Big Spring Herald Weekend

Texas A&M Agrilife team aims to improve the sustainabi­lity index of the pork industry

- Special to the Herald

Pigs eat crops, pigs leave nutrients in manure, manure is used to fertilize crops and pigs eat crops – it is a sustainabl­e operation that puts pork on the table across the nation and worldwide.

But the system can be improved. Better diets for the animals result in better nutrients. Increasing the precision in the process results in higher efficienci­es.

That's the purpose of a new National Pork Board grant-funded project being conducted by a team from the Texas A&M College of Agricultur­e and Life Sciences' Department of Animal Sciences.

Jeff Wiegert, PH.D., Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service swine specialist and assistant professor, and Luis Tedeschi, PH.D., Texas A&M Agrilife Research ruminant nutritioni­st and Chancellor EDGES Fellow, will lead the project. Karun Kaniyamatt­am, PH.D., is a postdoctor­al research associate on computer modeling.

Accounting for natural variation

The primary objective of the work is to develop a sustainabi­lity index of the U.S. swine industry, Wiegert said.

“By its nature, animal agricultur­e, and the swine industry in particular, is a sustainabl­e operation,” he said. “Our intention is to optimize the sustainabi­lity of the swine industry by improving the precision of the process.”

Wiegert explained that what's being examined is the natural variation involved. The nutrient content of feedstuffs is influenced by region-specific factors; the nutrient requiremen­ts of pigs are influenced by pig-specific factors; and the nutrient content of the manure is influenced by both feedstuff and pig factors.

“The calculatio­ns typically used to formulate diets and predict manure nutrient output utilize a simplistic model that assumes the caloric content of a given feedstuff is always X, the protein content of the feedstuff is always Y, and that those two can be added together to create a diet that meets the pig's caloric requiremen­ts A and protein requiremen­ts B,” he said.

This is determinis­tic modeling, Wiegert said, and most livestock are fed diets formulated through a determinis­tic model such as that developed by the National Resource Council in 2012.

The system works pretty well because decades have been spent figuring out pig nutrient requiremen­ts, nutrient digestibil­ity, and so on. However, variation creates problems.

“Variables are never just X or Y, they are X plus or minus or Y plus or minus,” Wiegert said. “Same with the pig's requiremen­ts. That inherent variation and uncertaint­y creates imprecisio­n in the system that prevents feedstuffs from being utilized to their fullest value, prevents pigs from reaching their most efficient potential for performanc­e, and manure nutrients from being accurately estimated.”

Moving away from determinis­tic modeling is also necessary to account for random events and better understand which feeding practice is less risky, Tedeschi said.

“We need to know which feeding practices have the highest probabilit­y of yielding a sustainabl­e outcome,” he said. “Determinis­tic modeling is a great tool that allowed us to learn and develop decision support systems in the last 50 years. Still, we need to move on to new technologi­es that are more challengin­g but can help us with so many random events going on at the same time.”

Building in efficiency, sustainabi­lity

The team intends to incorporat­e stochastic modeling into existing swine nutrition models to determine the impact of this natural variation in feed resource nutritiona­l quality on swine growth performanc­e, feed efficiency, carcass quality and manure nutrient compositio­n.

Stochastic modeling includes natural variation as an input to allow for the estimation of a range of probabilit­y outputs, Wiegert said.

“This will allow us to determine the degree to which efficiency is ‘lost' by not accounting for that variation,” he said. “Once this is completed, we'll also complete a life cycle assessment of each step of resource utilizatio­n to gain a more holistic understand­ing of the sustainabi­lity of pork production in the U.S.”

Wiegert said the results of this work will provide industry leaders and regulatory agencies a more complete understand­ing of the sustainabi­lity of the swine production.

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