Technologically adept students are a requisite for increasingly sophisticated production systems
Swine production education is changing. As system-specific technologies are incorporated into modern pork production practices, the need for talented students with advanced degrees continues to grow.
Yet, the number of students seeking advanced swine production degrees is dwindling, along with faculty devoted to research, teaching and extension efforts in this area. Likewise, funding for applied swine science research is decreasing as greater emphasis is placed on basic science, particularly human medicine. State governments no longer have resources to fund swine facilities and growing feed and utility bills. University-based programs are being cut.
For all practical purposes, higher education administrators are asking: “Who will pay to keep the lights on at the university swine research farm?”
Recognizing the Issues
In 1992, Michael Ellis joined the animal sciences faculty at the University of Illinois (U of I) to study swine production systems.
“Moving from the United Kingdom to Illinois was a big change,” Ellis says. “But when asked why we made the move, my answer was simple — the pigs and the people.”
Illinois’ reputation in applied swine research also attracted Bradley Wolter, whose freshman year coincided with Ellis’ arrival.
“It quickly became obvious that Ellis and I had a mutual passion for the swine industry,” Wolter explains. “He recognized my interest in applied research and connected me to opportunities to further my knowledge in the field.”
Historically, university swine research facilities were similar to commercial operations, making research results directly applicable to commercial operations.
However, in the early ’90s, commercial pork producers were switching to wean-to-finish systems, leaving the university out of step with modern facility design and management.
Ellis quickly recognized that for his applied research to be relevant to the commercial swine industry, his work would need to be carried out in typical production facilities. With support from U of I leadership, he began setting up research trials in Illinois hog operations to help answer the tough questions producers were facing.
“At the applied level, unless you are working in environments used by producers, questions arise about the relevance of your results,” Ellis says. “It’s critical that on-farm research be carried out to the same standards and level of scientific rigor as studies carried out on university facilities in order to have credibility with both the scientific community and the commercial industry. This is a considerable, but achievable, challenge in my mind.”
Not only did this real-world approach to research garner wide recognition for the university in the 1990s, it also led to a partnership with The Maschhoffs of Carlyle, IL. Since then, the relationship has opened many more doors for applied swine research opportunities, Ellis says.
As a student, Wolter’s participation in on-farm research at The Maschhoffs resulted in his first job. “Ken Maschhoff hired me in 2002 to create an applied swine science program that ultimately drove the profitability of their business,” Wolter notes.
His first objective was to create a foundation for the business’ goals, which included developing a technology center and retaining scientists.
That’s where the university came in. “The U of I continues to support faculty with an applied focus who work closely with basic scientists to incorporate their findings into a commercial setting,” Wolter explains. “Illinois also has a high standard to which it completes science. This reduces the risk our business takes on as we utilize science-based innovation to drive profitability.”
In 2002, The Maschhoffs had 35,500 sows and couldn’t afford to hire its own team of scientists, so Wolter leveraged U of I’s resources, which included people, expertise and laboratory capabilities. The company has since grown to 138,000 sows.
“As the company grew and my leadership role expanded to chief operating officer, it became obvious that we needed more than just access to scientists on a short-term basis,” Wolter says. “We had to develop the next generation of leaders for the company.”
In 2007, The Maschhoffs began sponsoring a U of I master’s degree program in animal science, with a focus on swine production management. The program combines classroom work with applied swine research at The Maschhoffs’ Technology Center in Carlyle. Recently, the business began sponsoring Ph.D. students, too.
Not only do they financially support student assistantships and operating expenses, but they also invest in opportunities to help students grow their competencies beyond training as scientists.
“Students are part of a major swine production company that faces real-world problems daily,” Wolter says. “They are given an increased level of responsibility to develop solutions. In turn, we surround them with our top leadership and mentor them along the way.”
Caleb Shull, a graduate student in Ellis’ lab, says his experiences at The Maschhoffs have allowed him to see direct application of his research.
“This program opened my eyes to the value of applied on-farm research. You see firsthand how science-based decisions help this business succeed,” he adds.
The Challenges of Change
Ten years ago, you could ask a nutrition question and the answer would apply to 20 swine operations, Wolter notes. Today, production systems develop products to exact specifications; what works for one operation may not work in another.
To address the changing dynamics of the pork industry, Ellis has broadened the information covered in the typical swine production class.
“For a swine production course to be relevant, it must be much more tightly linked to what is happening in the industry,” he explains. “The biology of the pig and basic production principles are the same. But the sources of information have changed so dramatically that you can’t teach swine production without a major emphasis on technical developments.”
Wolter agrees, noting that higher education must approach swine education in a more system-based and integrated way in order to train future industry professionals.
From a research standpoint, swine nutritionist and current U of I Chancellor and Provost Bob Easter says less attention is given to agricultural research, particularly applied research, in today’s university setting.
“The research agenda is increasingly driven by national economic priorities — biotechnology, computer technology, energy and environment,” he explains. “In the 2009 stimulus package, President Obama approved $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health, $3 billion for the National Science Foundation, and $2 billion for the Energy Department, but not a penny for competitive research in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
Therefore, many universities hire faculty in areas where there is significant opportunity for federal research funding. If money is not available for applied agricultural research, universities will not be able to pursue research projects in those areas, Easter stresses.
“State governments don’t have the resources to fund overhead costs like they used to, so who will pay the bill to keep the lights on at the hog farm?” he asks.
Sustainability is Key
The decreased funding for applied swine research has made The Maschhoffs’ commitment to education even more beneficial to the animal sciences department.
“Industries can hire scientists out of university labs and take them into their own research organizations and, for a generation, that works,” Easter says. “But if you want a sustainable system, you have to find a way to support it.”
Easter credits the seed industry for stepping up to the plate a few years ago to support graduate students in plant breeding.
“The plant breeding industry was facing a serious shortage of master’s and Ph.D. students. Nearly two-thirds of the available jobs in plant breeding were not being filled. The industry saw this need and put significant money into crop science departments to support graduate programs,” he recalls.
As the swine industry transitions from a large number of independent swine operations to a small number of large enterprises, it is facing a similar shortage of master’s and Ph.D. students, he adds.
A Model Worth Following
Applied, on-farm research benefits both parties involved. For The Maschhoffs, this program has become a major part of their business strategy.
“Because there are increasingly fewer individuals with an interest in pork production as a career, it’s critical that we get involved in developing young people,” Wolter says. “Our expectation is to groom high-talent individuals for a career in our company or with one of our strategic supply partners.”
On-farm research provides answers to challenges the business faces. It also builds credibility with customers and regulators who recognize The Maschhoffs’ research partners are doing top quality work in a careful and controlled setting.
“The industry is starting to realize this model makes sense. We can’t afford to sit on the sidelines anymore,” Wolter says.
The program also provides students with many opportunities. Most have multiple job offers when they graduate, and The Maschhoffs have strategically positioned themselves to attract these graduates, Ellis says.
Neal Merchen, head of the department of animal sciences at U of I, acknowledges the future of applied research that is relevant to a rapidly changing production industry is dependent on establishing ongoing relationships between academic institutions and leading livestock producers.
“Financial pressures are limiting universities from maintaining the infrastructure that is needed to do these things well. The partnership between our department and The Maschhoffs is a superb example of a way that delivery of the land-grant mission has evolved,” he says.
Jennifer Shike is a media communications specialist, College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois.