The following is an edited transcript of Luther Andal's interview with Dr. Vaughn Holder, research project manager at Alltech, and professor Maurice Boland, European research director at Alltech.
Click below to hear the full interview:
Luther: We’re talking with Dr. Vaughn Holder, research project manager at Alltech, where he heads global nutritional research in beef species. Also with us is professor Maurice Boland, European research director at Alltech. Dr. Holder, let’s start with you: Give me your thoughts on programmed nutrition. Can you tell us more about this idea?
Vaughn: Programmed nutrition is a nutritional concept that came out of our nutrigenomics and epigenetics laboratory — which we set up about 10 or 12 years ago — that basically looks at the interaction between genes and nutrition, and the effect that nutrition has on gene expression. Rather than the traditional concept of changing gene sequences by either breeding or artificial means, programmed nutrition was a program set up to evaluate the effects of nutrition on the expression of those genes without changing the gene sequences.
When you have the power to evaluate the effect of nutrition on every gene in the body simultaneously, it really gives you a powerful tool to fast-track research in the nutrition of both animals and people.
Luther: How do we apply this concept to animal nutrition?
Vaughn: That’s a very important question to ask because a lot of the technologies that we use in terms of the epigenetics — the gene chip technologies — are somewhat difficult to understand, very difficult to put your hands on. It’s very important that, down the line from that nutritional work that you do, that you put together programs that are fed to animals. So, that’s a very important part of the program.
Luther: Does that mean that nurture wins out versus nature in the nurture-versus-nature debate?
Vaughn: That is also a very interesting question, and you can’t say one over the other because you need both. Quite frankly, you do need a set of genes to start off with. That’s the nature part. Gene sequence is obviously very important because that’s the blueprint for what can be done within the body. The nurture part tells you how what happens to the animal affects what will actually happen. A very simple example of that is all of us may have the potential to be a super athlete, but unless you work out every day and practice those things, you won’t be an athlete. And (that part) lets you nurture those genes.
Luther: You say that “you are what your mother ate.” Tell us what you mean by that.
Vaughn: “You are what your mother ate” means that whatever the diet your mother ate when you were in utero will affect, eventually, what you become. A great example of that is, after World War II, the famine that occurred in the Netherlands. The caloric intake of most of those folks was reduced to about 400 to 800 calories (per day), whereas usually you would be eating about 2,500 calories. The women who were pregnant during that time, the offspring of those women ended up being much more likely to develop diabetes, to have metabolic syndrome and to be obese by the time they were in their 50s.
That just showed that, even though the diet of those people wasn’t any different from any of their compatriots, the fact that the mother was nutrient-restricted when they were in utero affected the person that their offspring became. So, we start to understand these really powerful effects of multigenerational nutrition and what the nutrition of even successive previous generations — of your ancestors — might do to what you actually become.
Luther: Can we overcome our genetic issues through nutrition?
Vaughn: In certain circumstances, yes. I think that there are obviously a lot of severe genetic mutations that cannot be overcome by nutrition, but certainly nutrition can play a very important role in modulating what types of genetics you actually have at the end of the day. If we listen to Ronan Power's talk in the main session as well, you’ll see some pretty profound things that you can do with nutrition in some disease models.
Luther: Do we need to rethink the process of taking beef products to the marketplace?
Vaughn: It seems clear that we’re not going to have a choice in that matter. The pressure from consumers to do things like remove hormones and antibiotics from beef rations is quite strong right now. There’s also quite a lot of financial incentive for producers to do those things. That being said, we need to find ways to do that without sacrificing the welfare of the animals themselves. This is a very critical part of the story.
Everyone wants us to remove antibiotics from animal rations, but if an animal gets sick, you need to treat that animal with antibiotics. That’s pretty clear. The same as if your child got sick. You would send them for antibiotics. But certainly, with the power of nutrigenomics and being able to select a blueprint for that animal, we can do things with nutrition that upgrade immunity, that improve performance the same way that traditional technologies can but that might not be looked upon so favorably. You can do that with specialized nutrition processes.
Luther: Given the rising billions from China, from other areas of Asia, India and Africa growing into a middle class, is programmed nutrition the key to meeting the demand of the future?
Vaughn: I heard a statistic the other day: The middle class of China has the same estimated population size as the entire population of the U.S. That’s expected to increase with countries getting richer, like India and probably eventually Africa; there certainly need to be means to increase the production of all protein sources. Beef is an important one because a large part of the lifecycle of the animal consumes feedstuffs that no other agricultural species uses in terms of grasses. Beef will remain an important protein source in these places, and finding ways to produce it without having any of the other negative effects, whether on the environment or people themselves, is very important.
Luther: You talk about the importance of blueprinting. What do you mean by that?
Vaughn: Blueprinting is a concept that came about when we developed this programmed nutrition concept. I do like the comparison to the blueprint because you can have several different blueprints for different parts of a building and you may not actually end up using all of them. So, the blueprint is the genetics of the animal, and then what you end up expressing — or building — becomes what you see in reality. The blueprint is very important and an expression of that blueprint.
Luther: Can you discuss bypassing conventional pharmaceutical and antibiotic practices? How is that accomplished?
