Photo by Mark Thallman--
Cattle graze on pasture that is part of the the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center at Clay Center, Neb. The Center came under sharp critiscm from the New York Times in 2015 for alleged animal mistreatment.
Photo by Mark Thallman-- Cattle graze on pasture that is part of the the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center at Clay Center, Neb. The Center came under sharp critiscm from the New York Times in 2015 for alleged animal mistreatment.
The past year has been a long one for the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center at Clay Center, Neb., which drew sharp criticism from New York Times readers in early 2015 when an article was published alleging animal maltreatment at the center. 
“That’s not what we’re doing,” said Chad Engle, livestock operations manager at MARC. “A lot of people do not understand agriculture.”
Perhaps no one trusts MARC more so than the Midwest cattle producers whose production management decisions are based off the latest industry standards grounded in the research conducted here. But in the spirit of transparency, MARC staff wanted everyone who attended the 2016 Farmers and Ranchers Cow/Calf College at their facility on Jan. 20 to know the real story.
There are no mad scientists here doing Frankenstein experiments on animals, Engle said. The reality is MARC is just a large ranch and feedlot where data happens to be collected on every day management decisions to help producers better their herds.
“Our production practices are similar to yours,” Engle said. “Our production challenges are similar to yours. We are all in this together.”
MARC sits on more than 34,000 acres of mostly pasture and cares for more than 30,000 head of livestock between its three species – beef cattle, swine and sheep – including 7,800 cows and 6,400 head in the feedlot, each with radio-frequency identification tags and a DNA sample in the repository. 
“The database goes back to the beginning of time,” Engle said.
A total of 45 full-time scientists are involved with the beef program. The type of research done here is as practical as any production management systems already in place in beef producers’ herds, because the goal of MARC is to turn out accurate research that can be readily applied on the farm, ranch or feedlot. There are two main cow herds: a commercial breeding program; and another that facilitates evaluations of everything from conception to consumption, even disease resistance, among the most common 18 breeds used in the United States.
To do this, MARC staff engages in thorough recordkeeping from birth. All calves are tagged within 24 hours of being born, at which time sex, weight, color and many other variables are recorded. While cows are weighed, measured and scored three times a year, all calves are tracked individually. 
“Even the smallest management decisions can have huge research implications,” Engle said.
Animal welfare is of the highest priority at MARC, not only because it is ethical but also because well-cared-for cattle are easier to manage, Engle said. Low-stress animal handling also is consistent with best management practices and makes for more productive cows and higher-performing calves – not to mention that stress levels in the animals would skew research results.
“We value time over money,” Engle said. “I guarantee you’d let them take care of your cattle at home.”
MARC staff is serious about managing the livestock here just as well as they would their own.
“A lot of you may not know who works here, that we’re local people, that we’re working with animals all the time,” Engle said, who himself raises beef cattle near Geneva, Neb. “A lot of them work here all day and go home to do it all over again with their own herds. That means they are invested. Livestock production isn’t just what we do. It’s who we are.”
MARC’s cattle operations are constantly working to stay ahead of the trends, to best represent the research. To do this, the center hires consultants in specialized areas, such as grazing and animal handling, and also conducts focus groups to be sure to keep on top of the current industry concerns.
An example of the influence from these trusted consultants and focus groups is moving the MARC commercial herd to a 28-day heifer breeding program. To make this work, MARC then turns out up to 40 percent more heifers than are planned to be retained, after which all of the open heifers are either fed or sold. The direct results of these management changes have been a heifer pregnancy rate in the 70s and a gain on weaning weights of second-calf heifers of up to 50 pounds.
Another example is the increased emphasis on grazing. Nearly 25,000 acres are in pasture, approximately 11,000 each of warm- and cool-season grass, and the remainder of which is irrigated pasture. Cover crops are also utilized to put unproductive land to work. 
“There are some years out here we have no problem carrying 10,000 cows,” Engle said. “But we have to balance that with years like 2012.”
A forage specialist on staff oversees the management-intensive grazing systems.
“We have got really good at grazing,” Engle said. “We have some of the best graziers around. The other side of that is cattle are tamer.”
Overall, MARC is recommitted to increasing transparency with consumers to give a real picture of what agricultural animal research looks like. It’s not what ill-informed media has portrayed, but rather more like a stroll into the pasture of a producer with an exceptional recordkeeping system and equally impressive stockmanship.
Engle shared a note he received after leading a tour of MARC. Because of learning the truth about MARC, this vegetarian wrote that he was reconsidering eating meat again.
“We can change people’s minds,” he said.