As concern for climate change – and how to effectively mitigate it – grows, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine explore potential in livestock-centered, regenerative agro-food systems.
In reality, farmers across all facets of animal agriculture – beef, dairy, poultry, and pork – have long-since embraced evolving techniques to produce meat, milk, and eggs as efficiently and sustainably as possible, minimizing agriculture’s climate-contributing footprint in the process.
Even still, agriculture critics routinely point fingers at the industry and the animals that it is comprised of, even going as far as calling out cows for the implications of their bovine burps.
But researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) are finding that these cow ‘culprits’ – and other livestock found in animal agriculture – are actually critical partners in developing sustainable, regenerative agro-food systems.
“By maximizing the use of IUUB, the livestock sector of agriculture actually contributes to this societal issue in a very positive way,” says Dou.
The animals consuming IUUB are a key component to the wholesomeness of our food system, as well as to our own diets. “Without them, we would not be able to convert otherwise wasted biomass into nutritious meat, milk, and eggs.” she emphasizes.
Right now, Dou’s team at Penn Vet is in the process of conducting a dairy focused project called “The Amazing Cow.” Funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the study documents the types, amounts, and variations of IUUB fed on dairy farms, characterizing important nutritional attributes and giving producers informed insights on how IUUB feedstuffs could be implemented on their farms.
These promising feedstuffs come in many forms. A dairy operation in Lancaster County receives daily deliveries of apple waste from a processing facility that supplies apple slices for school lunches. Another local dairy gets three truckloads of vegetable and fruit discards, along with expired bread products, each week that originate from area distribution centers. No longer sellable or desirable for consumers, these foodstuffs become feed for cattle rather than going to a landfill. Other producers across Pennsylvania have discovered the benefits of brewer’s waste – the huge quantities of sour mash that result from the production of beer – as a viable source of feed.
On a national scale, livestock are consuming millions of pounds of otherwise unusable IUUB created in the production of various everyday products like soybean and canola oils, orange juice, ethanol, and more.
Even post-consumer food waste generated in restaurants and consumer households can be converted into safe and nutritious feed for livestock. A pilot project in California (Sustainable Alternative Feed Enterprises, SAFE) has developed treatment technologies to serve that purpose.
Dou’s team is working with SAFE. Her lab systematically collected and tested the feed samples derived from consumer food waste for feed safety evaluation, analyzing important factors such as mycotoxins, heavy metals, pesticides, microbial contaminants, and nutrition parameters.
Besides empowering farmers to make sustainable, but sensible, animal husbandry decisions, Dou’s team sees their circular, agro-food system model as a key to providing consumers with a healthy diet while reducing the issues some associate solely with livestock production.
Refining the model has opened doors to new sustainable applications, too. “Working with area farmers as well as a large fruit and vegetable wholesale centers, we have recognized some practical issues that need to be addressed in order to grow the adoption of this model further– primarily the logistics of transport and costs, and the safe use of the materials on the farm, given their perishable natures,” Dou says. “This has challenged us to look for even more sustainable solutions.”
Addressing some of these challenges has spurred Dou’s team to tackle a new initiative to develop innovative technologies that would unlock the precious resources embodied in highly perishable IUUB materials. Dou says this initiative consists of creating an IUUB database, conducting research trials, and assessing relevant nutritional, environmental, and climate impacts. “Collaborators from a number of Chinese institutions are interested as well,” she adds.
Dou’s circular agro-food system model doesn’t just focus on utilizing what goes into an animal, but also what comes out. Improving the practices of recycling manure back to cropland remains a key consideration. The management impact is twofold: the value of manure nutrients for growing crops, and mitigation of water quality issues from spreading manure.
Dou notes that, even before implementing tactile manure management, producers can (and often do) adopt precision feeding strategies to optimize nutrient intake for high productivity while minimizing nutrient excretion in manure.
“Livestock farming is an integral part in our agro-food system,” Dou concludes. “These animals can and do have a positive impact on our society, and they have a fantastic story to tell. Producers and those who are in the know need to get out there and share that story.”
About Penn Vet:
Ranked among the top ten veterinary schools worldwide, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) is a global leader in veterinary education, research, and clinical care. Founded in 1884, Penn Vet is the first veterinary school developed in association with a medical school. The school is a proud member of the One Health initiative, linking human, animal, and environmental health.
Penn Vet serves a diverse population of animals at its two campuses, which include extensive diagnostic and research laboratories. Ryan Hospital in Philadelphia provides care for dogs, cats, and other domestic/companion animals, handling nearly 35,300 patient visits a year. New Bolton Center, Penn Vet’s large-animal hospital on nearly 700 acres in rural Kennett Square, PA, cares for horses and livestock/farm animals. The hospital handles nearly 5,300 patient visits a year, while the Field Service treats more than 38,000 patients at local farms. In addition, New Bolton Center’s campus includes a swine center, working dairy, and poultry unit that provide valuable research for the agriculture industry.