A three-year study by Iowa State University on cattle performance at a confinement owned by Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter will be beneficial to all beef producers, Rastetter and the researchers say.
ISU researchers have been working with Rastetter's company, Summit Farms LLC, to study whether cattle grow bigger and healthier with less feed when they stand on rubber mats instead of concrete, as the mat manufacturers claim. Preliminary findings published in an industry newsletter last year suggested mats may be beneficial but were inconclusive, and more detailed data is expected to be released in coming months.
Summit Farms manager Eric Peterson said the Alden-based corporation is awaiting the findings before deciding whether to install more rubber mats for the 8,000 cattle that it feeds. He and Rastetter said the results will be public, helping all producers make similar decisions.
Still, the study is another example of the entanglement between Rastetter's business and one of the universities that he governs as a regent. He disclosed the study on a conflict of interest form, which the regents have started posting online.
The Iowa Energy Center, administered by Iowa State, confirmed last week that it has awarded Summit Farms $480,000 in no-interest loans to install three wind turbines. ISU withdrew from a project in 2012 to develop farmland in Tanzania with an investment group headed by Rastetter, after critics called it a land grab.
Rastetter, a former hog production and ethanol executive who has more recently invested in beef operations, called the cattle study an example of the routine but valuable collaboration between Iowa State and farmers.
"Summit Farms could have done that mat trial on their own and kept that information proprietary. We did it with Iowa State and shared the numbers because all Iowa producers are going to benefit from that information," he said.
The study started in 2011, months after Gov. Terry Branstad appointed Rastetter to the board. Summit Farms had asked ISU for advice on whether to install mats at a new confinement. Little research had been done on the impact of mats. The ISU Extension and the school's Iowa Beef Center offered to help study the performance of cattle standing on three kinds of mats against those without a mat.
ISU researchers said they were interested in the project because Summit Farms was a large enough operation to allow for comparisons that would yield meaningful data.
"We'd work with others, too" in a similar situation, ISU Extension beef field specialist Russ Euken said.
In response to a records request, ISU attorney Paula DeAngelo said last month the school didn't have an agreement with Summit Farms for the study. But the school later released an undated, unsigned document spelling out how ISU and Summit Farms would conduct the research.
ISU Extension agreed to analyze data collected, write a public report with the findings, perform "an estimate on potential economic return" and pursue available research funding. Summit Farms agreed to supply the pens, mats and cattle and collect and share data.
Such informal agreements aren't unheard of in studies in which no money changes hands, Euken said.
"I wouldn't say we do it all the time, but it's fairly routine," said Euken, who received a grant from the Iowa Beef Center for the project.