When visiting Ag Progress Days, it’s easy to get swept away by farm equipment.
Towering combines, tractors and trucks painted in bright, primary colors easily take the center stage. But much more happens at Ag Progress than just the latest in backhoes and disc harrows.
Science permeates the event, much of it led by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. New research and testing continue to lead to advancements in both plant and animal care.
The future for animals can be found right in the college’s exhibits building, where instructor Ben Williamson explained how reducing stress in an animal’s environment can lead to more productive animals and better management overall.
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“People tend to handle livestock with loud noises and little regard to the animal itself,” he said, “but that’s not the best way to do it.”
Williamson sat next to a cattle chute that demonstrated the pitfalls and shortcomings of a typical chute: errant bolts that animals could snag on, steps that are not easily seen and rattling chains that often frighten cattle.
“The analogy I use working with cattle and putting them through loading systems is like a haunted house for humans,” he said. “They get nervous because they don’t know what distractions are coming or what’s coming around the corner.”
He said the goal is to start making people aware of what animals see and what they’re perceiving as distractions. Something as simple as a radio can become a major stressor for animals that are not around them often.
The premise is the application of science to improve production, he said. Larger problems are difficult to address at an event like Ag Progress, so instead, Williamson focuses on small things he can teach people each year to help improve their operations and make them more aware of the things they can be doing to be more productive.
Ginny Ishler, of the college extension dairy team, described how food industry leftovers can be used for animal feed.
“Feed is an expensive component,” she said. “We can utilize these leftovers to help the bottom line of producers to make more money.”
Ishler showed samples of candy meal, roasted soybeans, ground corn, beet pulp, cotton seeds, canola meal and citrus pulp. In cases of material like candy meal, the ground leftovers from candy production are inedible to humans, but can be fed to cattle.
A mix of canola meal (protein), candy meal (sugar), ground corn (starch) and beans (protein and fat) can provide a more balanced meal and is cheaper than straight feed, she said. It provides diversity and helps to use a product that would otherwise end up in an landfill.
When it comes to crops, few things are a hotter topic than biofuels. Penn State is doing a lot of work in biofuels, extension researcher Dan Ciolkosz said.
“Not so much in corn and ethanol,” he said, “but what’s the next step?”
The next step, according to Ciolkosz, is cellulosic crops. These are crops that can produce biofuel from the wood, grass or otherwise inedible parts of the plant. They also grow well in areas that can’t support traditional crops like corn or soybeans.
Penn State has been working with Rutgers, Cornell, West Virginia and other universities in the Northeast to build a biofuel industry in the region, he said.
The big issue, Ciolkosz said, is not how to transform plants to biofuel, but rather how to grow material and get it to a processor in a cost-effective manner.
“To meet the nation’s objectives for renewable biofuel over the next few years,” he said, “we have to actually double the amount that’s being grown and transported.”
The challenge, he said, is to get several thousand acres growing and get it to a refinery, while making it work for everyone.
Sustainability has three components: It has to be good for the environment, it has to be economical and it has to be good for society as a whole.
“Bioenergy is one of those things where if you do it right, it can be a win-win-win situation for all three,” Ciolkosz said.