From Naval depot to research center

U.S. Meat Animal Research Center has impact on production management, food supply

Gary Bennett cringes at calling the nation’s meat research center near Clay Center, Nebraska, a best-kept secret.

“I don’t want it to be a secret,” Bennett, the acting director of the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, said. 

But the livestock research conducted in the large complex in south central Nebraska—from studies on productivity and nutrient management to food safety and antimicrobial resistance—isn’t always relayed to the consumers and producers in the industry. 

That’s why, on April 25, the center opened its doors to agriculture media, having its first ever beef research update to showcase the various projects its 200-some employees are studying.

The Nebraska Beef Council and Nebraska Cattlemen spearheaded the idea. Pete McClymont, executive vice president of Nebraska Cattlemen, said his organization knows the impact of this research.

Some of these projects have received funding through the beef council, he said.

“When you talk to your counterparts around the world, especially in the cow/calf business, they talk about the research that is being done here compared to Australia, Canada, England,” McClymont said.

However, he added, “Being in the beef industry in Nebraska, a lot of people here don’t know about it. Once you find out what they do here that is impactful, it really makes you proud that this is something that makes a difference—not just for the producers but the consumers, also.”


Naval site

The center, or MARC, as it is commonly called, sits on the site of a World War II naval ammunition depot, Bennett said.

Grass-covered bunkers dot the pastures where ammunition once was stored. Today, many of them are empty, although a few have been transformed into livestock barns and storage sheds.

Congress transferred 34,000 acres of the naval site to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1964. Presently, research programs use female populations of 8,000 cows, 2,000 ewes and roughly 400 sows to solve high-priority problems for the U.S. livestock industry.

Larry Kuehn, a research geneticist, estimated about 100 different study outlines are occurring at the center in both hogs and cattle. Some of the studies include calving difficulty, crossbred expected progeny differences and feed efficiency.

“All cattle here are on study,” he said. “There are a lot of things going on at any one time.”


A few of the 100-plus studies

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Kuehn said his main focus at MARC is a Germplasm Evaluation Project. The research emphasizes improved genetic evaluation, estimation of breed differences and how the breeds are changing over time. The research also assesses genomic marker effects for economically important traits that are difficult to measure.

Over time, Kuehn said they have learned more about the differences in some breeds based on how they compared to Angus cattle.

“It doesn’t seem true anymore, but at the time there were a lot of cattle breeders in the United States that didn’t know a lot about what Simmental did relative to Angus, what a Limousin did, what a Charolais did and what was their advantages at the time,” he said.

The project has been going on several years and has evolved, Kuehn said.

“We started thinking, how do we do the best job of supporting our genomics program with the amount of diversity we need to cover the U.S. beef cattle industry and also to understand what is different about these primary use breeds and make sure we are continually sampling them over time to understand how they are changing due to the genetic selection programs that are going on,” Kuehn said.

Meanwhile, John Schmidt, a microbiologist in MARC’s Meats Safety and Quality Research unit, said his focus is antimicrobial resistance in food-animal production agriculture. One study performed at a beef processing plant demonstrated that sanitary dressing procedures and processing inventions are effective against antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.

Harvey Freetly, the research leader for the Nutrition and Environmental Management Research unit, said he is conducting production-level studies on beef systems. His studies including integrating cattle with crop production. 

Freetly said the goal is to address two major problems in the nation. One is the decline in the availability of grass for beef production due to crop production.

“The other is the need to increase farm revenue,” he said. “One of the things we are looking at is, is there a way to bring a next generation back to the farm by increasing the diversity of the enterprise by combining beef production system in a traditional farming system,” Freetly said.

Such a project takes a large number of animals and a large acreage of crop ground, he said. MARC, which has 2,000 acres alone of irrigated corn, is the perfect location.

“We feel like we are uniquely situated,” Freetly said. “We have those resources. That is why we decided to go this direction.”

Another study involves grazing corn residue and cover crops. Cover crops help reduce soil erosion and trap nutrients so they don’t leach into the water table, Freetly said.

“One of the things we are trying to understand, can we get a double advantage with these cover crops by coming in with some of our beef systems and getting some grazing off of them as well,” he said. 


Living laboratory

On a bus tour of the property, Elaine Berry, a Meats Safety and Quality Research unit microbiologist, called MARC a living laboratory. She pointed to a waterway that was attracting wildlife. One study involves flash grazing and the effects on water systems. Outside researchers are exploring the interactions of water, wildlife and livestock. 

For instance, wildlife biologists have put GPS collars on raccoons to track their patterns around the MARC feedlot, Berry said. Entomologists also documenting how flies, including corn and house flies, transmit resistant bacteria. 

Berry said MARC is known across the world for its livestock research but sometimes the folks living a county away don’t realize what scientists are doing and the impact it has on production and the food supply.

Bennett said he hopes the event can spread the word.

“I think the thing we wanted to accomplish today is to get our research out to a wider community,” he said.

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or [email protected].