During lecture series, Alltech officials talk about scientific game-changers
As farmers, food scientists and animal researchers look ahead to the prospect of feeding billions more world citizens in the coming decades, they need to challenge themselves on what are normally seen as limits in agriculture.
Why don't cows make 72,000 pounds of milk per year? Why don't sows produce 35 pigs per year? What are technologies that could pry a ton more grain out of every acre of cropland? Those were some of the questions posed by Alltech founder and president Dr. Pearse Lyons.
His company sponsored a North American lecture tour that made a stop in Madison last week. He appeared via recorded presentation.
His company is involved in research projects that span many aspects of food production - aquaculture, poultry, swine, dairy and grain.
Lyons said that in China, where most sows produce 16 pigs per year, if they could produce one or two more pigs per sow, the country would have a million more tons of pork per year. That would be a game-changer.
That added productivity per sow would also save China immensely on the amount of grain it uses to feed hogs, he said.
There are three billion acres of arable land in the world on which to grow food and Lyons is curious what technologies could be used to produce more grain. "If we had one ton more grain per acre, we'd have three billion more tons of grain," he said, urging the farmers, veterinarians and others in the audience to be curious and ask questions as they do their work.
"As an agricultural industry we are faced with increasing corn and soybean prices and a rising global population to feed, all while trying to find solutions to minimize pollution and maximize traceability," said Lyons.
"Instead of waiting for someone else to solve our problems we need to embrace these global challenges together.
"To be successful you must adapt, have curiosity and embrace change," he added.
The company has pursued research on "nutrigenomics," a science that allows researchers to find ways to up-regulate (turn on) or down-regulate (turn off) genes through nutrition.
By coupling feeding trials of live animals with gene-chip tests to look at their DNA, researchers can determine how certain feeding methods affect the genetics of the animals and select those that produce the best meat or the most meat.
Lyons believes this newfound ability to observe what genes are affected by nutrition has the potential to revolutionize the management of animal nutrition. It means that animals could be raised based on not just putting more nutrients into them, but by understanding the degree that these nutrients affect animal production at the cellular level.
The gene-chip technology is a game changer, said Ryan Samuel, a senior research scientist at Alltech.
It helps sort through a very large number of genes and huge amounts of data to point the way to on-farm solutions. It is designed to "activate pathways to production."
As farm incomes decline and environmental concerns increase, it's more important than ever to be efficient and this technology can provide one way to do that, he said.
The gene-chip technology allows researchers to track metabolic pathways and determine what genes are turned on or off by certain feeding methods or feed additives.
Problems looked at differently are all opportunities, he added.
This method of looking at "nutrigenomics" can be used to find increases in quality, yield, production or livability of livestock, all of which can be used to produce more food.
The gene-chip, a micro-array of DNA, is important in tracking tens of thousands of genes that measure the expression by messenger RNA into proteins.
Samuel said they offer a snapshot in time to look at "how form is important to function."
In their research with pigs they are studying ovary metabolism as a way to potentially get more pigs per litter.
Trials on hens are looking for pathways to egg layer performance. In beef animals feed efficiency is a prime target for research.
"Nutrients are gene switches that turn on and off certain genes," said, adding that Alltech is looking at nutrition at the cellular level and how it affects these switches.
Ty Yeast, Alltech Canada's managing director, said the time has come to close the gap by matching nutrition to the genetics of the animals.
Company research has shown that there are distinct differences among the genetic expression in animals fed three different diets. "It changes the profiles of their genes."
Vitamin E. fed as an anti-oxidant to beef cattle, produces changes in gene expression that are reflected in the meat that is produced.
This kind of research has the potential to make the perfect steak by increasing tenderness, lowering fat and improving taste, he said.
Yeast also raised the question of whether or not the world can feed its people strictly with the crops and animals grown on land. Alltech has an aquaculture facility in Winchester, KY that is looking at algae production.
There are 20,000-25,000 strains of algae, which could potentially be harnessed as a high-quality source of protein.
Algae have 10 times the potential in this area as do yeast, he said, because there are less than 2,500 strains in yeast.