Alltech debates farming of the future

'If anybody thinks that agriculture is going to be the same in 20 or 30 years they’ve got their head in the sand'

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis contact

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images/monkeybusinessimages
© Getty Images/monkeybusinessimages

Related tags: Nutrition, Agriculture

New technology, precision nutrition, big data and nutrigenomics may be among tools that feed manufactures and animal producers will need to consider as production evolves to meet increasing demands, say experts. 

Kentucky-based animal nutrition company, Alltech, presented a webinar on Monday (25 September) titled Farming the Future, and looking, in part, at the role that feed and nutritional assessment have to play in the modernization of agriculture.

The panel of agricultural sector experts included Mary Shelman, former director of Harvard Business School’s agribusiness program; Michael Boehlje, professor in the department of agricultural economics and Center for Food and Agricultural Business at Purdue University; Karl Dawson, chief scientific officer at Alltech; and Aidan Connolly, chief innovation officer and VP of corporate accounts at Alltech.

The idea for the program was initiated within the company but is not, at this time, planned to be an ongoing series, Alltech told us.

Several members of the panel said they are optimistic about the future of agriculture both in the US and globally, but that they see the industry as one in a state of flux.

“If anybody thinks that agriculture is going to be the same in 20 or 30 years they’ve got their head in the sand,” ​said Connelly.

Nutrigenomics, feed and production 

There are several new technologies that are starting to play an increasing role in animal production and are expected to play a larger one going forward, including robots, drones, blockchain, the internet of things and virtual reality, he said.

“These are technologies, either from the hardware or software perspective, that can fundamentally change the ways in which we understand what happens when we grow plants, grow animals,”​ he said. However, they are not the only considerations, he added.

Nutrigenomics also has been a focus for Alltech because the company sees the importance in trying to understand how nutrients effect gene expression in an animal in terms of maximizing production, he said.

“There are things that are happening in the area of biochemistry findings that are really changing the way that we think about processing feeds, handling feeds and the way that we think about using feed additives,”​ added Dawson. “All of those are coming from really a basic biochemical evaluation of what is going on in the animal systems and the way they eat.” 

Nutrigenomics may not be the answer to all nutrition problems tomorrow, but it is redefining nutrition, he said. “We think about evaluating a feed material, a product, a supplementation strategy, management practices, the way we feed calves or young chickens, all of those things are starting to change now because we have a tool that allows us to actually measure what happens when we make a nutritional change,”​ he added.

It has already redefined some areas of animal production, including the use of trace minerals, he said.

“We can pass material or information from one generation to the next using a nutritional strategy, but we can actually measure that and see how it’s done,” ​said Dawson. “Nutrigenomics is going to really redefine things.”

The use of nutrigenomics in production also may be part of an increasing trend to understand production from a more integrated or biological manufacturing point of view, said Boehlje. “It’s understanding everything that has the potential to significantly impact the growth process of plants and animals at a much more scientific level,”​ he added.

In considering how to change nutrition to improve animal production, also raises questions of how to select animals for use of specific nutrition, said Dawson.

“I don’t think that nutrition has been a stagnate science over the last two decades or the last century,” ​he said. “We’ve had a lot of advances and that’s really been responsible for a lot of the changes in the livestock production that we’ve seen, particularly in underdeveloped countries, and we’re using lots of new technology, amino acid balances, nutrient balances and new things.”

The ability to collect big data and analyze more complicated information also has improved some of the nutritional tailoring, he said. “You have a tool here to look at millions and billions of observations, whether it’s productively, food intake, how we grow our crops, how much rain we get, all of this can be integrated into very precise models and that’s going to be the big change in agriculture,”​ he added.

“Looking at the molecular level, we can see what food and food ingredients do to the basic physiology of the animal by looking at gene expression that’s a new tool that is moving forward,” ​he said. “It’s a very precise tool that tells you exactly what is happening, and it’s really allowed us to uncover a lot of the hidden secrets that happen with nutrition.”

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