The research reports coming from the University of Nebraska the past few years does an animal scientist's heart good. Particularly animal scientists with a high regard for the hard work of doing the more traditional, multi-discipline research for which "animal breeders" are best known.
In these days of high-tech, biotech, gene modification and cloning, it's a pure pleasure to report that 20 years of a well-designed genetic selection program has shown substantial payback potential. In this case, we're talking gilts that reach puberty earlier, farrow 1-1 11/42 more pigs/litter and recycle quicker and more consistently. And, it was all accomplished the "natural" way - through methodical measurement and selection of a genetic line.
Why, some folks have been so bold as to say the Nebraska work mirrors the development and introduction of hybrid seed corn in the '30s, which increased output/acre by 30-40% in its initial years. (See "The Pigs/Litter Bar Has Been Raised".)
Groundbreaking production practices are often rooted in the practical side of our land grant college animal science departments.
University of Illinois researchers were instrumental in identifying the essential amino acids back in 1938, for example.
The early work of Hazel and Kline at Iowa State University in 1953 introduced the use of a cheap, metal ruler as a simple tool to measure backfat. This simple procedure jump-started all efforts to develop genetic selection programs for the modern, meat-type hog.
In the '70s Lauren Christian identified a recessive gene as the culprit causing porcine stress syndrome (PSS) in pigs. Christian, also at Iowa State, went on to champion the halothane-screening procedure to identify stress-gene-carrying pigs. Collectively, his work was applied to simpler blood-screening procedures that led the charge to eliminate the stress gene and the poor pork quality to which it is linked.
Purdue University's research work with medicated early weaning programs and Kansas State's nutritional research aimed at developing better, more palatable diets for those early weaned pigs have had wide application.
There are more - many more - broad-based research initiatives that have contributed to the efficiencies captured in the pork industry.
The Nebraska work, spearheaded by Dr. Rodger Johnson, is a good, solid project requiring long-term commitment by him and by the university. Johnson's work was undertaken the good, old-fashioned way - through classic genetic selection methods. But it's also important to note that other scientists for physiology, nutrition, and gene-mapping research used these selection lines. These multi-discipline applications of unique genetic populations add considerable value to the research effort, and commercial producers are the benefactors.
I raise this point because I am increasingly concerned about the difficulty in getting research funding for any animal science-based project unless there's a biotechnology tag hanging on it. Producers need to know more about the production changes associated with genetic improvements, not just the gene frequencies.
I recognize the value of developing chemical- and disease-resistant corn and soybean varieties. I understand their value to conservation-conscious farmers, to reduce soil erosion, cut fuel costs and reduce chemical applications. But, lest we forget, our domestic and international customers are increasingly concerned about genetic manipulation.
The jury is still out on the safety of StarLink corn. Still, the ultimate jury is the "public jury," the one that accepts or rejects produce influenced by our arsenal of new technologies.
Several years ago we brought over samples of Chinese genetic lines in hopes of better understanding the genetic linkage to litter size. We've learned from that sample, certainly, but it was a bit of crapshoot because their selection history was generally unknown. The selection history of the Nebraska line is known, plus the "control" line serves as a reference point.
Molecular genetics will help us understand gene expression and how the genes influence hormonal regulation of reproduction. There is no magic here. No gene manipulation.
I am increasingly concerned about recent trends at our major land grant institutions. I've seen it time and again - a prominent livestock geneticist leaves or retires, and the position is either held open or eliminated in lieu of yet another addition to a growing biotechnology department. Leading universities have closed animal breeding and plant breeding research farms in favor of less costly campus laboratories.
I believe the long-term, multi-discipline research that leads to large leaps in productivity - like 1 11/42 more pigs/litter - must be encouraged and funded, especially in this biotech-skeptical era in which we live.