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On the shoulders of giants

Woody Lane, Ph.D. for Progressive Dairy Published on 12 March 2021

We take so many things for granted in agriculture we don’t even realize that, once upon a time, these things did not exist. Someone, somewhere, created or discovered each one – and over the years, we’ve tended to forget those achievements.

Well, I’d like to rectify the situation, if only a little. Here is my list of seven of the most important breakthroughs in livestock nutrition. This is entirely subjective, mind you, reviewed only by me – and I’m kind of biased toward my own views anyway. As a nutritionist, I’ll confine this list to nutritional innovations, as these are the ones I live with day-to-day. But without further ado, and not in any particular order of importance, here are my submissions.

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  • Weende analysis of feedstuffs. You probably haven’t heard of Weende, unless you lived in Germany a hundred years ago. In the 1860s, it was the site of an agricultural experimental station, one of the world’s best at the time. With glassware and precision scales – and no computers – scientists developed some early procedures for analyzing feeds, standardized them into something called “proximate analysis” as well as developed the formula for total digestible nutrients (TDN). It was one of the first systematic methods for classifying feeds by objective nutritional value. First published in 1865, it wasn’t perfect, but it also wasn’t completely wrong. We still use TDN today.

  • Detergent system of fiber analysis. One man, Peter Van Soest, said that the world of crude fiber was wrong and then, in 1970, proceeded to give the world a better system for analyzing fiber – neutral detergent fiber (NDF) and acid detergent fiber (ADF) – and with it, a rational approach toward estimating the true nutritional value of feedstuffs. With Peter’s techniques, nutritionists finally had a practical and accurate way of identifying fiber, which gave us a valid framework for our modern understanding of rumen function, rate of passage, species differences and hundreds of other aspects of nutrition research and feeding livestock. Ruminant nutrition – as well as horse nutrition and human nutrition – was never the same.

  • Vitamins. Your parents told you to “take your vitamins,” and Grandma would force cod liver oil on the unsuspecting. But it wasn’t always this way, and millions of people around the world routinely suffered from scurvy, rickets, beri-beri, pellagra and blindness. On farms, livestock grew slowly or reproduced poorly or died of hemorrhagic syndromes. The early 20th century saw an outpouring of nutritional science unlike anything before – the discovery and characterization of previously unknown and unsuspected organic compounds first called “vital amines.” We now call them vitamins. We can quibble about the details of requirements, and there are radical differences between ruminants and non-ruminants, but no one today questions their basic value.

  • Morrison’s book Feeds and Feeding. First published in 1898 by W.A. Henry of the University of Wisconsin. Henry hired a student assistant, Frank Morrison, who could translate German research papers. F. B. Morrison soon became a co-author and, on Henry’s retirement, took it over completely in the 1920s. The book became his life’s work, a classic – Morrison’s textbook Feeds and Feeding.

    A Handbook for the Student and Stockman. The last unabridged edition was published in 1956. I have a well-used 1948 unabridged 21st edition on my desk, nearly 1,200 pages of small print. The abridged version first came out in 1917, with its last ninth edition in 1958. The tables of nutrient requirements and feed quality were exquisite – the industry gold standard for 70 years – and the practical descriptions of thousands of feedstuffs are still usable today. Not to mention some priceless photographs of an era long past. Second-hand copies still show up in bookstores and on the internet. (Amazon.com currently has a few dozen.) Everyone in livestock agriculture should own a Morrison. Its numbers and observations are by an author who, although he lived in a different age, really understood how to feed animals.

  • Understanding rumen fermentation. This has definitely been a cumulative effort. Over the past 80 years, we’ve learned quite a lot about the process of the “anaerobic” (without oxygen) fermentation that occurs in the rumen – and by extension, in the lower tracts of other species, including horses, rabbits and humans. And not just a cataloging of species of bacteria and protozoa. Understanding fermentation has given us: use of urea as a protein supplement, knowledge that rumen microbes make enough B vitamins for their ruminant hosts, ionophores that alter fermentation and increase growth efficiency, bypass protein, our ability to early wean calves and lambs, better techniques for supporting higher and higher milk production and fattening animals, mathematical models for estimating nutrient requirements, recognition of the value of fiber in human diets, and so much more. Think of how profoundly some of these influence your farm.

  • Our regulatory agencies. This may not be the most popular topic, or one that comes to most folks’ minds as an “achievement,” but the alphabet soup of American government agencies – FDA, APHIS, CVM, USDA, etc., in the federal system and all the state departments of agriculture – have created a regulatory framework of approvals, inspections and testing. American farmers can sell their products anywhere in the country and overseas to consumers who basically trust the integrity of our market and its products. It’s all about confidence. Try living in a place where these agencies don’t exist, like many developing nations.

    American agencies approve products for sale based on scientific evidence, not political fiat or whim as in some European countries. Before we had these agencies, safety and consistency were only amusing concepts, and the overriding principle of the day was “buyer beware.” Our markets blithely allowed the sale of all types of snake oils, watered-down milk, contaminated feeds and even carbon tetrachloride as a remedy for intestinal parasites. Consider the few occasions in the past 50 years when something bad occurred – salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, diethylstilbestrol, melamine – they were all identified and fixed by our agencies. Are these agencies perfect? Does ice cream fly? But without them, we would wish that they existed.

  • Least-cost rations. It started out as a secret military tool for reducing expenses during WWII. Released to the public after the war, “linear programming” was an obscure mathematical model for optimizing something – finding the best answer for the highest or lowest or smallest given a set of strictly defined restrictions. Then someone applied it to livestock rations – mixing and matching different feedstuffs to find the cheapest combination with the lowest price – least-cost rations. Linear programming was so complex only computers could do the calculations, and back in the 1940s, computers were as large as a warehouse room and only communicated through punch cards. (Remember those?) Computers have shrunk a bit since then, and punch cards are museum curiosities, but the feed industry still absolutely depends on linear programming to keep feed prices low while maintaining nutritional quality.

This list is so seductive. I can go on and on – with other achievements such as the discovery of selenium as a nutrient, the development of near- infrared reflectance spectroscopy (NIRs) for the rapid analysis of feeds and even the development of the internet, where we can obtain so much good and bad information in such a short amount of time. You can, of course, Google every item in my list or even check out Wikipedia to see if my facts are right. But better yet, you might want to sit back and reflect on my list for a bit. Appreciate the leaps we have made, the brilliant syntheses and research by the men and women who created these breakthroughs – we’ve come a long way on the shoulders of giants.  end mark

PHOTO: Getty images.

Woody Lane, Ph.D., is a livestock nutritionist and forage specialist in Roseburg, Oregon. He operates a private consulting business and teaches workshops across the U.S. and Canada. His book, From The Feed Trough: Essays and Insights on Livestock Nutrition in a Complex World, is available through Woody Lane.

Woody Lane, Ph.D.
  • Woody Lane, Ph.D.

  • Lane Livestock Services
  • Roseburg, Oregon

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