Innovative technologies track cattle feed intake and manure application to support studies at Iowa State research farms

Cattle using the C-Lock Super SmartFeed System at Iowa State's McNay Memorial Research Farm. Photo by Chris Clark. 

AMES, Iowa – Two new pieces of precision farm equipment on Iowa State University research farms are enhancing efficiency and accuracy for research trials, putting innovation to work for farms in the future. 

Smart feeder monitors cattle feed intake

The automated C-Lock Super SmartFeed System arrived last year at the McNay Memorial Research Farm near Chariton in Lucas County and is being used to monitor cattle and calves’ feed intake in research trials.

The solar-powered feeder has four stalls that use wireless data from the cows’ electronic identification tags to allocate a specified amount of feed. It also records the amount consumed and tracks the number and timing of an individual animal’s visits to the feeder. The information can be tracked by smart phone and through a website that includes an easy-to-use dashboard, said Logan Wallace, McNay farm co-manager.

“One of the great things about the smart feeder is you can do supplementation trials without splitting cattle into different groups. That’s especially helpful when studying animals on pasture where intake is hard to track,” Wallace said.

A research team led by Patrick Wall, area beef field specialist for southeast Iowa, has been using the feeder for cow-calf studies with the farm’s registered Angus herd, including a creep feeding project designed to study use of a supplement fed to pasture-raised, spring-born calves and fall-born calves raised in a dry lot. Another study is looking at mineral intake by cows and calves. Wall is working with Wallace and other collaborators, including Beth Reynolds, Extension Beef Program Specialist, on the projects funded by the Iowa Beef Center and the Illinois Beef Association Checkoff Division.

The studies have shown much greater differences between the animals’ feed intake than the research team would have expected.

The first couple of trials showed the calves’ intake varied widely -- between 0 to 15 pounds per day (the maximum they were allowed) -- for calves that had the same weaning weight and were all healthy, according to Wall.

He predicts the information can help breed associations rethink their expected progeny differences, or EPDs, to better tailor management recommendations -- and encourage producers to be more selective in purchasing breeding stock for more efficient livestock. “Particularly in periods like this with higher grain prices, animals that can do more with less are much more desirable,” Wall said.

At this time, the smart feeder can only be used for up to 100 animals at a time and would be cost-prohibitive for most on-farm uses, though Wall expects the technology will soon filter down to the high-end seed stock sector. He said there are already some versions out there more suited to farm use that can read ID tags to tailor the amount of feed to the animal, for example to supplement feed for heifers while they’re still growing.

The new smart feeder will be highlighted at the Beef Improvement Federation Meetings in Des Moines in June and at field days planned for later this year throughout Iowa.

Precision manure spreader improves accuracy

At Iowa State’s Agricultural Engineering and Agronomy Research Farm, between Ames and Boone, researchers are gearing up to test a smart manure spreader, fitted with a Raven Rate Control Module, or RCM, billed as the most precise application controller on the market and usually used on fertilizer applicators or sprayers.

Nathan Meyers, AEA farm ag engineering manager, recently described some of the features of the new RCM load cell kit, which was retrofitted to an existing spreader at the farm. The control system runs off industry standard software ISOBUS – so it can integrate easily with precision equipment and displays. The spreader can be adjusted to use with solid material with varying levels of bulk density, like manure and compost, and has two calibration options -- a static calibration that occurs at the material pile while sitting still and dynamic calibration that works in the field while the manure spreader is operating. It also has “autoswath,” which makes the application more accurate and eliminates expensive skips or overlaps.

One of the first uses of the spreader last fall was to apply composted manure, Meyers said. “It worked great. It was very simple to set up, and when it’s in the field, it uses a dynamic calibration process, which means the load cells are actively assessing what is being applied, based on consistency,” he said. “That’s a significant improvement over what we had in the past, which took time to calibrate every year and still wasn’t so precise.”

An agriculture and biosystems engineering research team headed by Iowa State professor Michelle Soupir and research scientist Natasha Hoover plans to use the new spreader to apply poultry manure for a project comparing impacts of different methods of fertilization and land management on crop yields, soil health and environmental resilience. The project is funded by the Iowa Egg Council and the Iowa Soybean Association, and the findings will be shared at manure applicator trainings around the state.

“In the past, we’ve had to estimate the amount and rate of manure application based on weight,” Hoover said. “We had to weigh the spreader before we filled it with manure, when it was filled and then again after application. Having a ‘smart’ machine that can calibrate the amount of manure to apply without going to a separate scale will cut down on multiple trips and time. Most important, it will give us a more consistent, accurate application rate that will improve confidence in our results.”

Soupir believes farmers will be interested in the technology. “It’s certainly more practical than what we’ve been using for years. It can save precious time, and farmers can be more confident in the amount of nutrients their crops are receiving from the manure, so they will have less reason to apply additional fertilizer applications as ‘insurance,’” she said. “That should translate to more efficient use of nutrients and less risk of loss to the environment.

Meyers agrees: “Improving the accuracy of manure application is likely to become even more important. Right now, this equipment is being used to support research, but I expect as people learn about it, there will be considerable interest in it for demonstration purposes.” 

Precision manure spreader being used at Iowa State's Agricultural Engineering and Agronomy Farm. Photo by Nathan Meyers.