Bridging the Gap

Will the U.S. swine industry remain the research and production leader around the world, or will we cede this leadership role to other countries?

Will the U.S. swine industry remain the research and production leader around the world, or will we cede this leadership role to other countries? That is the question Mike Tokach from the Applied Swine Nutrition Team at Kansas State University posed during a keynote address at the Leman Swine Conference in September.

I share Tokach’s concern, not only because scientific research is at the heart of our editorial philosophy, but also because it serves as the basis for best management practices and new technologies brought to the industry.

Tokach did a masterful job of acknowledging that although public dollars for applied research have steadily dwindled, private dollars within production systems and an infusion of capital by industry suppliers have picked up much of the slack.

The challenge is rooted in a much deeper concern that applied research breakthroughs could wane as current research leaders retire and, too often, are not replaced.

Tokach feels the answer to the shortfall of qualified, young researchers lies in public/private partnerships where the critical elements of research integrity, peer review and student training are maintained.

Return on Investment

To reinforce the importance of applied research adoption, Tokach cited work at North Carolina State University where 1980-genetic era pigs were compared to 2005-era pigs. Frozen boar semen was used to produce 1980-era pigs, while commercial genetics available in 2005 were provided by a North Carolina production company. Pigs received diets fed in 1980 and 2005, respectively. (See for full details of the study).

“Application of the technology advancements in genetics and nutrition had a profound impact on economically important traits,” Tokach notes. The 2005-era pigs and diets outperformed the 1980 models as follows: 13% reduction in days to market (6% genetics, 7% nutrition), 27% better feed efficiency (7% genetics, 20% nutrition), 24% less backfat (all genetics), 34% larger loin eye area (21% genetics, 13% nutrition), and 45% improved lean efficiency (22% genetics, 23% nutrition).

Had it not been for the genetic and nutritional advancements from 1980 to 2005, the U.S. swine industry would require an additional 12.5 million tons of feed and five million more pig spaces to produce current production levels with 1980-era pigs and nutrition programs.

Upside, Downside

Tokach reviewed the pros and cons of three primary research models:

 University research model. Upside: Often more long-term research with an exploratory focus; less bias than private research; young, inquisitive students bring new ideas. Downside: Attrition in university staff often leaves positions open; research is often conducted in outdated facilities with too few animals that may not represent current genetics and health status; inadequate funds often make university-based research unfeasible.

 Private research model. Upside: Quicker application in production systems; bottom-line driven. Downside: Immediate and short-term application needs may stifle creativity, breakthroughs; fewer researchers to bridge the gap between basic research and field application; lack of peer review may lead to less discussion about the significance of results; confidentiality/proprietary results means selective release, less public access.

 Public/private partnership model. Upside: “When done correctly, we believe this model can encompass many of the benefits of the university and private models, while minimizing the downsides,” Tokach says. This model requires team decisions and sharing the credit and fosters change with greater confidence and withstands scrutiny. Partners believe the major technological advantage comes from adoption. The more-heads-are-better-than-one philosophy brings in more ideas and more opportunities for partners.

Regardless of the research model, the key requirements for success include creativity, funding, research mentality and commitment, peer review and credibility. If research results are not readily duplicated in the field, credibility is lost, and with it, funding.

I am concerned about where the next generation of applied researchers will come from and who will train them. Public/private partnerships are inevitable. The key is to hold these efforts to the highest research standards.

“Research needs to be focused on the long-term priorities of the partnership, not driven by outside funding sources focused on placement of product in production systems,” Tokach concluded.

If the U.S. pork industry is to retain its leadership role as the least-cost producer of premium pork, I believe it is imperative that we maintain the high research standards that have gotten us here.

To read Tokach’s keynote address in its entirety, go to http://national where-has-research-gone-1115/.