October 2019 AnSci Connection

AnSci Connection - a monthly newsletter from the department of animal science

University of Minnesota African Swine Fever Response Team

pigletAfrican Swine Fever (ASF) is a major concern for pork producers around the world because it causes nearly 100% mortality, spreads rapidly, and there is no vaccine to prevent infection or effective treatment for infected pigs. This devastating disease has spread to more than 25 pig producing countries in the EU, Africa, and Asia, including China, which has lost about 50% of its swine herd (25% of global pork production), along with Vietnam and the Philippines. Currently, ASF has not spread to North, Central, or South America, but if it does, it would not only have devastating economic effects on the pork and agriculture industries by reducing demand for corn and soybean meal resulting from reduced production, but also prevent pork exports to other countries.

Because there are no vaccines or treatments for ASF, the only way to control the spread is by eradication of infected pigs and prevent of virus introduction into non-infected countries like the United States. There are multiple transmission routes such as international travelers and illegally imported food products containing pork, but imported feed ingredients from infected countries also represent a potential risk factor with high uncertainly due to lack of information about the survival of the ASF virus in feed ingredients and the effectiveness of various mitigation strategies to inactivate the virus.

This is where the University of Minnesota African Swine Fever Response Team comes into play with their new, one of a kind project. The team will be using a surrogate virus that has similar properties to the ASF virus, but poses no health threat to humans, pigs, or the environment, to develop an assay to help improve biosecurity in the U.S. pork and feed industry. Additionally they will be using the surrogate assay to performing studies to evaluate mitigation and inactivation strategies of the ASF virus in feed ingredients.

In addition to the work in the lab, the team is also “working with various industry groups to help develop risk assessments and education for the feed and pork industry about the relative risks of various feed ingredients,” stated Dr. Jerry Shurson, a Professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Animal Science and project lead.

This project is not your typical research project. It is “an integrated University of Minnesota Response to a major global threat to the pork industry,” said Shurson.

Other members of this talented, diverse team are Dr. Pedro Urriola, Research Associate Professor, Department of Animal Science; Dr. Declan Schroeder, Associate Professor, Department of Veterinary Population Medicine; Dr. Fernando Sampedro, Associate Professor, School of Public Health; and Dr. Jennifer van de Ligt, Director, Integrated Food Systems Leadership Program.


From Left to Right: Dr. Jerry Shurson, Dr. Pedro Urriola, Dr. Declan Schroeder, Dr. Fernando Sampedro, and Dr. Jennifer van de Ligt.

Shurson indicated that finding solutions to complex global food security problems like the spread of ASF requires forming collaborative teams representing different perspectives and expertise, and integrate and communicate this information to all key players because everyone is part of the solution. “It’s all about collaboration and using a systems approach for implementing solutions” Shurson explained. 

From Table to Toilet - A New Freshman Seminar Course

Milena Saqui-Salces headshot

Dr. Milena Saqui-Salces

What happens when food enters your body? Dr. Milena Saqui-Salces is helping students answer that question in her new freshman seminar course, “The Journey of Food in Your Body,” or as Saqui-Salces likes to refer to it, “From Table to Toilet.”

However, digestive physiology is not the only thing these students are learning. They are also discovering how to perform science writing and information gathering. Freshman seminars are capped at 20 students and are discussion based courses. The purpose of these style of courses are to teach the students a skill, rather than just information. 

Saqui-Salces wanted to develop a course that would be attractive to students across many majors, not just animal science, as well as help freshman distinguish reliable sources and become more critical of the information around them, all while using digestion as the vehicle for learning.

In addition to in class discussions, students picked two statements related to food and diet at the beginning of the semester, one they agree with and one they disagree with. Then they must write one essay on what is known about this topic and one essay based on their opinion of the topic. These topics range from the importance of breakfast to the effects of apple cider vinegar. 

Additionally, students have different tasks that they must complete in order to help them learn campus. For example, they had to find a physiology book from a library on campus and copy the digestive physiology chapter. Many students had to visit a couple libraries to figure out which books were in which libraries. Through this process, one student discovered that one of the libraries was a great place to study for her and shenow spends most of her studying hours there.

Saqui-Salces has seen many lightbulb moments as the students discover that some statements online have little to no credible sources backing them up. Their curiosity has grown throughout the semester as they discover how to determine what is fact and what is fiction. Saqui-Salces says she has learned so much from these students in the pilot course. She hopes of continuing to offer this material, but eventually transition to a traditional course for upperclassmen. 

Equine Carcass Composting

horse carcass composting team

From left to right: Dr. Melissa Wilson, Hannah Lochner, and Mark Hutchinson.

For many horses in Minnesota, there comes a time when their owner has to make the difficult decision to humanly euthanize them because of untreatable medical conditions. However, over a year ago this decision became more complicated when one of the major rendering companies in Minnesota changed their policy on accepting chemically euthanized horses. With difficult burial restrictions and large expenses around equine cremation, horse owners are left wondering what they will do with their horse’s body after euthanasia.

Dr. Krishona Martinson, Equine Extension Specialist at the University of Minnesota, knew that the equine community needed to investigate other options for horse owners. After attending a conference in Maine, where she heard Mark Hutchinson, Extension Professor with Maine Cooperative Extension, speak on composting, Martinson knew what had to be done next.

With funding from the Rapid Ag Response Fund, a half research and half Extension project was created with three key objectives to help solve this problem:

  1. Demonstrate the ability to successfully compost equine carcasses during both summer and winter months.
  2. Document concentrations of sodium pentobarbital throughout the composting process.
  3. Educate horse owners and professionals on the process and benefits of equine carcass composting to encourage adoption.

