The future is often on the mind of Merlin Lindemann. Whether he’s thinking up new directions for vitamin and trace mineral research or working with students, where he sees the future unfolding, he’s often looking forward.
That focus on students actually started when Lindemann’s personal future took a surprise turn into the world of swine nutrition thanks to the nudge of a professor at the University of Minnesota. “I was nearing the end of my undergraduate work and Dr. Meade approached me about working on a graduate degree,” Lindemann says. That guide, Robert Meade, a distinguished professor in swine nutrition research, was the educational course change taking Lindemann into a future focused in a very specific area of swine nutrition.
For that junior undergrad working on an animal science degree, and one of the first in his family to go to college, that insight and help was important. “I had no intent of going to grad school,” he says. Lindemann grew up on a diversified farm near Worthington, Minn., that included everything from chickens to pigs and eventually evolved to finishing beef cattle and raising swine.
It is that guidance that Lindemann carries today as he works with his students as a professor of animal and food sciences at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. “For Dr. Meade, I’ll always be appreciative, and that really makes me think about some of my responsibilities to the youth here. I want to be encouraging them,” he says. “I really appreciate the professors that take time out of busy schedules to answer questions.”
And that’s important today with the changing student body at UK. “We just don’t have as many students that come off the farm,” he says. “Most of the people will be from some type of suburban background.”
He notes that the ag college has created an environment that’s open to student discussions.
And he sees that work as important because of the rising opportunities in agriculture. “There are so many [ag] jobs that are crying for qualified people, and we don’t have enough. There are a lot of opportunities in agriculture,” Lindemann says.
Role in swine nutrition
Lindemann acknowledges that his name may not be as well known among swine producers as others in the industry. His work focuses on one part of the diet — not the protein or energy. “I find myself working mainly with feed companies, ingredient suppliers and premix aggregators on the vitamins and trace minerals that go into a feed,” he says.
He notes it’s difficult to explain that putting a dose of vitamins that may be the size of a sugar packet into a ton of that feed can impact the feed intake or nutrient metabolism. “We are talking parts-per-million quantities,” he says.
Yet those vitamins and trace minerals can impact the physiology of a pig at different parts of the life cycle in a number of ways. “You can enhance the metabolism of the animal, or manage its health to prolong its productive life,” Lindemann says.
His work with chromium and gestating sows has been a hallmark of his career. The fact that chromium in the diet can reduce the risk of gestational diabetes in sows has helped the industry improve the life cycle of the sow. He’s also done work on a range of other vitamins and trace minerals at different points across both the sow’s and pig’s life cycle.
These nutrients can impact even the immune response for a herd. A herd with the right mix of vitamins may stand up better to being hit by disease than animals that aren’t receiving that mix, he notes. In fact, Lindemann practices what he preaches, taking vitamin D and B12, in part to protect his own immune system. “I travel a lot to places like China,” he says. “I eat foods that others may not eat, and am exposed to organisms that are not a part of my normal environment, and I need my immune system in good shape.”
Lindemann notes that his work on swine nutrition, looking at a range of products, has shown that you can impact swine health with the right blend of vitamins and trace minerals. He also points out something that many swine producers don’t know: “You can walk into any GNC and find products there for humans that we are not allowed to feed to pigs,” he says. “We have to look at these products from a food safety standpoint before we can use them, and there are a lot of things people put into their bodies we’re not yet allowed to feed.”
The irony Lindemann doesn’t miss is people complaining about food safety issues, while perhaps popping supplements that can’t even be fed to the meat animals they express worry over.
Vitamins, trace minerals at work
Yet those trace minerals can make a difference. In 2012 when drought brought a lot of mycotoxin-infested corn to grain elevators, there was a concern about the impact on swine feeds. The matter, however, for some toxins was relatively easily solved by adding certain clays to the ration. “Some will help eliminate the aflatoxin in the animal’s diet,” he notes. “But there are clays that also bind up vitamins and keep them from the animal, which is something you have to consider.”
He adds that the value of clay in protecting the animal may have come from the history of the development of pigs. “When pigs were grazing and rooting, they would get those clays naturally when consuming food, which offered some protection,” he notes. “There are things we can learn from past practices.”
The vitamin and trace mineral pack you buy — though a small part of the diet — can have a big impact on your herd. “All those vitamins and minerals are controlling the metabolic processes that affect how efficiently you use the protein and energy in the diet,” he says. “You’ll spend a lot more for the protein and energy, but it’s these premix packs that are controlling the metabolism in the body to allow the pig to efficiently use and get good cost value out of the protein and energy.”
