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The Applied Animal Scientist Whither?

24 March 2017

This paper has been prompted by changes in the supply of and demand for graduates with an interest, perhaps better stated as a passion, for working in the livestock industry.

Presentation by Mike Ellis, Department of Animal Sciences, University of Illinois, USA, during the VII CLANA Congress (Latin American College of Animal Nutrition), Mexico, October 2016. 

This paper is no more than an opinion, hopefully an informed one based on experiences in academia and of working closely with industry. However, there is a well-known saying about opinions that roughly translated is that everybody has one and most of them are wrong! I have been extremely fortunate to spend my career on two continents, in two countries that have been extremely supportive of research and teaching in agriculture and have provided more than adequate resources for applied research programs.

I have also had the considerable privilege to work at two Universities that have arguably been at the forefront of the science of livestock production. My discipline is in swine production science and I have experienced two great “eras” in the evolution of this discipline. I spent my formative years in the United Kingdom at a time, in the 1970s and 1980s, when livestock science was in its “hay day” and, arguably the UK was a leader in the science of swine production.

Review of the scientific journals and a listing of eminent animal scientists that were active in the UK at this time provides more than ample evidence for these claims. Many of the concepts that still form the basis of our understanding of swine production science had their origin in that era.

Interestingly, the preeminence of UK livestock science had its genesis in the fallout from the Second World War, a period when there were significant food shortages and rationing of key foodstuffs, particularly animal products, which didn’t actually end until 1954. Post-war government policy was focused on increasing home production of food to avoid future shortages. One component of that policy was a significant investment in agricultural research and in the development of animal scientists.

My move to the University of Illinois was prompted by the opportunity to work at one of the leading global centers of animal science and with colleagues with international reputations. In my biased opinion, over recent decades the US has been one of the leading centers of applied swine science.

Unfortunately, it can no longer be argued that the UK is a major center of applied swine research. This is largely because funding for applied programs has moved from the government to the private sector, with consequent reductions in funding levels. Increasingly, I fear that similar changes are occurring in the US.

Let me be clear that I am not referring to livestock research in general but to the applied segment of the spectrum. More basic research, which ultimately forms the platform for future applied research, continues to flourish at universities and research centers worldwide. However, there is clear evidence that the number of scientists working at these centers in the applied areas, including nutrition, is declining.

Applied swine research has largely moved to the private sector that has both the highly talented scientists and also the resources to mount large applied research programs. This raises what to me is one of the fundamental question in this whole area, namely “who will develop the next generation of applied scientists to work in the livestock industry?” As an aside, a number of individuals have raised concerns about the title of this paper, and some have even doubted its meaning.


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"We can learn a lot about the animals that we work with by observing their behavior"


Predictions of Dr. Braude

I have to admit that the title was plagiarized, in part at least, from a paper presented by Dr. Raphael Braude in 1970 entitled “Pigs Whither” which was presented at a symposium on “The future of animals as a source of human food”. This symposium was held at a time when there was considerable concern over global food security and, in particular, the role of livestock in the food production chain when feed resources are in short supply; a familiar topic of discussion today over 40 years later.

In that paper Dr. Braude stated that “Efficient animal production … I have no difficulty in seeing a rosy future for it” and “If the pig industry is capable and willing to exploit its potential to the utmost, then no other meat producing animal, or bird, and, most probably, none of the synthetic challengers (whenever they come) would be able to dislodge the pigs from a dominating position”.

Although colleagues in the poultry industry would disagree with part of this statement, in a general sense, Dr. Braude’s predictions have stood the test of time and they are as relevant today as they were in 1970. Dr. Braude was one of the leading lights in the UK swine science community during its golden era. He was a swine nutritionist who was head of the swine research group at the National Institute of Research in Dairying.

As the name of the institute might indicate, the primary focus of this research group was to investigate the use of dairy products in swine nutrition. However, Dr. Braude also carried out research in other areas of swine nutrition.

He was the first to demonstrate that adding copper to diets that were adequate in that mineral would improve growth performance. Anecdotal evidence suggests that he observed pigs in one of the research buildings licking the copper pipes that at that time were used for the plumbing of the water supply to the pig pens and wondered if they were deficient in copper. Like a number of important discoveries there was an element of serendipity about this. However, it does illustrate an important point which is that we can learn a lot about the animals that we work with by observing their behavior.

As our university-based research programs become more basic and, by definition, are more focused in the laboratory rather than at the farm, we are in danger of losing an important link with the animal.

Developments in the Swine Sector

On a world basis the production of pigs is increasing to meet the increase in demand for pigmeat and processed pigmeat products. This increased demand is being driven partly by increasing population size but also by increasing standards of living in the so-called developing world. As these two trends are projected to continue into the foreseeable future, there is no reason to believe that the demand for pigs and pigmeat will not also continue to increase.

The long term prospects for the global swine industry would appear to be very positive. The industry to produce these pigs has also been transformed over recent years and that transformation is also likely to continue into the future.

In common with other livestock sectors, the swine industry is global in nature. Large-scale, multinational companies increasingly dominate the production of pigs and also control a significant part of the allied industry. In addition, the speed of technical development is increasingly rapid and all sectors of the industry are becoming increasingly sophisticated technically.

These developments have increased the demand for applied animal scientists in many countries but they also have major implications for the skill set that is required of individuals entering the industry today and in the future. As always, they still need to be technically competent but they also need to be capable of operating in a global industry that is undergoing dynamic change.


