek to define cattle that are adaptable to a range environment and the intervention strategies (such as strategic protein supplementation) that help beef cattle adapt to their environment. Our project encompasses many arid and semiarid rangelands with all the attendant challenges to livestock production. We seek to understand both behavioral and physiological responses to an extensive grazing environment. Our project is unique with respect to determining grazing behavior.


  1. Conduct research and gather information on cattle that fit Western rangelands with respect to grazing behavior, forage intake, biological efficiency, and livestock production.
  2. Continue to refine and revise methods for determining forage intake and/or dietary selection.
  3. Begin collection of DNA samples from females evaluated phenotypically in different production environments for future use in developing genomic tools for beef cow selection.
  4. Evaluate methods of nutritional intervention that optimizes ruminant livestock production on rangelands.
  5. Provide Extension and outreach education in extensive livestock production systems.
  6. Provide professional development and mentoring opportunities for committee participants, young scientists, stakeholders, and graduate students.


Objective 1 (Participating ID, NM, NE, MT)

Cattle which vary in body weight, age, production efficiency (such as weaning weight ratio of calf adjusted weaning weight to cow weight), and/or feed efficiency will be evaluated in a grazing environment with emphasis on rangeland pastures. The breed composition of the cattle used will vary by location but in many instances will include Hereford x Angus crossbred or Angus cattle common among many producers. Rangeland cattle production operates at the interface between animal genetics, grazing behavior, feed efficiency, diet selection, forage intake, forage quality and supply, and abiotic factors such as temperature, wind, slope, and water location. To assess the manner in which cows accommodate the varied terrain, climate, forage quality and quantity, we will utilize either commercially available or homemade grazing collars (Bailey et al., 2018) with accelerometers and/or GPS loggers. The accelerometers will summarize grazing time, walking time, and resting time for 2-hour time intervals for each 24-hour time period for each collared cow at 5 sec intervals. GPS signals will record locations at appropriate time intervals. These records will be processed through a commercially or shareware available software program to remove outlier locations (erroneous location due to lost satellite pings) and to obtain animal behavior and resource use and other important geographical information. These compiled data will be summarized for each 24 hr time period for each collared cow. Whenever possible, grazing behavior data will be paired with nearby weather stations.

Feed efficiency for some of the cows used at some locations will be determined with specialized equipment (e.g. GrowSafe Systems, Ltd., Airdrie, Alberta, Canada) in order to rank cattle for RFI. Divergently ranked replacement heifers will be ranked as either efficient (negative RFI) or inefficient (positive RFI) and then evaluated as 2-yr-old or older cows for grazing behavior and in some cases forage intake. These characteristics will be evaluated at various times in the production cycle including mid- and late lactation and as nonlactating pregnant cows. These sample periods will accompany various stages of forage quality.

At all locations that collect grazing behavior data, adjusted calf weaning weights (BIF, 2018), cow weights, body condition score, pregnancy status, calving interval, and frame score (1 to 11, 11 = tallest; BIF, 2018) will be obtained at various stages in the yearly production cycle. Additionally, at some locations, milk production will be determined at peak lactation (50 to 70 days postpartum) and possible again at mid-lactation and /or late lactation with techniques such as weigh-suckle-weigh (Williams et al., 1979).

Objective 2 (Participating ID, NM, NE, MT, ND)

Several reviews have been conducted over the years related to the determination of forage intake for grazing ruminants (Cordova et al., 1978; Decruyenaere et al., 2009; Coleman et al, 2014). Forage intake is commonly estimated in grazing animals by using an external marker. A known dose of some element is administered to a grazing animal and then fecal output is estimated by comparing the dilution of the known dose in subsequent fecal samples. When the estimated fecal output is divided by the indigestibility of the forage, forage intake can then be estimated. In pen studies or small paddock grazing studies, researchers are able to administer a dose of an external marker once or twice a day. Determining forage intake on extensive rangelands precludes daily dosage of an external marker for estimating forage intake.

