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Advanced students at Cottonwood Range and Livestock Research Station working to prevent PEM in cattle

Researchers ... From left: Heather Richter, Kathleen “Katy” Bridges and Laura Parr. Not pictured: Colt Knight.

Four college students from different parts of the country are working this year out at the Cottonwood Range and Livestock Research Station, studying the sulfate toxicosis problem in cattle.

Two of these students are working at the station as part of their thesis. Heather Richter, from Morristown, Minn., is working on her master's degree at South Dakota State University, having already graduated there with a bachelor's degree in both animal and range science. She would like to work either for the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service after achieving her degree.

Colt Knight, from West Virginia, earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., in animal equine science and is working on his master's degree at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. He plans on going on to Texas A&M to work on his doctorate after earning his master's.

The other two students are both in their senior undergraduate year. Laura Parr, who grew up on a small cattle ranch in Virginia, is an animal and range science major at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. She is interested in going on to graduate school and studying meat sciences. Kathleen "Katy" Bridges is an animal science major, focusing on dairy science, at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She grew up in a small town about four and a half hours from Baton Rouge and wants to be a lab technician.

All four students will be working on preventing a disease called polioencephalomalacia (PEM) in cattle, which has been reportedly caused by an excess amount of sulfur in either water or feed. "PEM leads to brain necrosis," Knight said. "It turns the brain into swiss cheese."

There are 96 steers on trial at the research station. Those steers will be used to test to see whether certain minerals or supplements or certain genes within the steers counteract the effects of excessive sulfur consumption and prevent PEM.

Though they haven't been able to do much just yet with the animals or testing, that doesn't mean the students haven't been able to do any work. "Before I came here, I had never taken blood (from cattle)," said Parr, "or a liver biopsy." The students perform liver biopsies on the cattle in order to test for an excess amount of sulfur. They also participated in branding the cattle soon after arriving at the station.

The students will be running tests all summer, with the help of Ron Haigh, the superintendent of the research station, and though two of the students will have to return to their respective colleges in late August, hopefully by that time they will have found a solution to PEM.