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Study examines how WTO members cooperate

Two lessons taught to kindergartners also apply to nations involved in trade: Treat everyone the same, and if you give, you'll receive. That's according to a Kansas State University economist studying how countries in the World Trade Organization cooperate using the principles of non-discrimination and reciprocity.

For the paper, Peri da Silva, associate professor of economics at Kansas State University, and co-authors from the U.N. Conference on Trade & Development and the University of Geneva examined the relationship between tariffs, which are the taxes countries charge each other on classes of imports or exports, and market power, a measure of countries' abilities to influence the price of goods on the world stage. Large developed nations like the U.S. have much more market power than smaller or developing nations.

The paper — "Cooperation in WTO's Tariff Waters?" — will be published in the Journal of Political Economy.

"The concept of the WTO is to make sure that countries are conscious of their effects on others," da Silva said. "It's very simple and well thought out because of the two pillars. The tariff the U.S. applies on Germany is the same for Japan and for Malaysia on the same product, for example, and if a country is opening its markets to your products, you should reciprocate."

Acting according to WTO pillars is complicated by the presence of "tariff water" — or the difference between the tariff ceilings to which nations are bound by trade agreements and the tariffs they actually apply. Da Silva and co-authors confirmed that the presence of tariff water allows countries to engage in non-cooperative behavior that harms other nations' economies. Shifting to cooperative tariffs, on the other hand, leads to reductions in tariffs and a better bottom line for all.

This means that WTO has plenty of work to do to safeguard the fairness of world trade, according to da Silva. Individual nations also have a role to play, because countries operating in tariff waters and charging higher tariffs may cause other nations to retaliate. Da Silva said the U.S. can cause a lot of damage if it raises tariffs.

"You have to be careful, because if you shift costs to the foreigners by raising tariffs, they can respond," da Silva said. "You could return to the terrible situation of the 1930s, where countries were not constrained. That ended badly: It aggravated the Great Depression. That's a nightmare we don't want to go back to."

The 2016 U.S. presidential election brought frequent discussions of international trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and negotiations with the European Union. Da Silva said 11.5 million Americans are dependent on exports, including workers employed in highly competitive industries such as agriculture, technology and defense, and pursuing non-cooperative, unilateral trade policies could damage those sectors in the long term.

If the U.S. wanted to protect a certain industry such as auto manufacturing, for example, a tariff on foreign cars could provide a brief boost to that industry, but it would carry consequences, he added.

"It's easy, in the political cycle, to say you will protect industries, but people don't understand the other side of that," da Silva said, explaining that the industry would benefit some, but then the car exporters to the U.S. are not going to be happy because you're shifting the cost of this policy to foreigners by shifting demand from the foreign cars. “Those foreign companies would be hurt, so the companies would ask their countries to retaliate, which would hurt American export industries.”

Trade wars result, and da Silva said no one benefits when countries resort to harming each other. Instead, he hopes the U.S. will respect the international agreements it helped craft, particularly as consumers have grown accustomed to sophisticated products at reasonable prices. Concerns about China and other large developing economies can be addressed through WTO agreements, which is a better approach than pursuing unilateral actions, da Silva said.

"If we start a conflict with China, it will reverberate through the economy," da Silva said. "The power of the U.S. means our actions have consequences. We need to display leadership."

Mars to acquire VCA for $9b

Mars Inc. and VCA Inc. announced Jan. 9 that they have entered an agreement under which Mars will acquire all of the outstanding shares of VCA for $93 per share, or a total value of approximately $9.1 billion, including $1.4 billion in outstanding debt.

The transaction price represents a premium of approximately 41% over VCA’s 30-day volume weighted average price on Jan. 6 and a premium of approximately 31% over VCA’s closing price on Jan. 6. The agreement has been unanimously approved by the boards of directors of both companies.

VCA now joins Mars Petcare, one of the world’s leading pet care providers. Pet care has been an important part of Mars for more than 80 years. According to the announcement, the transaction reaffirms Mars’ commitment to the pet care industry and the veterinary profession and, once completed, will help drive Mars Petcare’s purpose to create "A Better World for Pets."

