The Big Picture
Team effort critical to sustainable animal production.
Today’s production of a billion kilograms of beef – more than 2 billion pounds – requires 35 percent less land, 20 percent less feed, 12 percent less water and 30 percent fewer animals than it did in 1977.
These production efficiencies were realized through science and research collaborations, according to Clinton Krehbiel, who became head of the Department of Animal Science at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in 2017.
And the timing couldn’t be better.
In the late 1800s, it took 100 years for the world to grow to 1 billion people, Krehbiel said; the last gain of 1 billion people has taken only 12-14 years. By 2050, there will be 9 billion global mouths to feed, with the same or fewer natural resources. Sustainable production of more animal protein will be a part of the solution to feeding that increased population.
“We’re thinking about where we need to go from here to make ourselves even more efficient for the future,” he said.
“The Morrill Act of 1862 provided federal land to states to establish universities so they could train students in agriculture and the mechanic arts,” Krehbiel said, noting that the University of Nebraska still understands the value of the land-grant mission.
“We are here first to serve the next generation; the students we train. That is the main purpose of the land-grant mission,” Krehbiel said.
In 1887, the enactment of the Hatch Act added a research component to the Morrill Act and the 1914 Smith-Lever Act added Extension, so the work of University of Nebraska scientists encompasses teaching, research and extension of research to the people who need it.
Significant events have occurred every 10-15 years since 1940 that improve animal health and increase animal production, Krehbiel said, much of it thanks to the land-grant mission:
• 1940s: artificial insemination began to have an impact on the production of dairy and beef cattle.
• 1950s: growth technologies impacted animal growth and efficiency.
• 1950s: compounds to fight parasites were initiated.
• 1970s: feed additives to increase efficiency and weight gain benefited the cattle industry, especially in the feedlot industry.
• 1990s: new antimicrobial medications came on the market, curing bacterial infections in cattle and contributing to animals’ well-being.
• 2000s: beta-agonists came into use as feed ingredients to help animals make the most efficient gains.
“Now, we’re looking at history and considering what the next 100 years need to look like,” Krehbiel said.
QUEST FOR EFFICIENCIES
The term “big data” comes from the adoption of technologies, especially since the early 2000s, that allow scientists to generate and capture a great deal of information, Krehbiel said.
“For example, the genome of the bovine has been sequenced, and there are 3 billion base pairs of DNA. If you’re looking at unique genotypes of several different breeds of animals, you can see how rapidly the amount of data multiplies,” he said. An example of generating large amounts of research data is the GrowSafe System® used in university research facilities. The system uses an ear tag on each animal with a unique number; the system reads the number and measures the feeding behavior and the feed intake of each animal housed in the same pen of a feedlot.
“All that information adds up to a whole lot of data points in a hurry,” he explained.
The ultimate goal of animal science research will be to improve production systems and enhance efficiencies to be sustainable for the future, Krehbiel said. Part of sustainability will be to select the genotypes of animals for environments where there are limited water resources, in which the animals gain the same level of performance or production, with less water. Plant researchers are doing similar research, he said, developing plants that can produce a yield even in heat, drought or flood situations.
SYSTEMS RESEARCH ACROSS DISCIPLINES
The University of Nebraska is moving toward integrated approaches to solving problems by thinking about the entire system of food production.
“How does soil health impact nutrient capture of that soil to impact plant growth? How does that soil health ultimately affect what that ruminant animal might consume? How does that interaction affect the nutrient profile of the steak you might eat?” Krehbiel asked. Then, the animal delivers nutrients back to the soil that the plants and soil microorganisms are going to re-integrate into that entire ecosystem. There is a lot of information to be modeled to determine that impact of those relationships, he added.
This “systems approach” is a collaborative effort to bring together many minds to solve a single problem,” he said. Ultimately, someone must take all of the research information – all of those data points – and analyze, summarize and model it, Krehbiel said. In the soil-plant-animal sciences, that means determining the “downstream effects” of even the smallest changes.
CHANGING SPECIALTIES, EDUCATION
The ability to capture billions of research data points also generated the need for bigger computers, more data storage space and faculty who understand the value of big data. More academic departments are hiring faculty who understand bioinformatics – the combination of biology and mathematics – to analyze and model the information, Krehbiel said, with the goal of understanding those “downstream effects” of changes throughout the entire growth system.
The advent of big data, bioinformatics and a need to supply food for a growing population also influences the teaching of both undergraduate and graduate students, Krehbiel said. There are more courses being developed around the systems approach and also around the science of big data, especially at the graduate level.
More than 350 undergraduate students and 75 graduate students study in the university’s Department of Animal Science. Internationally recognized faculty offer courses in breeding and genetics; ruminant and non-ruminant nutrition; reproductive physiology; and meats. The department has evolved to include dairy and beef cattle, sheep, swine, poultry, horses and companion animals.