One method to overcome the limitation of daily dosing of an external marker is to administer a larger dose of the element of choice in a single dose (pulse dose) approximately 12 to 15 h prior to repeated fecal sampling on rangeland. We have successfully utilized a long chain (C32) alkane (dotriacontane, Acros Organics, Morris Plains, NJ) as an external marker in this pulse dose (3 grams absorbed to 39 g filter paper and housed in 6 gelatin capsules) application (Sprinkle et al., 2000; Giraldez et al., 2004). With this procedure, it is possible to also determine digesta kinetics (forage passage rate, gastrointestinal tract size, gastrointestinal tract residence time), energy intake (kcal of metabolizable energy intake · kg metabolic body weight · d-1), and harvest efficiency (grams of organic matter intake · kg body weight-1 · min of grazing-1). These data will provide additional information on the mechanistic drivers that influence forage intake in a rangeland environment with cattle differing in feed efficiency. For example, environmental adaptability of cattle grazing in a stressful environment has been linked to the size of the gastrointestinal tract (Sprinkle et al., 2000).

The alkane concentrations for the fecal samples collected from the pulse dose procedure will be determined using a sample extraction and analysis procedure developed in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln laboratory based on Dove and Mayes (2006). Quantification of the alkanes will be carried out with a gas chromatograph (GC) on an Agilent 7820A GC (Agilent Technologies, Wilmington, DE). The alkane will be injected (0.5µl) with a 7650A Automatic Liquid 43 Sampler onto a bonded-phase, non-polar column (Agilent J&W DB-1 column, 30 m, 0.53 µm internal diameter and 0.5 µm film thickness). Helium will serve as the carrier gas at a constant flow of 4 mL/min. Temperature will be 310°C for the injector and 340°C for the detector. The column will be held at 140°C for 6 min, then increased at 50°C/min to 215°C with an iso-thermal hold of 1 min, and a second temperature ramp of 6°C/min to 320°C with a 4 min hold time.

Forage intake can also be estimated in a rangeland setting using a controlled release device that dispenses a marker over several days. Previously, a product produced in New Zealand (Captec bolus) was available for researchers but is no longer available. There is great need for this type of device for researchers investigating duodenal and fecal digesta flow. Briefly, inert markers administered to ruminants have been used to calculate how much digesta is flowing to different parts of the gastrointestinal tract. If one is able to determine how much digesta is flowing per day, intake and digestibility of a diet can be calculated. This is critical for nutritionists seeking to identify nutritional programs that will improve the health and productivity of ruminant animals. Furthermore, our understanding of grazing cattle intake is limited by the high labor requirements when using inert markers. This is because a marker must be administered at a minimum of once per day and in many cases twice a day is best. With ruminally cannulated animals, the inert marker is simply placed directly in the rumen, via the cannula. However, if a researcher is using intact animals, the marker must be weighed out into a gelatin capsule and administered using a balling gun. This sort of methodology is very difficult in large range settings and a device that could be administered once to the animal and excrete the marker would reduce labor and stress associated with bringing the animals from pasture every day to dose the inert marker.

The New Mexico State University laboratory is currently working on the development of a simple device that consists of a plastic indigestible bolus that contains the marker (unique mixture of titanium dioxide and a binder) with a spring and plunger. The cap on the tube has hexagonal holes to allow the inert marker mixture to be slowly released. This device is being tested New Mexico State University and will then be distributed to the participating laboratories for validation in various environments. Currently, Titanium dioxide is the marker being tested due to is ease of analysis and reliability. However, there is the potential to load the device with other markers for researchers from this group. The overarching outcome of this portion of the project plan will contribute to the work being conducted in other objectives.

In the previous W2012 project, across two years, housed (indoor) and field experiments were completed at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, NE, to evaluate the utility of using alkanes to estimate diet composition and feed intake. In the indoor study, heifers were offered a mix ration of approximately 70% corn silage and 30% ground alfalfa.  In the field study, the same sets of heifers were grazed on smooth brome dominant pastures. Over a 10-day period, the heifers were fed a daily supplement of synthetic alkanes (C32, C36) as an external marker. Fecal grab samples were collected for five days, and a composite sample was made by pooling the five days of samples. In the indoor study, this process was completed once per year. In the field study, it was repeat 3 or 4 times over each grazing season. The mix ration (indoor) and forages (field) were samples across the measurement periods.

In preliminary analyses, diet compositions and DMI were estimated using the concentrations of five alkanes measured in the mixed ration, forages and fecal samples. Particularly for the field experiment, where forage mixture was complex, the estimates on individual animal were variable and seemingly unreliable. We hypothesize that with the use of additional plant-wax markers (long-chain alcohols) and fecal components (NDF, OM and fecal crude protein), the robustness of estimation can be improved. Azevedo et al. (2014) and Savian et al. (2018) reported that fecal components were useful in estimating herbage intake. However, the marginal value of using additional markers seems specific to the composition of the forage mixture (Vargas et al., 2015, 2019); therefore, their overall utility needs to be tested broadly. Using the feed, forage and fecal samples already collected, the utility of including long-chain alcohols and fecal components in the process of estimating dietary choice and intakes will be evaluated.