Mars Petcare’s portfolio of veterinary services businesses includes BANFIELD Pet Hospital, BLUEPEARL and PET PARTNERS. Together with VCA, these businesses will provide an unprecedented level of access to high-quality veterinary care for pets, from wellness and prevention to primary, emergency and specialty care.

On the pet nutrition side, Mars Petcare has multiple global brands, including ROYAL CANIN, PEDIGREE and WHISKAS. Mars has a growing business in pet DNA testing through the WISDOM PANEL and, in 2015, also acquired pet technology provider WHISTLE.

Since its founding in 1986, VCA has grown from one facility in Los Angeles, Cal., to nearly 800 animal hospitals with 60 diagnostic laboratories throughout the U.S. and Canada. Through organic growth and a series of acquisitions, VCA has become one of the largest and most diverse pet health care companies; it operates across four divisions, including veterinary services, laboratory diagnostics, imaging equipment and medical technology and pet care services.

“Joining the Mars family of brands provides significant value to our stockholders while also preserving the company’s values and a culture focused on investing in our people and facilities to promote excellence in pet care and long-term growth,” VCA chief executive officer Bob Antin said. “Mars has a long-standing commitment to pet health, wellness and nutrition. We will work together every day to continue to provide the quality care and excellent service VCA is known for to our clients and their pet families.”

“We have always been impressed by VCA and the excellent services it offers to pets across diverse business segments,” Mars Global Petcare president Poul Weihrauch said. “VCA’s industry-leading partnerships with veterinarians and pet care providers, together with its expertise in veterinary services, diagnostics and technology, will position Mars to deliver accessible, quality care and continue to create a better world for pets.”

Distinct business unit

Upon completion of the transaction, VCA will operate as a distinct and separate business unit within Mars Petcare, alongside its other veterinary services businesses — BANFIELD Pet Hospital, BLUEPEARL and PET PARTNERS — and will continue to be led by Antin. The company will remain headquartered in Los Angeles and will remain focused on its business model and strategic objectives.

The transaction is subject to certain customary closing conditions, including, among other things, VCA shareholder approval and customary regulatory approvals. Mars has committed financing for the purchase of VCA. The transaction is expected to close in the third quarter of 2017.

Fed investigation heats up of $2.6m in missing beef checkoff funds

Oklahoma Beef Council beef checkoff logo

The U.S. attorney's office in Oklahoma City, Okla., confirmed that it is investigating the alleged embezzlement of $2.6 million from the Oklahoma Beef Council.

In September 2016, the results of an internal investigation into potential Oklahoma Beef Council employee wrongdoing for former employee Melissa Morton, the director of accounting and compliance, were turned over to federal authorities in Oklahoma. At this point, due to an ongoing federal criminal investigation and civil matters, the Oklahoma Beef Council said it is limited in the details it can share.

The Oklahoma Beef Council did note that when initial evidence was discovered, it notified the appropriate officials of its intent to launch an internal investigation into the inconsistencies found.

“We immediately terminated the employee and hired an accounting firm to perform an extensive forensic analysis and assessment, which documented $2.6 million in employee theft between 2009 and 2016,” the Oklahoma Beef Council said.

The council provided this information to federal authorities in September 2016 to ensure that swift action could be taken. “Our goal throughout this process has been to speed recovery and restitution to the greatest extent possible. The board of directors and staff have cooperated fully with federal authorities as the investigation has moved forward,” the council said in a statement.

According to Tom Fanning, a cattle producer and chairman of the Oklahoma Beef Council, “Our board and staff take great pride in serving beef producers in investing their beef checkoff dollars to grow and protect beef demand. Discovering you have a staff member that did not share that vision and abused our trust has been a devastating blow to all of us. We have taken every step to address this matter to ensure we are following through in our responsibilities to Oklahoma beef producers and are awaiting the results of the criminal investigation.”

In the meantime, the Oklahoma Beef Council has taken the findings from the forensic analysis and assessment to strengthen its accounting systems and internal controls to ensure the integrity of the organization. It has moved forward in its operations with a third-party accounting firm to ensure an additional level of oversight and a greater level of segregation of duties. The council will be adding a new director of compliance position to the team to assist with checkoff compliance and outreach.

“We have taken what we have learned from this situation to create a stronger organization with a clear vision to moving forward in our mission of serving Oklahoma’s farming and ranching families,” Fanning said.

