On a picturesque ranch dotted with live oaks and draped in a quiet blanket of Spanish moss sits the University of Florida's Range Cattle Research and Education Center.
The IFAS research station is nestled in the out-of-the-way town of Ona, and while it may look sleepy and rural, the outpost is busy with scientists like Dr. Phillip Lancaster working hard on cutting-edge cattle-based research.
Lancaster, a 37-year-old assistant professor of beef cattle management, is an extension specialist for the state of Florida and spends about 60 percent of his time on research. His expertise is in feed efficiency, a term that describes how much input of feed it takes to get the desired output from an animal measured in pounds of meat from a growing calf or pounds of milk from a mature beef cow.
Feed efficiency is a major part of research efforts, and its effect ranges from producer profitability (Lancaster said that feed accounts for 60 to 70 percent of the variable costs for beef production) to sustainability.
"If I improve the feed efficiency of the beef cow population, I have an impact on how much feed (ranchers) are going to buy," which affects how much land is needed to grow the crops to produce that feed and so on, explained Lancaster.
"We want to identify those animals that are better at converting feed to pounds of muscle or pounds of milk," Lancaster said. "If we can identify certain genetics that are more efficient at utilizing feed, we can select the next generation," he added.
Lancaster is currently working on a project in conjunction with researchers in northern Florida to discover which genetic traits in certain Angus heifers make them more feed efficient - that is, able to produce a desired result with less feed.
They are in the data-gathering phase right now, which includes strapping cows with belts housing transponders that transmit information such as heart rate and respiration. This information helps researchers determine where and how the cow is expending her energy.
A relatively new piece of technology called the Growsafe automated feed intake measurement system has also made it possible for these scientists to focus on the genetics of feed efficiency. "For a long time we had to measure feed intake of individual animals manually, which was very labor-intensive," remarked Lancaster.
Each animal had to have its own bunk. Researchers would weigh the feed, put it in the bunk, let the animal eat, then go back to collect and weigh the leftover feed. With the Growsafe system, the cattle are tagged with a chip that is read by a computer inside the bunk, which only permits one cow at a time. At the same time, a sophisticated scale continually weighs the amount of feed in the bunk, and the system records both how much was eaten and by which animal.
Lancaster is also trying to launch a project on fetal programming, which looks at how the nutrition of the pregnant cow affects her fetus and how that may impact the metabolism and performance of the calf after it's born. Interestingly, it was a study on humans that first prompted the research on cattle.
"They first noticed it from the Dutch Famine," Lancaster explained. In 1944 and 1945, part of the Netherlands suffered through strict food rationing as a result of a German blockade. Decades later, the Dutch Famine Birth Cohort Study found that the children of pregnant women who had lived through the famine were more susceptible to health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and more.
On top of his research, Lancaster is also an extension specialist who may be called out to speak at events or travel within the state to offer his expertise wherever needed. A native of Illinois who grew up on a diversified farm that grew crops as well as produced animals, Lancaster said he has always loved agriculture.
His master's degree and Ph.D. are both in animal science with an emphasis on ruminant nutrition, which he said fascinated him because of the ability of cattle, with their unique digestive system, to be able to thrive on such a wide variety of feeds when compared with non-ruminant animals like hogs or poultry.
Lancaster was recruited to the Ona station in April of 2013 from Oklahoma State, where he was doing some post-doctoral work. While he's still getting to know the ranchers that the station serves, Lancaster said he's found it interesting to work with such large cattle operations as those found in Florida. And since the research facility has its own head of about 600 cattle, he gets to work outdoors with cattle even though he isn't a rancher himself.
"I think it's a really unique and interesting opportunity," said Lancaster of his post. Since all of the research done at the station is focused on Florida ranching, Lancaster said it gives him a rare opportunity to collaborate with his peers and work on different angles of solving the same problems.
"All of us have an area of expertise, and there's a single clientele that we're all focused on serving, which I think is beneficial," said Lancaster, adding, "We're all working towards to the same goal."