February: What’s happening on the farm?

By on February 10, 2014

Piedmont RS dairy calves

A staff member at the Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury tends to dairy calves that are part of a colostrum absorption study under way at the station.

Farms are places of year-round activity. There is almost always something going on, regardless of the season.

This month, we are beginning a new feature for the In the Field blog, where we will highlight one of our research stations and the work taking place on the farm to give our readers more insight into the world of farming and innovative agricultural research. There are 18 research stations across the state, operated in partnership between the department, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University. The stations are strategically located across the state to account for different soil types, climates, crops and livestock production. Department staff manage the day-to-day operations of the stations and the research field work, while researchers from the universities set up the parameters of the research. This month we will kick things off with the Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury.

The Piedmont Research Station was established in 1953. Today, it includes research on dairy cattle, poultry, small grains, horticultural crops, fruits and high tunnel greenhouse production on its 1,036 acres. In February, not a lot of field work is being done. Instead, the station staff is busy preparing for the upcoming growing season.

Station superintendent Joe Hampton said livestock research means there is always something to be tended to, with feed and water to distribute. In addition to normal equipment maintenance and repairs that are taken care of this time of year, workers are busy caring for dairy calves as part of a study that will evaluate their ability to absorb colostrum and the effect that absorption has on their long-term health.

Colostrum is often referred to as first milk and it contains antibodies that when ingested are passed to the newborn as protection. In many dairy operations, calves are bottle fed colostrum within 24 hours of birth, while absorption can occur.

“It seems that all calves don’t absorb colostrum at the same rate; some absorb it at a higher rate,” Hampton said. “The study is looking at the long-term health of dairy calves with higher absorption rates for colostrum within the first 24 hours of their lives, compared to dairy calves with a lower absorption rate.” Early indications are that a calf’s ability to absorb colostrum is a genetically transmitted trait, so it may be possible to selectively breed for this characteristic, leading to healthier animals that require fewer antibiotics for optimal health, Hampton said. The calves will be studied over the course of their lives.

An environmental study of pastured poultry is also under way at the station. Pens of 50 hens are set up on the farm, complete with houses. The hens are free to move around the individual lots, with the study focusing on nutrient runoff from these lots.

Photo of pastured poultry

Researchers are studying the environmental effects of pasturing poultry.

Strawberries are another significant commodity that the station is studying. Researchers are looking at the use of row covers as a means to protect and extend the strawberries. The season for strawberries is short and the crop can be severely damaged by late season cold snaps. Using row covers that can be pulled across rows of berries gives them extra protection from cold snaps and may allow for an earlier start to the season.

Time will tell what the research reveals and what the findings may mean for production practices. Many farm production practices have evolved over time thanks in part to research that shows a more efficient or more sustainable way.

Check back next month when we will feature another research station and its work.

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