Vaughn: We have to be quite careful about how we phrase that, and a lot of people will talk about whether we’re talking about replacements for antibiotics or substitutes for antibiotics. That’s not necessarily the case. I think that most of the time, when we are designing programs that allow for the removal of those types of technologies, we’re just promoting another process within the animal. Oftentimes, with antibiotics, it’s about promoting immunity naturally and then reducing the actual need for the use of antibiotics, at the end of the day. So, usually the mechanism by which that happens is completely different. Our technology is focused more on prevention rather than coming around afterward and talking about treatment.
Luther: How does Alltech’s EPNIX® program fit within that?
Vaughn: I would say Alltech’s EPNIX program is one of the first true mainstream commercial successes that have come out of the programmed nutrition program. It was originally a programmed nutrition program designed from nutrigenomics, but we have since gone through some pretty largescale commercial work as well.
Like I said earlier, it’s important that you can use this stuff out in the field and get results in the animals themselves. And that’s always going to be the natural progression of these types of programs. They start as theoretical programs in the laboratory, and you do need to carry those through all the way to commercial success. That’s what EPNIX has done at the moment.
Luther: Professor Boland, there is a claim being advanced by some that cattle have reached maximum efficiency and that carcass weight cannot be increased. What are your thoughts on that?
Maurice: My thoughts are that that is certainly not the case. If we look at the work rate — or the metabolic work rate — of a steer, and compare that with a dairy cow, which is, again, part of the cattle population, it’s not nearly as efficient or as productive as the dairy cow. I believe that we can achieve an awful lot more. We need to understand a little bit more about the mechanisms that contribute to that and, as Dr. Vaughn has said, the epigenetic effects are going to be crucial.
We know that you can modify the lifetime performance of an animal, whether in terms of reproduction or in terms of growth, by what happens either very early during the pregnancy period or later on in the last trimester of pregnancy. There’s still a lot that we can do to enhance the overall efficiency of the beef animal. One of the things that we need to be very careful about is to ensure that we have those animals in the optimum health condition.
If we can get the animals into the right health status, then everything else in terms of their productivity will be enhanced and will be more efficient than we have at the moment.
Luther: Alltech conducted a two-year experiment at Cactus Feeders, where they investigated this. What were their findings?
Maurice: Their findings were very clear that they got healthier animals, that they got more productive animals and that they got better weight gain. They got better carcass weights at the end of that trial period. It’s very clear that the program that Dr. Vaughn has spoken about already, the EPNIX program, can deliver benefits to the producer.
If we can deliver benefits to the producer, then ultimately we’re going to deliver better benefits to the consumer. Hopefully we will be producing a healthier animal, and a healthier animal should then lead to healthier meat. We’re going to be looking at better health benefits for the consumer. I think there is a big effort now in relation to human health to look at how the whole nutritional program can influence that, or be of benefit to the consumer.
Luther: Is this experiment continuing, perhaps even being expanded into new directions?
Maurice: We will be building on the information. In fact, it was Dr. Holder who set up that program. We will be building on that to expand into more areas in the world. We’re looking for opportunities using natural products to enhance the health and the productivity of the animals. So, obviously, we will be taking that out on a wider scale.
Luther: What are the implications for the industry from these studies?
Maurice: The implications for the industry are, number one, that it can become more efficient in various parts of the world. The beef industry is under significant financial pressure. If we can make those animals healthier, if we can make those animals more productive, if we can get higher carcass weights, then that’s going to be of benefit to the producer. I think that we can also look at how we can modify the composition of the diet to ensure that we have got a product that is of more health benefit to the consumer. So, what we’re striving for all of the time is to look at what does the consumer want and how can we deliver the product for that consumer.
Luther: What do you think the future holds for the industry?
Maurice: I think the future for the industry is bright. I think there will be challenges. I think there will be a lot of technology coming into that industry over the next five to 10 years that will revolutionize, in many ways, the production efficiency.
One of the things that we’re always interested in is, not only the composition of the diet, but the structure, the makeup of the diet that will go into both the beef and the dairy industry. With our KEENAN technology, we can enhance the output from those animals, make the utilization of the raw materials, whether it’s fiber or protein or whatever, more efficient and therefore more beneficial for the animal.
Again, I come back all the time to that healthy animal. A healthy animal is a productive animal and will be of tremendous benefit to the consumer.
Luther: You just mentioned the use of KEENAN to analyze that. Can you give us some background on that?
Maurice: Yes. The KEENAN technology was purchased by Alltech just over a year ago, and we have made, again, a lot of progress during that period. But one of the things that we have is called InTouch. That is a piece of equipment on the side of the mixer wagon. It will not only tell the farmer what ingredients should be mixed, the rate at which they’re being mixed and what goes into the diet, whether it’s of the dairy cow or the beef cow, but more importantly, we will get feedback at our headquarters, such as output on milk production and how the animals are performing. We can then go back and modify, or interact with the farmer, to ensure that he is getting the optimum performance from that system.
Luther: Dr. Vaughn Holder, research project manager at Alltech, and professor Maurice Boland, who is the Alltech European research director. Thanks for joining us.
Maurice: Thank you.
Dr. Vaughn Holder and professor Maurice Boland spoke at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference (ONE17). To hear more talks from the conference, sign up for the Alltech Idea Lab.