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Iowa Lakes beef facility up and running

By Staff | May 5, 2017

COMPARISON DATA IS BEING COLLECTED on outdoor and indoor feedlot pens at the new beef lab at Iowa Lakes Community College in Emmetsburg. Camera technology is also being utilized to record and help students and staff keep track of what’s going on in the barn at all times. The monoslope barn is a 63-by-350-foot EPS building, holding both feedlot cattle and a cow/calf operation.

By Karen Schwaller


EMMETSBURG-Students studying agriculture careers at Iowa Lakes Community College (ILCC) in Emmetsburg helped to break in a brand new beef learning lab.

The lab, located on the college’s farm just west of Emmetsburg on U.S. Highway 18, is a monoslope building measuring 63 feet by 350 feet that houses both beef cattle and cow/calf hands-on education.

Construction on the building began two years prior to the ribbon cutting last August, and it came with a price tag of nearly half a million dollars. Financial support for the facility came from ACE (Accelerated Career Education) funding, state money that assists Iowa’s community colleges in either establishing or expanding programs that train individuals in the occupations most needed by Iowa businesses.

Neal Williamsen, instructor for Ag Production Technology at ILCC, said the new lab was something that brought their beef production technology into the new age.

“We needed to upgrade because it tends to be the trend in the industry,” said Williamsen. “We also needed to upgrade our antiquated cow/calf facilities on the west side of the farm – they were needing a lot of work, so we decided to combine things into one barn.”

Mark Jensen, ag business and feedlot instructor, said the building was needed to stay current with today’s trends.

“We wanted to teach more modern-day beef production in Northwest Iowa,” he said. “We hope it attracts more students to come here, and it has.”

One end of the monoslope building houses 50 cow/calf pairs (and a few replacement heifers) and the other end houses 130 indoor feedlot beef cattle, with 80 head of beef cattle outside so comparisons can be done on how each lifestyle impacts the animals. The feedlot cattle are custom fed for a local producer.

Williamsen said the upgrade now offers a chance to demonstrate confined feeding versus outdoor feeding.

“On the feedlot side we have three pens of cattle, one of which is outside (steers),” he said. “…and we have an inside pen of steers and an inside pen of heifers. The goal is to get (overall) data on those to compare growth and efficiency.”

Williamsen said there is much less manure with the indoor feedlot cattle and cows because of a bedding pack, as opposed to the outdoor cattle. He also said the hair coats on the indoor animals are slick, while the coats of cattle outside are still in transition.

He said they had to learn how to ventilate the barn, as well as set up water systems and decide how often to scrape manure from the floors – which he said they do once per week.

“I thought we would see all sorts of scour problems with the calves, but we have seen absolutely nothing,” Williamsen said. “We changed some shot sequences, but not much.”

He added the calving pen area features a “Bud Box” as opposed to crowding pens, which he said are a practical, low-stress and “instinctive” way to move cows. Feedlot cattle and cows are also run through it when they get processed each year.

Williamsen said the farm lab is a place for ag students to learn management styles and be responsible for chores, night checks when cows are calving, cleaning stalls and processing calves and cattle. The feedlot side (group of students) does the feeding of the cattle and cows, helping decide on rations and making sure the animals are properly fed. He said there are 10 students working through rotations on each side.

Classroom work is done on campus in Emmetsburg. Jensen said students learn management styles, feeding protocol, animal husbandry and health, among other topics.

“The most challenging thing to teach them is time management and accountability for their presence here,” he said.

“This is a hands-on approach to management in all beef areas,” said Williamsen. “It’s more than physical labor-they’ve operated some different equipment, such as a bale processor that blows bedding in and things like that. We can talk about feed efficiency and shots, but it’s pretty hard to teach about giving shots without (having) animals.”

He said the veterinary tech students also use the farm lab to gain experience in large animal handling and care.


The new beef lab features a camera system that focuses on both the feedlot side and the calving center.

“Our students can use an app on their phones to check the barn at any time, and we’re going to add more cameras in time,” Williamsen said. “Next year there will be three other cameras added, including one for security purposes.”

Williamsen said the cameras help make the calving process proceed faster because disturbing a cow that is calving can often end in delays and the process starting over. He also said the camera records the time, so students can see what time a calf was born.

He added the technology is helpful because most of their students live in town, and if nothing is happening at 10 p.m., they can reset an alarm for 1 a.m. and check again.

“It becomes a safety issue too because you don’t have to worry about driving out here when you’re groggy,” Williamson said.

Jensen said technology is big for today’s ag students.

“Today’s students are so technological – everything needs to be visual,” he said. “I think it energizes kids to say we’re changing and keeping up, bringing new things and staying current, because, in the world of technology, that’s where their brain is.”

The waterer system features a GFI for each line, along with a light on a panel – so students and instructors can walk into the maintenance area and check the lights to see if the heater on the waterer is working during cold months. Williamsen said it saves a lot of time, so they don’t have to check each waterer individually.

The old beef barn facilities will be torn down this fall.

Jensen said efficiency is the big selling point for this new beef lab.

“As far as feeding and care of the livestock, it’s all in one place, and all of our supplies are in one place-we’re not driving all over the farm with the feed wagon. Our manure is all in one place, too,” said Jensen, adding that there were four different buildings used for calving previous to the new beef lab.

Williamsen said the square footage in the new lab isn’t much different than what they had before, but it’s contained in one area now, which makes their work easier. He said the sophomore class helped with construction of the outside lab pens and helped hang gates.

The new beef lab makes a statement about ag education at ILCC, Williamsen said.

“It shows our commitment to agriculture,” he said, with Jensen adding that it shows the college is moving forward and not standing still.

What’s coming for


Other technology Williamsen is interested in trying is a sensor placed on a cow’s tail head, which can sense contractions.

He said the college was the recipient of part of a Title III grant through the Department of Education to focus on precision agriculture, and said part of that would involve taking a planter frame and building on it, including the installation of precision technology. That grant will also allow for updating GPS equipment, new software, combine and spray simulators, upgrading the feed wagon with technology and more.

For now the next phase of the farm renovation will be the completion of a new office/classroom area and a maintenance lab. That project is scheduled for 2019, based on available ACE funding.

“It would be nice to bring a combine or planter in and open it all up for the kids to see how it works or add technology to it,” said Jensen.

The college farm lab also features a new swine lab with 60 sows in a farrow-to-finish operation, along with 160 acres of corn and 110 acres of soybeans this year. They also have a drone that they use to educate students.

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