By Gabriel Medina
Nebraska is already playing a strategic role in the future of food production in the U.S. and the rest of the world because of three main reasons, said Larry Berger, head of the Department of Animal Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
First, the state has a large amount of unpopulated land available for agricultural production. Second, the High Plains Aquifer underlies much of the state and supplies water for agriculture, industry and domestic use. Third, Berger said, Nebraska has efficient food processing plants.
"Scientists estimate that we're going to need to almost double food production in the next 40
years," he said, "and consumers will increase their protein level, the animal products in their diet. So we're no longer producing food just for Nebraskans, we're producing food for people in other parts in the world. That's an exciting opportunity."
Berger explained that as a result of technology, the amount of food produced per beef animal today is about 40 percent greater than in 1950, the result of improvements through research.
"I got interested in animal science because I grew up on a farm," said Berger. "But as I went college and as I studied I saw the critical importance of animal products in meeting the global food demand."
The main goal of the animal science department is to provide agricultural producers in the state and the rest of the country with information that can help them to be more efficient today and to have long-term sustainability, he said. The department also provides technology to help the producers identify how to improve the productivity of their animals. Faculty teaches producers how to feed animals so, while animals are still in-utero, they develop appropriately and have maximum productivity.
Consumers will also benefit from this research. Berger pointed out that his department is trying to minimize the cost of food production in the U.S and the rest of the world. Currently, Americans spend less than 10 percent of their disposable income on food, while in some developing countries people spend between 30 and 40 percent of their income on food. These percentages should decrease further as the cost of food production decreases.
Biofuels Are Part of the Solution
Nebraska is the second largest producer of ethanol in the United States and Berger said the state currently has 23 or 24 plants that use fermented corn to produce ethanol. During that process, about 40 percent of the nutritional value of that corn is returned to producers in high-protein byproducts in the form of dried distiller's grains, which are fed to animals.
"What we found is that these byproducts have some unique properties that are differentfrom the corn that it was derived from," he said. "We are learning how to blend that with other ingredients to maximize its nutritional value for the animals. It's been a major reason why Nebraska animal agriculture has continued to flourish compared to other states."
Ethanol byproducts in the future will be used in many different ways to feed animals with diverse needs, he said.
"Now we're making a highprotein byproduct, a high fat byproduct or a high-fiber byproduct for different animal diets. So the industry is headed to try to maximize the value of each component of the distilled, dried grains, rather than just to feed it as one conglomerate of ingredients."
Educating the Future Beef Industry Leaders
Nebraska produces between 20 and 25 percent of the high quality beef in the U.S., which makes the state a leader in the country, according to Berger.
That is one of the reasons why the UNL Department of Animal Science has the Nebraska Beef Industry Scholars Program, which is a four-year certification program to educate leaders in that industry.
"Our focus is to provide personal, human capital to lead the beef industry in Nebraska, in the United States and even in the world in the future," he said. "The average age of the beef producer is about 58 years of age, so many of those people will be retiring in the next 5 to 10 years. And so we need to train young people."
Besides giving students academic training through this program, UNL is helping them to understand what happensin politics related to the beef industry and how international trade influences future beef production.
Research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is focusing on ways to decrease the amounts of the nitrogen and phosphorus that accompany beef production.
"Dr. (Galen) Erickson did some research a few years ago to show that we can feed less phosphorus to animals and not cause any negative impact on health or growth or product quality than what we previously believed to be thecase," Berger said. "So that will reduce the amount of phosphorus excreted into the environment."
However, he also explained that phosphorusis recycledbecause beef animals' excrement is used as fertilizer for crops.
Inter-Institutional Agreements and Multidisciplinary Research
The UNL Animal Science Department partners with others to better benefit farmers and each other. One partnership, with Iowa State University, involves both faculties working with the food producers of both states.
Berger said that considering the fact that universities have tight budgets, Iowa State University specialists can spend up to 10% of their time working with Nebraska farmers and University of Nebraska specialists can spend up to 10% of their time working with Iowa farmers. That is necessary because Iowa specialists have expertise that those in Nebraska don't have, and vice versa. The objective is to meet the needs of livestock farmers from both states in the most cost-effective manner. The UNL Animal Science Department also has agreements with universities in countries like Mexico, where they give seminars about food safety and American standards in the food processing industry.
According to Berger, the department has cooperative arrangements with other UNL departments, including the Department of Agricultural Economics.
The Animal Science department is also cooperating with the UNL Department of Food Science and Technology to look at how modifying animal products might change nutritional value for humans.
"By changing the fatty acid profile of eggs, we can increase the nutritional value in human diets," he said.
Berger also explained that his department does multidisciplinary research with the Department of Statistics, Department of Agronomy and Horticulture and the School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical
The Department of Animal Science receives its main funding from the State of Nebraska and the federal government through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Basic research is also supported by the National Institute of Health (NIH). Commodity organizations such as the producers of beef, corn, soybeans, sorghum and ethanol are among the department's strongest supporters, Berger said.
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