Keeping up with a changing world: new challenges, new technologies, new people

From hog cholera and pseudorabies to dendograms and microbiome

Things looked very different in the world of swine health and production when the Leman Swine Conference was inaugurated in 1974. It would be another four years until hog cholera would be officially eradicated from the USA, and 13 years until the appearance of PRRS. The US was a net importer of pork and pseudorabies was an emerging disease. Artificial insemination was virtually unheard of on commercial farms, and biosecurity, as we know it, was in its infancy.  The personal computer was about to make its debut in 1975, but it would be more than a decade (most notably with the development of PigCHAMP at the University of Minnesota), until computerized herd management software would evolve to become a mainstay of managing herds. Back then, access to data and information was at a premium, and for the 44 years since The Leman Swine Conference has provided a vibrant venue to exchange and discuss ideas and experiences, both practical and scientific. However, in contrast to 1974, our challenge is no longer how to access information, but how to digest and make sense of the deluge of information coming at us from endless sources.

While the transformation of swine production in the field has been stunning, it has been no less so in the scientific realm. Words such as PCR, sequencing, dendrogram, and microbiome, flow easily from the tongues of veterinarians today, but were not in the lexicon in 1974. We all know we are now in the era of “Big Data” where advancements in computer science and computational analysis have endowed us with tools to perform complex analyses at unprecedented speeds. The time-honored goal and purpose of the Leman Swine Conference, namely to foster the cross-fertilization of ideas between the science and practice of swine health and production, must find its footing in this new world of near real-time information acquisition, analysis and reporting. For those of us who were weaned on to traditional diets of veterinary medicine and animal sciences, this is not a trivial challenge, and more than ever there is a need for us to work across disciplines with people who have the relevant skill sets. We are fortunate that the state of Minnesota and its university have been proactive in recognizing and responding to these new opportunities.

New researchers to address these new challenges

In the 2015 legislative session, the Minnesota state legislature authorized a multi-year investment known as the Agricultural Research, Education, Extension and Technology Transfer Program (AGREETT).  The vision of the AGREETT program was to support positions for new faculty, technicians and graduate students to work in seven key areas to support agriculture in Minnesota:

  • Crop and livestock productivity
  • Microbial science
  • Advancing soil fertility and water quality
  • Agricultural technology and decision-making
  • Nutrient recycling and management
  • Agro-ecological innovation
  • Technologies aimed at managing pest resistance and climate change

Many of these new positions at the University have recently been filled, including six faculty hires at the College of Veterinary Medicine, three of whom were featured in the 2018 Leman Conference program.

Dr. Kim VanderWaal

Kim VanderWaal, PhD is a native Minnesotan with degrees from the University of Minnesota and University of California-Davis.Kim was recruited for the “Big Data” AGREETT position in the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine (VPM) where she was already working with the swine group on disease modeling projects and is involved in data analysis with the Morrison Swine Health Monitoring Project. Kim’s interests surround the use of large data sets to better understand pathogen movements within agricultural production systems, and other complex problems including aspects of food safety and antibiotic resistance. Kim lead the pre-conference workshop titled “Geeks to Geeks: A practitioner’s guide to designing research studies” involving several speakers addressing issues of study design and analysis, including case studies. As you are all aware, the growth of applied research conducted in industry makes this an important area for today’s veterinarians to build their skill base.

Dr. Noelle Noyes

Noelle Noyes, DVM, PhD, was recruited for the AGREETT position in antimicrobial resistance in the VPM department. She is a native of New York who did her undergraduate studies at Amherst, Massachusetts, then completed a joint DVM/PhD program at Colorado State University. Her doctoral research focused on antimicrobial use and resistance in feedlot cattle. Noelle brings state-of-the-art expertise in bioinformatics and shotgun sequencing of the microbiome, and is eager to apply her skills for the benefit of the swine industry in Minnesota.  At the Leman Conference, Noelle spoke in the break-out session titled “New Directions in Antibiotic Use and Resistance”. Her talk was titled “Antimicrobial use and Antimicrobial Resistance – How Will We Ever Understand It?” where she presented her perspectives on how new tools and approaches can help us address this important challenge.

Dr. Declan Schroeder

VPM also gained an AGREETT position in Pathogen Discovery and Surveillance, and successfully recruited Declan Schroeder, PhD to this position. Declan is an experienced molecular virologist who holds an honorary Chair in Viral Metagenomics in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading, United Kingdom. He has over 20 years of research experience as a molecular biologist in the areas of virology, biodiversity, pathology, and genomics – in particular, the use of genomic tools to study key biological processes. His research focuses on a diverse array of host-virus systems, including the honeybee. He was the former Director of the Marine Biological Association of the UK Culture Collection where he was also a Senior Research Fellow in Viral and Molecular Ecology (2001-2018). Declan made a presentation titled ‘Molecular diagnostics: Present and future, in the Disease Diagnosis and Research break out session. His move to Minnesota means that the Schroeder lab will continue to develop molecular tools to enhance detection and surveillance to secure and improve agricultural productivity.        

Space does not permit detailed introduction of another dozen AGREETT hires in other Departments and Colleges across the University, but several of them have roles that will support the swine industry. These include Erin Cortus (agricultural engineer focused on manure and odor management, CFANS); Andres Gomez (microbiome, CFANS); Melissa Wilson (manure management and soil science, CFANS); Diane DeWitte (swine extension educator, CFANS); and Peter Larsen (host-pathogen interactions) and Mathew Aliota (vector-borne diseases) in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, CVM.

This group of talented researchers complements a well-established group of swine researchers,including our new Leman Chair Cesar Corzo, to strengthen our capacity to work with stakeholders to address the daily and emerging challenges of the swine industry.

Please keep a look out for Kim, Noelle, Declan, Erin and Andres, and help welcome them to our community. It is important to let them know or what you are seeing and doing in the field to help bring science and practice into alignment,and honor the tradition of Al Leman and Bob Morrison.

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