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"Over the years, substantial changes have occurred in both the swine industry and academia"


Developments in the University Sector

Universities are also undergoing major changes largely driven by changes in the sources of funding. At the University of Illinois, the level of state (government) funding for programs has declined dramatically to very low levels; this funding has historically supported the more applied research and extension programs.

In contrast, government funding for more basic research has increased substantially over recent decades. This has resulted in a major change in the emphasis of university research programs which have shifted from the applied to the more basic.

Universities have also increased undergraduate student enrolment to generate increased revenue and this has been accompanied by substantial changes in the demographics of student populations. For this fall semester (2016), the total student enrollment at the University of Illinois is around 45,000 (10,500 graduate and 34,500 undergraduate students). Equivalent numbers from 2000 were 37,000, 9,000, and 28,000, respectively. There has also been a considerable increase in the number of students from overseas during that time period.

At the University of Illinois in 2000, around 10% (3,765 students) were from overseas and by 2016 this has increased to close to 25% (10,700 students). Over 50% of overseas students are from China (5,680), with large numbers also originating from India (1,299), South Korea (1,142), and Taiwan (322). The island nation of Singapore, with a population of around 5 million, has over 100 students enrolled at the University of Illinois.

In contrast, the numbers of students from Central and South America is relatively small with the largest groups coming from Colombia (55), Brazil (81), and Mexico (45). Historically, the majority of overseas students were studying for graduate degrees, however, today over half of them are enrolled in undergraduate programs. It is likely that similar changes in student numbers and demographics have occurred at other US institutions.

Developments in Departments of Animal Sciences

Departments of Animal Sciences have also experienced significant changes over recent years. At the University of Illinois, undergraduate enrollment in Animal Sciences has increased considerably from around 250 in 2000 to more than 500 today. However, the number of faculty in the Department has actually decreased over this time period from more than 50 to around 30. One consequence of this change is that faculty spend more time teaching than historically was the case. As previously discussed, the research focus of the faculty has also shifted from the applied to the more basic.

Twenty five years ago there were in excess of 30 individuals that were conducting research of relevance to the swine industry and roughly half of these were working in the applied area. Today, at most we have 15 faculty involved in swine research with about half of these doing applied research. As a consequence, there are fewer students graduating with advanced degrees in the applied areas.

However, the demand for these graduates is extremely strong and they all find challenging and rewarding positions in the industry. Unfortunately, few stay in academia; there are few applied livestock science positions at US universities and also the students readily find great jobs in industry.

The background of the “typical” animal science student has also changed. Historically, the majority of animal science students came from farming backgrounds and their career objectives were to work in the farm livestock industry after graduating. This was the “supply chain” that “fed” graduate programs in the applied areas. These individuals had great experience of practical production and were passionate about the industry. Today, there are fewer farms and fewer farmers’ sons and daughters and the traditional supply of students for animal science programs is drying up.

In the US, a degree in animal sciences is a requirement to get into vet school which is the career path for many of our students. Of the 513 students enrolled in Animal Sciences for the fall semester of 2016, 80% are in the Pre-veterinary Medicine option, 15% are in the Companion Animal and Equine Science option, and only 5% in the Technology and Management option (the option designed for students with an interest in livestock production).

The vast majority (95%) of our students have absolutely no interest in farm livestock production and we have found it very difficult to convince them otherwise.


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"Today, there are fewer farms and fewer farmers’ sons and daughters and the traditional supply of students for animal science programs is drying up"


Applied Animal Scientists Whither?

Over a lengthy career, I have observed firsthand the substantial changes that have occurred in both the swine industry and academia discussed above that resulted in the genesis of this question. To answer this question requires consideration of three key questions:

What is the source(s) of the next generation of applied swine scientists?

In the US, they will have to come from non-traditional backgrounds (from urban areas with exposure only to companion animals). In this regard, the availability of attractive and rewarding jobs after graduating should act as a considerable incentive. However, in my experience, it is not easy to convince students from non-traditional background to work in farm livestock production. In the western hemisphere, livestock production is not an attractive industry for many if not most young people that don’t come from a farming background. Perhaps, the next generation of applied animal scientists will come from countries where there is an abundant supply of talented young people with a passion to work in livestock production.

Where will they be trained?

Historically, the institutions in the US, and to a lesser extent in Western Europe have been the centers that have had major graduate programs in applied animal science. In theory at least, as University programs shift from applied to basic in focus and, also, as the costs of graduate programs at these institutions increase, development of graduate students in the applied livestock areas will have to take place at institutions outside of the US. Generally speaking, and perhaps with the exception of China and Brazil, I am not aware of any country that is increasing investment in graduate programs in applied animal science.

Who will train them?

As I see it, this is the biggest challenge for the industry going forward. The number of applied animal scientists at US universities has declined dramatically. Most of the ones that remain are approaching retirement and when they leave they are generally not replaced with faculty with an applied interest. If this trend continues, there will be fewer opportunities for graduate students in the applied disciplines at US institutions and fewer graduates for industry positions.

One approach that has been proposed to address the issue of a declining number of faculty working at universities is the development of public-private partnerships in teaching and, particularly, research programs. With this model, industry supplies the resources for research and teaching programs while academia provides the necessary infrastructure as the foundation of such a program.

There are examples of such partnerships operating effectively on a relatively modest level; however, it is not clear if such programs can operate at a large enough scale for a sustained period of time without some form of government support.

References

Braude, R. 1970. The future of animals as a source of human food. Pigs-whither? Proc. Nutn. Soc. Pp 262-270.

(Photos: Shutterstock)

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