He knows that farmers don’t think as often about vitamins and trace minerals. “They buy them as a pack or premix that goes into the feed,” Lindemann says. “But farmers should work with trusted partners, like Extension specialists and feed suppliers, to make sure that the package of nutrients is right for the way they’re raising pigs.”
There was a trip to consult with a group of producers in Canada, a Hutterite colony where the group was already achieving 30 pigs per sow per year, and yet they saw opportunity in boosting that based on nutrition work from folks like Lindemann. “It wasn’t about cutting costs, it was about shifting costs to make sure it did the most good,” he says. That’s the approach to vitamins and trace minerals he advises for producers. “You wouldn’t try to run a Formula 1 race car on 87 octane gas. You wouldn’t win the race. The same is true for the diet for that herd.”
He also offers some advice for working with a feed supplier. “I don’t recommend you bounce around between suppliers. Find someone you like, find somebody with a quality control program that you aren’t able to do on the farm,” he says. “Then you dialog with them. Don’t be arguing about the last nickel, just get a good product from a reputable supplier that you trust.”
He notes that the relationship with the supplier is critical, too. You have to trust you’re getting the latest nutrition advice. And if you hear something new, if you already have that relationship, asking and dialoguing with them about what you’ve heard, then acting on the latest research for your business can be done more efficiently.
Work on gestating sows has been part of Lindemann’s research, and the goal is to get as many litters from that sow as reasonably possible, which puts an emphasis on nutrition and longevity. There are some factors people don’t consider. “Proper nutrition can extend the productive life of our reproducing animals,” he says. “Work from Iowa State would say that a sow has to get in her third parity before she’s paid for her purchase cost. I think we can reduce the death loss, and lower the culling rate with more aggressive vitamin and mineral supplementation.”
One example he uses is two different gestating sows — where top nutrition is key to getting that litter off to a good start. A 350-pound gilt is getting a diet and consumes a specific amount of feed per day. An older sow, at say 700 pounds, does not have to consume twice as much feed to maintain body condition — perhaps a little more but not double.
“If you look at these vitamins and trace minerals that every cell in the body needs, if you were to supply the same amount of feed per day, if both are in good body condition, you’re actually supplying only half the amount of vitamins and trace minerals per unit of body weight to the older sow,” he notes. “Then the question becomes, where and how do these vitamins and trace minerals work, and do I need to increase them for our very much larger pregnant animal?”
It’s also why he doesn’t push a minimalist approach with vitamins and trace minerals, except for grower-finishers. “For our grow-finish animal that’s going to be marketed for pork, I can talk about that situation being less aggressive in supplementation, but that also assumes that I’m not going to be in a heavy disease-challenge situation,” he observes.
There is research showing that raising the amount of vitamins and trace minerals per unit of body weight can in fact add longevity to that older sow, improving per-animal profitability for the long haul.
Learning from history
A reader, Lindemann will look at old texts from the late-1800s and early 1900s where veterinarians, doctors and researchers then were great at observations, but didn’t know the mechanisms at work. As scientists learn more about biological processes, those early observations offer insight today. He talks of the process of discovery, and with more than 30 years working with swine nutrition, he has seen knowledge expand — yet he knows the future holds more.
“There are things we think we know now, that in 30 years people will look back and chuckle at what we didn’t understand,” he says. “There’s always something more to learn. My job is to help find what we can do with the most current knowledge we have now.”
Just the rising understanding of metabolic enzymes and their role in animal health, and how vitamins and trace minerals impact them in the animal, has been a growing area for Lindemann.
Working with students
That future-think approach Lindemann has carries well with students. The UK building that houses his office actually has facilities for animals, too. “That’s a real time-saver. If you have a grad student doing studies and they need to take blood samples every hour, they can just come in and do that,” he notes, adding that it was one reason he made the move from Virginia Tech in 1994 to UK.
He says that students today, those without a farm background who want to get into agriculture, can get a fast up close look at livestock and their life cycle. He tells the story of students in the swine production class at UK who get phone texts in class now when their pigs are farrowing, and they rush to be there. “People may have seen a calf being born, but with pigs, it’s totally different; you get to watch a whole bunch of them be born,” he notes.
Research ideas for grad students are always on Lindemann’s mind, with questions like: What areas to explore next? What does his department have budget for? Is there a research question with a commercial supplier that can be research for the university? All are part of the mix for determining where the department will concentrate its efforts.
That’s where the opportunity is. “I’m surrounded by people the same age all the time, all young people,” he notes. “For me looking out, nothing is different, but students look at me, I’ve changed. I might have been the ‘older brother’ in the beginning, then the father figure, now I’m the grandfather figure. This job is a puzzle you’re always trying to put together, and I love this work.”