Cottonwood Range and Livestock Field Station an SDSU data source for 106 years
for SDSU’s College of Ag & Biological Science
The year was 1907 and agricultural leaders in South Dakota recognized that conducting research on the soils, crops and rangelands of South Dakota would be important to helping the state’s future progress. With much of the research at that time focused on the areas near the SDSU campus in Brookings, they looked west to the heart of South Dakota’s rangeland. The Agricultural Experiment Station at SDSU established the Cottonwood Range and Livestock Field Research Station near Philip, S.D. – and 106 years later, SDSU scientists are still conducting studies to benefit South Dakota agriculture.
Located along U.S. Hwy. 14 approximately 11 miles west of the town of Philip – and more than 300 miles from the campus in Brookings – the station initially included 640 acres and research focused on crops and soils. In 1940, 2,000 acres of federal land were added and research was expanded to include grazing and nutrition studies.
In 1942, a long-term grazing study was initiated at the Cottonwood Station to evaluate the impact of range condition on range ecosystem dynamics and livestock production. This ongoing study provides a rare opportunity to examine the responses of mixed-grass prairie ecosystems to a wide array of climatic conditions and grazing systems, and has resulted in scientific papers that challenge several long-held range paradigms.
SDSU rangeland management professor and extension specialist Roger Gates explains the value of having several decades of research information: “The long term stocking rate studies at Cottonwood are extremely important scientifically because only a few locations nationwide have maintained studies for so many years. This research forms the foundation for scientific understanding of vegetation dynamics and response to grazing in the Northern Plains. Current Ecological Site Descriptions, which are used to guide management, are derived directly from Cottonwood research for clayey ecological sites, one of the most widespread in western South Dakota.”
He adds, “The same long term studies have more recently been used to understand relationships of vegetation production to climatic variation and the relationships of financial returns to stocking decisions. Commitment to maintaining long term research has provided a very important resource to help ranchers and their advisors make rational management decisions.”
SDSU extension beef specialist Ken Olson adds, “Most research is short-term, meaning the experiment is conducted for three years at the most. However, responses in agricultural systems are typically slow and dynamic, and in the rare long-term studies in existence – like what we are able to do at Cottonwood, we often find that the long-term conclusions change dramatically from those drawn in the early years.”
SDSU range science professor Sandy Smart has completed research with analysis from the historic data sets and that information provided insight into the ability to predict forage production from weather variables. Smart also analyzed Cottonwood data along with other long-term data sets from several states in the Great Plains to gain a better understanding of harvest efficiency under different stocking rates.
Presently, Smart is working on measuring annual root production to help develop models to predict runoff, sediment yield, nitrogen and phosphorus from rangelands.
As a result of this long-term research, SDSU scientists and South Dakota livestock producers readily agree that the research conducted at the Cottonwood Field Station has been instrumental in developing and refining proper grazing management on western South Dakota rangelands.
In the 1990’s a generous donation was made to update the facilities at the Cottonwood Field Station to enhance livestock research efforts at the site. The donation was made by Lake Preston, SD, native and SDSU animal science alum Bill Larson (Ph.D. ‘69). The Cottonwood facility improvements were completed during 2000 and 2001 and added a feedlot area, cattle handling barn and commodity shed.
The drylot feedlot area included 12-pens, waterers and concrete feedbunks with capacity for up to 10 head per pen. On a range-based station such as Cottonwood, this facility allows for comparing livestock response to various treatments in drylot vs. grazing conditions or for studying responses to a forage-based diet in a more controlled setting than on pasture.
Today, research at this 2,640 acre facility continues to focus on range and cow-calf management. Recent research studies have evaluated water quality issues during persistent drought, use of dried distillers grains for supplementation, and currently are focusing work on heifer development and utilizing the cowherd for fetal programming studies. The station is used to develop and calve out more than 100 heifers which are utilized for research programs, and yearlings are purchased for additional research projects.
SDSU range science professor Pat Johnson has conducted research at the Cottonwood Field Station for 25 years and says facility improvements at the station have been critical to ensuring quality research continues there. She states, “The Cottonwood Station has focused on range livestock production throughout its history, however the addition of the feedlot and cattle feeding and handling facilities has dramatically improved our ability to evaluate the consequences of grazing strategies on livestock production. Without the feedlot pens and commodity shed, the water quality work that we conducted would have been impossible. They allowed us to evaluate the impact of various levels of sulfate on animal production and to compare animal responses to sulfate in water in both drylot and rangeland situations.”
She continues, “These facilities have vastly increased the scope and quality of the research for faculty and students and the Extension programming conducted at the station in the past, and will continue to do so into the future.”
For the future, the traditional range research work will continue along with new projects, such as fetal programming studies being initiated by SDSU meat science assistant professor Amanda Blair. With funding from two grants, she reports, “We have utilized nearly all of the cows from the Cottonwood station for this project and relied on the feedlot area, working facilities, commodity storage areas, unit manager and pastures for completion of this work. It is my hope that these studies are only the beginning of much more research linking the beef production chain from conception to consumption, and I plan to continue utilizing the resources of the Cottonwood Station for this work.”
In 2013 another upgrade was made to the Cottonwood Field Station with the addition of a modern multi-purpose facility to enhance the research work being done. Built through private donations, the facility includes office space, a laboratory with separate drying and grinding rooms for sample preparation and analysis, a heated shop area, a secure feed storage area and a machinery storage area.
An open house at the Cottonwood Range and Livestock Field Station will be held Saturday, Sept. 7. Current research project information will be shared by SDSU faculty along with tours of the new multi-purpose facility.