ForumFood Animal Production:
Americans enjoy the safest, most abundant food supply
on Earth. It's also the most affordable. The average American pays a
little less than 11 percent of his or her disposable income on foodthe
lowest rate in the world. In 2002, it took only 39 days to earn enough
to pay for food for an entire year. As recently as 1970, it took 51
While housing and health care costs continue to rise,
food has actually become more affordable. Why? Because of the efficiency
and productivity of American farmers and ranchers. They're constantly
fine-tuning their growing and breeding practices and using new technologies
to boost their yields.
The Agricultural Research
Service (ARS) plays a major role in developing the knowledge base
and technologies that allow U.S. producers to meet consumer needs. For
example, according to the Economic Research Service, the average American
eats about 194 pounds of red meat, poultry, and fish in a year16
pounds above the level eaten in 1970. Meeting such demands while keeping
costs down and maintaining the quality consumers expect is no easy task.
In this regard, ARS has developed a Food Animal Production
Action Plan. It supports improvements in reproductive and nutrient intake
efficiency as well as product quality. The plan also supports conservation
and use of genetic resources, development of genomic tools, and continued
study of integrated systems and animal growth and development. With
scientists stationed at labs across the United States, we look at questions
related to these different areas and use the resulting data in ways
that will serve producers and, ultimately, consumers.
Take the problem facing competing cattle producers in
the Southeast. Thirty to 40 percent of the nation's beef cattle is produced
there, and almost all these animals have some Brahman in their genetic
makeup. Brahmans are more resistant to heat and pests than are breed
types that evolved in more temperate climates. But they produce tougher
steaks, and this can reduce consumers' satisfaction.
The ARS Subtropical Agricultural Research Station in Brooksville,
Florida, is trying to overcome the Brahman toughness problem. Scientists
are looking for genetic variation within the breed that would allow
producers to choose sires based on the beef tenderness of their progeny
and other characteristics. They have also started crossbreeding Angus,
Brahman, and Romosinuano cattle to develop a line that imparts the benefits
of a tropically adapted breed as well as improved carcass quality and
Halfway across the continent, researchers at ARS' Roman
L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska,
are using genetic diversity among sheep breeds to improve production
efficiency. They are currently looking into streamlining sheep production
systems by developing easy-care, meat-yielding breeds. One possibility
they're exploring? Breeds of sheep that don't need to be sheared (see
The ARS National Animal Germplasm Program, based in Fort
Collins, Colorado, is helping to preserve genetic diversity within food-animal
populations. The program provides a safe repository for frozen semen
or embryos from beef and dairy cattle, poultry, swine, sheep, goats,
and aquatic animals. These genetic resources could help researchers
solve future food-production problems.
ARS researchers are also using high-tech tools to improve
food-animal production efficiency now. For instance, scientists at ARS'
Biotechnology and Germplasm Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, are
using techniques originally developed for human medicine to extend the
viability of turkey sperm. The turkey industry relies on artificial
insemination to produce nearly 300 million birds annually. Producers
must inseminate breeder hens every week for 24 to 26 weeks, but they
can store sperm for only 8 to 18 hours before it becomes infertile.
Hens, however, can store viable sperm inside their bodies for more than
2 months. ARS researchers are hoping to identify the genes that allow
hens to keep sperm alive by taking genetic "snapshots" of
sperm-storage tissues from inseminated and noninseminated hens and comparing
the two. Eventually, they may be able to use this information to create
a method for storing viable sperm for days, weeks, or even months at
Information systems help compile and quantify the massive
amounts of production data collected on different animals. ARS researchers
are harnessing the power of computer modeling to simulate production
systems and uncover the economic value of different traits. As the article
on page 12 indicates, modeling studies undertaken at Fort Keogh Livestock
and Range Research Laboratory in Miles City, Montana, are helping producers
find bulls that will produce the most profitable offspring.
Computers are also helping ARS researchers and others
map the bovine, chicken, pig, sheep, and trout genomes, among others.
When complete, these genetic road maps will provide additional information
that researchers and producers can use to produce leaner, more tender,
more fertile animals. Meantime, ARS will continue to combine traditional
breeding programs with other tools at our disposal to sustain and increase
food-animal productivity to benefit producers and consumers alike.
For more information about the ARS Food Animal Production Action Plan and the many research programs it comprises, visit the ARS National Program web site at www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
Joseph T. Spence
"Forum" was published in the April 2003 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.