There is an age-old proverb that says: “If you know all of the answers, you haven't asked all of the questions.” Most of the people I know in the pork production business will candidly admit that they have more questions than answers.

For starters, what's the solution to solving the PRRS riddle? Do we fully understand the impact early weaning has had on the reproductive performance of our sow herds? With over 300 odor-causing compounds in swine manure, what can we do to make pork production more acceptable to the general public?

Thank goodness there is a cadre of animal scientists, nutritionists, agricultural engineers, geneticists and others to seek out the right questions, then set about doing the right research to find the answers.

Within these pages, you will find 19 research reports categorized in five general disciplines. Some of this work is groundbreaking. Some verifies earlier work needed so we can apply the results in the field with confidence.

Far-Reaching Potential

The breadth of this year's research reports covers the pork production and processing gamut. A few highlights that caught my eye:

  • Recycling taken to a new level when combustion of manure solids yielded valuable energy (steam, electricity) and a mineral byproduct to serve as a calcium, phosphorus supplement in swine rations.

  • With corn as the major portion of most swine rations, researchers found that 40% of grower pig feces is made up of corn hulls. Feeding degermed, dehulled corn could improve feed conversion while reducing manure mass.

  • The genes that are switched on and off in the short time span between Day 11 and 12 after conception could hold the key to improving embryonic survival.

  • Market hogs with like genetics from four different farms, delivered to two different slaughter plants across all four seasons reinforces that each, independently, can influence common measures of pork quality.

More to Come

In the “to read” file on my desk are two very important documents. One is “The Scientific Basis for Estimating Air Emissions from Animal Feeding Operations.” This interim report from the National Research Council's (NRC) Committee on Animal Nutrition compiles the current knowledge on air emissions from individual animal feeding operations and assesses the scientific criteria needed to ensure accurate measurement of those compounds.

This is no small feat, assured the University of Maryland's Richard Kohn during a USDA briefing with the 2002 Environmental Stewards award-winners in September. Kohn says the 331 odor-causing compounds in swine manure illustrates the complexity of the challenge. “There's nothing on the horizon that will impact livestock production more. There is no silver bullet; the solutions to the odor challenge will be accomplished incrementally,” he added.

Direct measurement of air quality on each and every livestock farm probably is not reasonable because of the cost and the inability to get accurate measurements. Therefore, the NRC will likely recommend the development of model farms, incorporating the many factors that contribute to air quality into a model. Scientific data will have to be built to run the model.

The other document staring at me from my “to read” file is an ambitious research proposal to study disease resistance in pigs. This long-running research effort at the University of Nebraska will tackle two of the leading issues in the pork industry today — PRRS and, indirectly, the use of antibiotics for treatment and control of disease.

The proposal points out that our knowledge of the genetic basis of resistance or susceptibility to infectious disease remains limited.

If we can improve pigs' resistance to disease through genetics, the need for antibiotics could be reduced.

A key objective in the research is to “identify molecular differences that will lead to a profile of genetic resistance to PRRS” and “to develop procedures to select for genetic resistance to PRRS.”

Anyone disagree that we could use a new approach to beating down the pesky PRRS virus?

As mutations in viruses and microbes seem to disarm the effectiveness of some disease treatments and responses to vaccines, the genetic frontier may help take herd health management to the next level. The work will extend beyond PRRS, of course, targeting other profit robbers such as Mycoplasmal pneumonia and scours caused by E. coli.

In an industry built on — and often defended by — science, this constant influx of new research and information is the lifeblood of an industry faced with ever-present pressures to be the low-cost producer of quality pork in the world.