Willard Sparks Beef Research Center
Oklahoma State University is responding to these challenges with its newest agricultural research center, the Willard Sparks Beef Research Center.
“The Sparks Center is the most modern facility in the United States to do research on shipping stressed calves and feedlot cattle,” said Donald Gill, regents professor of animal science at Oklahoma State University.
The Sparks Center is designed to benefit producers not only in Oklahoma but also throughout the United States. Bob Smith, McCasland Chair in beef health and production in the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine, said the goals of the Sparks Center are “to improve production efficiency in cattle, have a positive affect on beef quality and beef, and have a positive economical affect on all farmers and ranchers.”
Oklahoma is a major stocker and feedlot state and imports about 2,500,000 cattle each year for grazing and feedlot production. The major source of these cattle is southeastern sale barns, said Gill.
“The Bovine Respiratory Disease complex, commonly known as shipping fever, has been a major problem for many years for these cattle coming out of these sale barns,” Gill said. “About a $80 million loss occurs each year due to problems associated with shipping fever in these feedlot cattle.”
OSU began doing research on shipping fever in feedlot cattle at the 920-acre research center in Pawhuska, Okla., in 1977. Prior to that, the station was used for anaplasmosis research by the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine. In 1977, the mission of the station was changed. Research was changed to involve scientists from other departments in the university. More than 30,000 producer-owned cattle went through these facilities.
“With the Pawhuska research station 75 miles away, we couldn’t economically use the OSU feed mill, the faculty oversight was limited, veterinary students were used only two or three days a month, animal science undergraduates were not involved at all, and the travel to and from the station was expensive,” Gill said.
It was decided that the Pawhuska Research Station would be moved to Stillwater, Okla. From monetary support through the Oklahoma Livestock Foundation, private funds, federal grants and state bond money, the Willard Sparks Beef Research Center was built in Stillwater. Named after Willard Sparks of Memphis, Tenn., to honor his contribution of one-half million dollars, the facility cost more than $2 million. Sparks is an OSU alumnus in agricultural economics.
The Sparks Center sits on 80 acres west of Stillwater and has the capacity to hold 980 cattle. The first cattle were received at the end of August. The fa- cility has a receiving area for backgrounding cattle and 64 eight-head pens that can be used for feedlot trials. Unlike the Pawhuska Research Station where only one trial could be run at a time, five or six trials can be run here simultaneously.
Another advantage of the new center being located in Stillwater is that cattle can be harvested and processed at OSU’s Food and Agricultural Products Research and Technology Center.
“We have a tremendous amount of labor available now that it is in Stillwater. There are eight work-study students employed, several graduate students and two to three veterinary medicine students out there every day learning how to identify and treat sick cattle,” Gill said. “It is a hands-on teaching lab that replicates the commercial industry.”
The Sparks Center provides the opportunity to teach students through the interaction of research, students in different majors and industry.
“It becomes more of a systems approach to research,” Brett Gardner, animal science graduate student, said. “There is a relationship among people in the fields of nutrition, breeding, meats, reproduction, genetics and veterinary medicine. We can all work together to ultimately put the final product on the table for the consumer.”
There are several research projects currently being conducted at the Sparks Center. The underlying theme of most research projects is trying to find economical benefits for the producer.
One is directly related to shipping fever.
The researchers are placing an antioxidant in the feed and looking at the rate and efficiency of gain, incidence of sickness and amount of medicine that needs to be administered in relation to the antioxidant. They are testing to see if the addition of the antioxidant in the feed will improve the performance and health status of the cattle.
Another research project is different rations being fed to confinement cattle as substitutes for hay due to the drought situation in Oklahoma last year. Due to the high cost of hay as compared to the low cost of grain, they are trying to find a cheaper way to maintain cattle.
Other research projects are trying to identify genetic markers for the marbling trait in feedlot cattle and trying to determine the effect of implants on the maintenance energy requirement of cattle.
The Sparks Center allows the researchers to have a good idea of what treatments are working and to stay on the forefront on what producer problems are since they are able to work with the cattle on a daily basis.
“We are able to see things first hand and due to the facilities we have available to us, we can go further than producers can . When one of the cattle dies, we can immediately take it to the diagnostic lab to see what the cause of death was. This will allow us to treat more intelligently in the future,” Gill said.
Research will be conducted to study methods to treat sick cattle working primarily through management with a minimum use of drugs. Because of the concern of drug residues in cattle, producers will place more emphasis on treating cattle with nutrition, health practices and management, Gill said.
“There is an old saying if calves are eating well, they will stay well. If calves aren’t eating well, they will get sick and possibly die,” Smith said. “I am convinced if we continually evaluate the interaction of vitamins, trace minerals, protein sources and energy on animal health, we won’t have to rely as heavily on antimicrobials.”
The research findings at the Sparks Center are available to anyone who wants to gain additional knowledge about the results.
“Everyone from the cow-calf operators to the stocker owners gains valuable information by the experiments that are being conducted. In addition, Dr. Gill and Dr. Smith travel across the United States presenting the information to groups of producers, members of industry and other researchers,” said, Roy Ball, herd manager of the Sparks Center.
The Willard Sparks Beef Research Center is just another way OSU is staying on the cutting edge of research and will continue to be a respected institution and leader in the livestock and meat industries.
Willard R. Sparks founded Sparks Companies Inc. which is an agricultural information and consulting firm. It currently serves more than 500 clients worldwide. Previously, during his 14-year career at Cook Industries Inc., he was instrumental in beginning the first large sale of soybeans and some of the largest U.S. grain sales to the Soviet Union. He also is part owner of Refco Inc., one of the world’s largest futures commission merchants, headquartered in Chicago.
Sparks, from Dibble, Okla., received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oklahoma State University and a doctorate from Michigan State University. All three degrees are in agricultural economics..
Sparks holds memberships in major U.S. commodity exchanges such as the Chicago Board of Trade, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the Kansas City Board of Trade, and the New York Cotton Exchange where he served on its board of managers for several years.
His family farming enterprises include soybeans, cotton, wheat, rice and corn in Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. He has cattle operations in Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Nebraska, Mississippi, Missouri and Arkansas.
In addition to his corporate activities, he is a respected community leader who has devoted particular attention to support of the arts and education.
By Cammie Johnson