April 24, 2018



Animal Science ups on-farm productivity

One of the great challenges of modern agriculture is finding ways to capture developments in science and technology into practical and effective on-farm systems.  Part of the problem in applying new scientific advances to production enterprises is based in the very nature of science and agricultural business.  Science works on a reductionist philosophy of dividing large and complex things into smaller, more manageable (able to be studied) components. Indeed as we have unravelled the very basis of life, this reductionism has accelerated to a point where we are now dissecting components we didn’t even know existed 20 years ago!

In many cases the tools to do the dissections were also not available until recently.   Think of the new knowledge we are now gathering in epigenetics, fetal programming, the gut microbiome, genomic selection, and animal behaviour and neuroscience.  Add to this the new engineering technologies coming on-stream from GPS tracking, remote sensing of physiological processes in grazing animals, developments in mathematics (big data and bioinformatics), rapid scanning of live animals and carcases, real-time pasture analysis, drones, and so on.  The scientists and technologists involved in these developments are almost invariably enthusiastic optimists with a passion for their field and its potential application to animal production and product quality.  In their enthusiasm, they are prone to promise delivery in timeframes that are often optimistic to say the least.  This enthusiasm and optimism is rewarded by the funding systems which award funds to those that can create great excitement for the great potential of their technology.

A good example of this was the sudden emergence of molecular biology as a discipline in the 1980’s.  I recall many agricultural departments in our universities in the 1980’s were suddenly being filled with molecular scientists who had a certain disdain for more traditional agricultural scientists who were stuck in the dark ages still studying such mundane things as nutrition, quantitative genetics, biochemistry, agronomy and reproduction!  The promises made by the new science were impressive (and, for the plant industries, have been partially realised).  Promises made for animal production however proved to be rather optimistic, or at least premature.  Genetically-engineered ruminal microbes were going to dramatically improve feed digestion; genetically-engineered animals would be created with novel properties never before seen; and animal cloning would rapidly expand superior genotypes.  Molecular geneticists promised more efficient animal selection based on increasingly sophisticated and cost-effective DNA technologies.  However in many cases biology fought back!

The ruminal ecosystem proved to be one of the most complex ecosystems on the planet and it didn’t respond well to us tinkering with a microbe’s DNA without making that organism uncompetitive.  The genome proved a little more complex than we thought (although we should have known that most traits are governed by ‘lots of genes of small effect’), and when non-coding DNA was found not to be ‘junk’, things became significantly more complex than anticipated!  To make matters worse, the more ‘reductionist’ the science is, the more complexity we unravel and the longer it will be before we can finally apply the science to real-world animal enterprises.  In hindsight it is only now, some 30-40 years after the gene revolution that we are seeing its practical implementation!

In contrast to the scientists, we have the producers of animals whose livelihood depends on beating the relentless negative terms-of-trade pressure making them less profitable year-by-year.  To beat this terms-of-trade erosion, they have to identify new technologies that will ‘fit’ their production system, with all the complexities of the environment, climate, soils, pastures, history, markets, multiple enterprises, social pressures and so on.  Whilst, like scientists, they are generally optimistic folks, their enthusiasm for new technologies and ideas is tempered somewhat by pragmatic realism and experience.  Their scepticism and sense of the constraints to implementation, are based on experience of the complexity of the systems they are managing.  Ironically this sort of scepticism might have been useful for the molecular scientists manipulating ruminal organisms!

To drive our animal industries forward with new technologies we need to ensure that we capture the exciting ideas of our scientists with the pragmatism of our producers, within the combined enthusiasm we all have for all things ‘animal’!

This thinking was at the forefront of the minds of those folks who started the Australian Society of Animal Production in the 1950’s.

They recognised that bringing together scientists, producers, educators, students, extension specialists and those involved in product development, was the best way to deliver realistic, cost-effective, new technologies to help producers stay profitable.   This is still the case!  Indeed I would argue the society is even more relevant now than ever before as indicated below.

Why is ASAP so important and why should I go to the conference?

  1. ASAP has always been an opportunity to network with folks across all sectors of animal production. If you are involved in animal agricultural you should be here!  This is especially true for young people wishing to form networks which are vital to their future (think employment!)
  2. For producers, this is your chance to catch up on technologies coming down the track that might assist you in increasing profitability in the future
  3. For scientists and industry stakeholders, this is a chance to rub shoulders with colleagues across disciplines, develop new ideas, mentor students, and talk to producers, consultants and other stakeholders

This year we are combining the conference with the Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation’s producer workshops and the Australian Association of Ruminant Nutritionists July Seminar as well as networking with the Intercollegiate Meat Judging Association – what a fabulous week of animal production activities!

I look forward to seeing you in Wagga!!

Phil Hynd
Australian Society of Animal Production

Details: Early-bird registrations are now open for Animal Production 2018, offering additional savings for ASAP members – visit www.asap.asn.au/2018-conference