Vaughn Holder: A new approach to beef production

  • As consumer demands evolve, producers should consider a new approach to taking healthy, traceable beef to the marketplace.

The following is an edited transcript of Tom Martin’s interview with Dr. Vaughn Holder, research project manager for beef at Alltech.


Click below to hear the full interview:




Tom:                          We’re talking with Dr. Vaughn Holder, research project manager at Alltech, where he leads the global nutritional research on beef cattle. Thank you for joining us, Dr. Holder.


Vaughn:                    Thank you.


Tom:                          How does a producer take a “head-out-of-the-sand” approach?


Vaughn:                    The idea behind the “head-out-of-the-sand” approach is that we want producers to identify the opportunities that they have available to them.


                                    There is significant social pressure these days. People want certain agricultural species to change the way they’re doing things. I think oftentimes consumers don’t necessarily understand the way producers are operating or that they’re already doing those things.


                                    A “head-out-of-the-sand” approach is a way of saying to the producers, “Let’s take the good in what you do and let’s get you paid for it.”


Tom:                          How can a producer bring unique, traceable and healthy beef to the world marketplace?


Vaughn:                    Beef producers are actually very good environmental stewards. We’ve been producing beef from the land for several hundred years, and beef is still a viable product today.


                                    What traceability does — or what verification does ­— is allows producers to market it as a part of their programs. This all starts with age and source verification, which is easy for most farmers who take records. It’s just being able to tell when the animal was born and where it comes from.


Tom:                          What are the key industry resources that allow a producer to, as you say, "steak" their claim?


Vaughn:                    “Steak" their claim — that’s great. You need two things: First, you need to have someone who can verify what you’re doing and that it fits into a certain program. Whether we’re talking about age and source verification or non-hormone treated cattle, you need somebody to come in and verify or certify that that’s what you’re doing.


                                    Secondly, you may need to use some technologies if you are looking at replacing either antibiotics or hormones, or whatever it might be. There may be some minor modifications that you must make in your production system, and you may need some technologies to help you do that. That’s where Alltech comes in.


Tom:                          Why is there a need to rethink the process of taking beef products to the marketplace?


Vaughn:                    Most of this has been driven by social pressures — by consumer pressures — or by retail pressures. Basically, what happens is there are requirements from our consumers for certain types of production processes — or for the absence of certain production processes. When we are in business, we need to satisfy our customers’ needs, and that’s where most of this is coming from.


Tom:                          In your view, how could the disruptive technology CRISPR impact beef production?


Vaughn:                    The impacts of CRISPR are probably beyond what someone could tell you. To give you an example, if we look at polled dairy cows — “polled” meaning dairy cows without horns — if we had to go through the process of using breeding technologies to remove the horns from dairy cattle, it would probably take a process of about 10 years. It would take another 10 years to get the milk production of the dairy cows back to where they were. CRISPR would allow us to do that in a single generation.


                                    Essentially, what CRISPR does is it allows you to edit genetics on the fly; to edit the gene sequence of the animal on the fly. That has connotations well beyond even what we can imagine in agriculture. You can imagine the consequences for medicine, for example.


Tom:                          You were involved in the 2016 launch of EPNIX®, Alltech’s program designed to improve the health and profitability of beef feedlot cattle independent of the use of antibiotics or other pharmaceutical technologies. Though, it does work both with and without antibiotics. Can you provide a bit more detail on the program?


Vaughn:                    Sure. EPNIX was a program that was developed through our nutrigenomics and epigenetics laboratory at Alltech. We have those programs in multiple species. However, the nutrition program in beef has probably seen the most progress commercially.


The culmination of that research — probably about 11 years’ worth of research — has resulted in EPNIX, which is essentially just a program designed to improve the health and performance of feedlot cattle, regardless of the use of other technologies. And that’s important; we are not replacing those technologies. We’re not talking about another antibiotic or another hormone. EPNIX products work by a completely different mechanism than those technologies. So, they do work in every situation.


Tom:                          How is EPNIX being received in the industry?


Vaughn:                    We’ve had a lot of good response from this. Agriculture is a very conservative industry. It’s actually very difficult to gain ground with folks in that industry because they are naturally suspicious of people trying to sell them all the latest and greatest technology. However, we partnered with one of the preeminent feeding groups in the industry and one of the most trusted research institutions in the industry: Cactus Feeders. They perform their own internal research for their own purposes. They are wholly owned by themselves and do not consult for anyone else. The research is taken very seriously.


                                    We chose the right partner, and that’s why we chose to do the endpoint commercial research on the program. We had validated it in the laboratory, but we needed a place that could be trusted to show what the program can do commercially.


Tom:                          Are you seeing significant results? 


Vaughn:                    Yes. In fact, from the two experiments that we have completed at Cactus Feeders thus far, we were able to improve the production of the cattle above and beyond what they are already doing. That’s important because I think it can be easy to set up a control group to fail otherwise. You need to compare new results to their current best. You need to be able to show that you can do better if you want any kind of mainstream adoption. In successive trials at Cactus Feeders, whether antibiotics were used or not, this program has improved the bottom line of those cattle.


Tom:                          What important future challenges does the industry face?


Vaughn:                    There are several. I think most of them pertain to the massive use of many technologies that the industry has grown accustomed to or has grown to rely on. The use of in-feed antibiotics is under a lot of scrutiny right now. I think it scares a lot of people — the thought that they might lose the use of those antibiotics, or as a worst-case scenario, that we might lose antibiotics altogether. I think it’s very bad if we end up in a situation where we can’t treat sick animals. That will not be good for the industry.


Tom:                          How does your work affect the average consumer in their kitchen table?


Vaughn:                    That is a very good question. The initial work that was done on the nutrition program was an effort to improve the quality of the meat. Now, it is quite difficult to implement when the beef industry is segmented. You have different entities involved in different parts of the production of meat. It becomes difficult to get one partner to pay for something that another partner will benefit from.


                                    It has always been difficult to implement technologies that improve the quality of meat. However, because this program was based on improving quality initially, and now that we also have the health and performance aspect attached to it, we’ve seen that we can carry that benefit through. The main point of that is getting meat that has a longer shelf life and enriched micronutrient concentrations. You also get meat that is juicier and retains water better.


Tom:                          What do you enjoy most about your work?


Vaughn:                    I enjoy the act of taking something from a theoretical standpoint — from the laboratory standpoint — and coming up with an idea and seeing it applied out in the world one day. That’s the most satisfying part of the job for me. I think it can be frustrating to many scientists that you sit in the laboratory and do this amazing work, but if it doesn’t have an actual impact on the world, at the end of the day, it can become quite frustrating. So, to see this fed to real animals in real life and end up on people’s tables is quite satisfying.


Tom:                          Dr. Vaughn Holder, research project manager at Alltech. Thank you for joining us.


Vaughn:                    Thanks.


Dr. Vaughn Holder spoke at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference (ONE17). To hear more talks from the conference, sign up for the Alltech Idea Lab.

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