As with the alkanes, the fecal concentration of long chain alcohols will be determined using a sample extraction and analysis procedure developed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln based on Dove and Mayes (2006), with quantification carried out with GC (Agilent 7820A GC, Agilent Technologies, Wilmington, DE). The long chain alcohol will be injected (1.5µl) onto a bonded-phase, (5%-Phenyl)-methylpolysiloxane column (Agilent J&W HP-5 column, 30 m, 0.32 µm internal diameter and 0.25 µm film thickness). Helium will serve as the carrier gas at a constant flow of 2 mL/min. Temperature will be 310°C for the injector and 340°C for the detector. The column will be held at 200°C for 2 min, the first temperature ramp increased at 50°C/min to 275°C with no hold time, the second ramp increased at 1°C/min to 292°C with no hold time, the final ramp increased by 10°C/min to 310°C with no hold time.

Objective 3 (Participating ID, MT, OR, NE, NM, UT, CA)

Each Experiment Station shall collect biological samples for future DNA analyses for meeting the objective outlined above. Our intent is to assist in the development of a DNA repository for future genomic evaluations. Our DNA repository will span the different environments in which we work and will provide potential linkages to the grazing behavior and production data collected by the group. There is a dearth of this type of information correlating efficiency of beef cow production to behavioral and other performance measures, particularly from grazing environments.

Objective 4 (Participating ID, NM, NE, MT, ND)

We will characterize forage quality in late season rangeland in relation to climatic condition and environmental extremes with accepted chemical laboratory techniques and NIRS technology. We will also investigate the influence of the environment on beef cow nutrition. The landscape scale and grazing behavior and use of forage in relationship to nutritional status will be examined further utilizing techniques described in Objective 1. For controlled experiments with known amounts of mixed forages, we will collect and provide both forage and fecal samples in order to develop correlations to long chain alcohols and fecal components for additional analyses. We will examine different methods of supplement delivery, types, and seasons of use as we have previously done. Furthermore, we will investigate using complementary forages for filling windows of deficiency and the use of sub-irrigated meadows vs upland pastures during the breeding season. Focused nutritional intervention will examine the nutrient supply and its relationship to fetal programming and reproductive performance with additions such as arginine and minerals.

Objective 5 (Participating ID, NM, NE, MT, ND)

Programming approaches and related topics will be shared at annual meetings. Members of this Multistate Research Project group will be polled to solicit topics for Extension programs, such as the Montana Nutrition Conference and Livestock Forum, Range Beef Cow Symposium, individual statewide Range Livestock Symposiums, youth camps, and field days. Extensive livestock production systems expertise will be leveraged by inviting members of this Multistate Research Project from other states to speak at Extension programs. Members of this Multistate Research Project will be encouraged to track not only the number of individuals reached by Extension programs, but also anticipated behavioral changes (such as post conference surveys) for each state. Research and Extension efforts and collaborations will be coordinated at annual meetings by providing each station with time to report and discuss research and Extension plans, accomplishments, and publications. Additionally, station reports will be compiled into an annual report of the regional project. These discussions illuminate commonalities that will lead to further collaborations and additional regional research and Extension efforts.

Objective 6 (Participating ID, NM, NE, MT, ND)

Professional development and mentoring opportunities for committee participants, young scientists, and graduate students will be provided. Members of the Multistate Research Project will incorporate discussions during each annual meeting led by senior members of the committee over subjects that include but are not limited to grantsmanship in the area of grazing livestock research, collaborative discussions, publishing journal papers, and experimental design. These discussions will be aimed at providing graduate students and young scientists with advice on how to develop research programs, successful publications and grants, and strong promotion and tenure packets. Members will provide opportunities for other committee members to visit laboratories to develop an open exchange of technologies and lab methodology that will expand capacity and nurture future collaborative efforts.