Martinson put together a dynamic team to help make this first attempt at composting horse carcasses in Minnesota a success. She found the perfect graduate student for the project, Hannah Lochner, a former summer intern and Extension communications specialist. Martinson knew that with Lochner’s communications background and hardworking attitude, they could successfully tackle this large project and help improve industry perceptions of composting.horse carcass composting team

They also have many different key players that bring their individual expertise to the project, including Dr. Melissa Wilson, Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water and Climate; Dr. Alex Bianco, Assistant Professor, Large Animal Internal Medicine, University of Minnesota; Mark Hutchinson, Extension Professor, Maine Cooperative Extension; and Dr. Katie Dentzman, Post-Doctoral Research Associate, University of Idaho.

The group held their first field day on September 27th, 2019, where they introduced compassionate composting, euthanasia and carcass disposal options, compost pile construction, and compost applications. The field day was met with very positive feedback and the group is looking forward to many more extension efforts, including inforgraphics, a YouTube video series, webinars, and eventually a six week certification course for horse owners.


Gopher Achieves Lifelong Dream

Rachel Coyne judging at World Dairy ExpoCoyne had been dreaming of judging in the Intercollegiate Dairy Cattle Judging Contest at World Dairy Expo since she started dairy judging in 4-H at nine years old. So when she placed second overall in that contest on September 30, it was a dream come true.

Rachel Coyne is a senior Animal Science, Dairy Production student at the University of Minnesota. She grew up on her family’s hobby farm in Spring Valley, Wisconsin, where they had registered Holstein and Brown Swiss show heifers. Coyne has been very active in Gopher Dairy Club, currently serving as the Vice President, Senior Trip Chair, and Food Animal Networking Evening Chair.

Coyne started judging at the University of Minnesota as a sophomore by taking the dairy reasons class. She then earned a spot on the team that judged at the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville, Kentucky her junior year, where she placed second overall and the team placed first. She’d go on to also compete at the Accelerated Genetics Intercollegiate Dairy Cattle Judging Contest, placing third as a team, and the collegiate dairy cattle judging contest at the All-American Dairy Show, placing second as a team.

Public speaking and confidence in decision making are just two of the skills that Coyne says she has gained from judging over the years. Additionally, she has made incredible friendships with her teammates as they bonded through the tough and good times.

The entire Minnesota team placed 3rd overall in the National Intercollegiate Dairy Cattle Judging Contest, only 5 points behind the 1st team overall (2464 versus 2459 points). They were 1st in Holstein, 2nd in Ayrshire, 2nd in Brown Swiss, 5th in Guernsey, and 5th in Jersey.Rachel Coyne judging at World Dairy Expo

Coyne said she really valued teammate Tanner Morrison of Peterson, MN throughout the entire process and enjoyed how they pushed each other to be the best they can be. Coyne and Morrison competed in every collegiate contest together. Morrison placed 3rd overall in Madison.  The other two team members at the contest were Sierra Swanson, Hutchinson, MN, and Kaleb Kruse, Dyersville, IA.

Additionally, Coyne learned a lot from her coaches over the years, including Dr. Les Hansen, alumnus Alicia Thurk Hiebert, and graduate students Eric Houdek and Gabriella Sorg.

After graduation in the spring, Coyne plans to work in the dairy industry, but like many dairy graduates, she is weighing the decision between working on the farm or in the industry.

Thoughts from Dr. Mike Schutz 

As I write this month’s column, I am at the National FFA Convention in Indianapolis as the Superintendent of the Milk Quality and Dairy Foods Career Development Event. I began my tenure on the planning committee in 2002 as the convention was then proposed to move from Louisville to Indianapolis. Back then, I had not been to the convention since I attended as a Green Hand (High School Freshman) in 1976 in Kansas City, the longtime home of the National FFA Convention.

As I reflect on how I got to be part of the committee, and if the truth be told, I was assigned to it by the Dean of Agriculture. I was somewhat reluctant because I was convinced I could be more helpful on the Dairy Cattle CDE committee. But what I found is that many experiences throughout my life have prepared me to be on the Milk Quality and Dairy Foods Committee, including my work in the areas of milk quality related to genetics of mastitis resistance that began when I was working on my Master’s degree at UMN, extension work related to milker training schools, and research in technologies to identify mastitis earlier in cows. But my original interest in the subject traces back to an internship I had in quality control at a Kraft Foods plant in Melrose, MN.

The point of my reflection is simply to recognize that there are many opportunities that come along to students, such as internships, labs, and classes that broaden horizons and create future opportunities that are impossible to discern at the time they happen. I see a lot of enthusiasm for these opportunities and the bright future of agriculture on full display at the FFA Convention, but I also see it every day in the activities and accomplishments of our Animal Science students. 

In Animal Science, we are committed to improving the experience our students will have. Two examples come immediately to mind. On Thursday, November 14, 2019, we will observe Give to the Max Day here at UMN. This year we will be fundraising to update the Animal Science Teaching Lab; a designated space for students to learn, explore, and create in a hands-on and welcoming environment. For more information on Give to the Max Day, go to: ansci.umn.edu/givetothemaxday.

A second example is that we will be undertaking an opportunity to review the curriculum of Animal Science at University of Minnesota, particularly for our undergraduate programs, but for graduate programs as well. Please keep your eyes open for upcoming opportunities to help us understand the needs for our programs moving forward.

By way of Departmental news, Megan Webb, Beef Management Extension specialist, has recently left to begin her service as Dean at Eastern Community College in West Viginia. We wish Megan all the best as she pursues her new career in her home state. We would also like to welcome Susan Janoski to the department as our Administrative Coordinator. We are glad to have Susan on board!


Dr. Mike Schutz
Department Head
Department of Animal Science 

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Animal Science in the News

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    November 14 - Give to the Max Day