Measurement of Progress and Results


  • Publish collaborative results on cow biological types that best fit Western rangeland environments and intervention strategies to enhance the utilization for rangeland forage.
  • Further refine technologies for determining forage intake on rangeland and share these results with the scientific community in scientific conferences and published papers.
  • Research manuscripts will be prepared from the data that is generated from these studies and submitted to recognized scientific journals.
  • A series of Extension fact sheets will be written based on application of information in the journal articles, particularly related to “ideal cows” to fit Western rangeland and intervention strategies to assist in cow adaptability to these rangelands. Segments of the fact sheets or summaries will be available via different media outlets relevant to the agricultural community.
  • Web-based information will be prepared with links and information on the project.
  • National, regional and state programs will be held to disseminate findings to stakeholders. For example, this Multistate Research Project is planning to hold the 6th Grazing Livestock Nutrition Conference in July, 2022.

Outcomes or Projected Impacts

  • Gather unique phenotypic data such as grazing behavior and production efficiency, and build a DNA repository for use in future research to identify genetic markers related to cattle adaptability to Western rangelands.
  • Support the sustainability of western rangelands and ranching enterprises so that they may coexist in such a manner as to increase financial solvency of the ranching enterprise while enhancing conservation values for sensitive rangelands with threatened or endangered species concerns.
  • Promote the exchange of ideas, information, and data through sponsoring symposia or workshops on basic understanding of rangeland environments, the cows that fit them best, and resulting forage-based ruminant management strategies. These professional development activities will promote more rapid advancements in nutritional technologies and improve the profitability of ranches in the West.


(2019):Begin collaborating on combining grazing behavior tests at several locations across the West. Cooperate in building a genetic library by obtaining DNA samples from cow herds at several locations across the West. Test prototype controlled release device for dispensing TiO2 marker in New Mexico.

(2020):Continue development of effective methodology for determining forage intake in a rangeland environment. Compare the TiO2 CRD to pulse dose of n-alkanes and TiO2 across states. Continue investigation into alkane and long chain alcohol markers, fecal components, and microhistological techniques, for characterizing dietary selection and intake. Continue assembling nutritional intervention strategies that will assist in cows in better fitting a rangeland environment.

(2021):Summarize and prepare scientific publications on adapted cows for Western rangelands and present research at regional and national meetings.

(2022):Host 6th Grazing Livestock Nutrition Conference preceding the national American Society of Animal Science meeting held in the West. Summarize results obtained from experiments conducted by this Multistate Research Project for determining forage intake estimates on rangeland and present these results to the larger scientific community. Share results on the “ideal cow” with Extension audiences throughout the states served by this committee. Begin addressing areas of interest for project renewal.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Outreach Plan

As described previously, this project will have a multi-faceted approach to transfer knowledge, skills, and technologies to stakeholders. This Multistate Research Project will facilitate collaborations, manuscript reviews, and develop new approaches to better describe the ideal cow and improve ruminant use of forages in Western rangeland environments. Initial transfer of information to the general public will occur through Extension faculty programming efforts through a series of symposiums and producer meetings. A series of Extension fact sheets will be written based on the journal articles. Segments of the fact sheets or summaries will be placed in Extension newsletters and local newspapers and livestock and forage-related magazines. Web-based information will be prepared with links to the project. Additionally, development of venues that will disseminate the expertise of members within the group, as well as, nationally and internationally recognized leaders in range livestock production will be a priority. This Multistate Research Project will sponsor symposia or workshops on basic understanding of adapted cows for rangeland environments and accompanying forage-based ruminant management strategies. The 6th Grazing Livestock Nutrition Conference will be held in July, 2022 in the Sacramento, CA area, which will precede the national American Society of Animal Science meeting.


The technical committee will organize and function in accordance with the procedures described in "Manual for Cooperative Regional Research." The voting members will elect four officers (Chair, Secretary, Secretary-elect, and Treasurer). These officers plus the immediate past Chair (after the first year) will constitute the executive committee. Specific task subcommittees and coordinators will be appointed as necessary to help coordinate activities among states. The executive committee will conduct any necessary business between annual meetings of the technical committee. The Chair will be responsible for presiding over the annual meeting of the technical committee, preparing the meeting agenda, and appointing any necessary subcommittees. The Secretary will record and distribute the minutes of the annual meeting and prepare the annual project report for the year ending with the meeting at which he/she serves. At the end of the annual meeting, the Secretary will become Chair and the Secretary-elect will become Secretary. The Treasurer will manage the financial account for this Multistate Research Group and present an annual report in the year in which he/she serves.

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Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, USDA-ARS/MT
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