Polly Ruhland, executive director of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, said, “Unfortunately, embezzlement can and does occur in both for-profit and nonprofit business environments, and when it happens, it most frequently involves a clever individual’s flagrant abuse of a significant level of trust and responsibility placed in him or her by an organization.”

Ruhland added, "I am not aware of another incident similar to this in the checkoff’s history, and I remain extremely confident in the audit and oversight systems of (the U.S. Department of Agriculture), the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the beef checkoff program. I understand that when inconsistencies were discovered, the Oklahoma Beef Council board of directors took swift and appropriate action and has been fully assisting state and federal authorities.”

Ruhland said if wrongdoing of the Oklahoma Beef Council and the farmers and ranchers of Oklahoma is proved, she hopes that the “individual is brought to justice and appropriate restitution is made.”

The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act: Humane handling and food safety

dairy cows

Westland-Hallmark Meat Co.’s record setting recall of beef products in 2008 was initially triggered by an undercover video of egregious, nauseating, inhumane handling of spent, old dairy cows too feeble to ambulate to the knock box.

Many more undercover films have appeared to show this practice was not limited to cows or one company, and many retailers, including restaurants, are now demanding their suppliers meet certain animal husbandry guidelines to sell to them.

With all of the hubbub about animal handling, I thought I would pen this piece about how we got to where we are at today.

In response to public concerns, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) was originally passed by Congress and signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958. It was later amended in 1978 and is often referred to as the HMSA of 1978.

In 1958, when asked if he would sign the Act into law, President Eisenhower responded that “If I went by the volume of my mail, I would think no one was interested in anything BUT humane slaughter.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for enforcing the HMSA, which governs the humane handling and slaughter of livestock. Its key provision states:

No method of slaughtering or handling in connection with slaughtering shall be deemed to comply with the public policy of the United States unless it is humane. Either of the following two methods of slaughtering and handling are hereby found to be humane:

  • In the case of cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and other livestock, all animals are rendered insensible to pain by a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective, before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut: or
  • by slaughtering in accordance with the ritual requirements of the Jewish faith or any other religious faith that prescribes a method of slaughter whereby the animal suffers loss of consciousness by anemia of the brain caused by the simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument and handling in connection with such slaughtering

When the 1978 version of the Act was signed into law, FSIS was given the new legal authority to suspend inspection if inhumane handling was observed in the pens, chutes or knock boxes. By law, when inspection is suspended, the plant is shut down.

There are three circumstances that allow/require FSIS inspectors to leave their posts and close the plants by that action.

As explained, the first is for observation of inhumane handling practices in the pens and chutes.

The second is if the inspector is threatened with bodily harm, or actually attacked by plant personnel, and the third is for obvious grossly contaminated surfaces, filth and/or evidence of rodents or other animals inside the buildings.

According to a USDA fact sheet, in 2007, the year preceding the Westland/Hallmark closure, the FSIS had issued a total of 66 suspensions of inspection, 12 of which were for egregious inhumane handling of animals.

The 1958 law only covered plants that wanted to sell meat to the federal government. The 1978 law amended the HMSA to cover all federally inspected establishments that slaughter livestock.

HMSA does not include fowl, such as turkeys and chickens. Legislation has been introduced, but no actions taken as of this writing.

What many, even some in the industry, do not understand is that with the passage of the 1958 and the 1978 versions of the Acts, Congress provided no additional funds to augment the FSIS inspection personnel to enforce the act, even though the Act says the plants are responsible to have humane handling methods adopted and FSIS is to enforce the Act.

Subsequent to the signing of the Act into law, FSIS did issue regulations and directives for inspection personnel observation regarding the unloading of livestock, use of prods and proper maintenance of chutes and pens among other things.   

There are approximately 6,200 federally inspected meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants in the U.S. Of these, approximately 900 plants slaughter livestock and are subject to the HMSA.

Of the 900 plants that slaughter livestock, 636 slaughtered 33.1 million cattle in 2006, not counting veal calves. With no additional funding for additional inspectors, 33 million are a lot of cattle to observe how well humane handling practices are performed.

FSIS has around 750-800 public health veterinarians in their work force. These are the men and women who do almost all of the antemortem inspection of cattle and other livestock, observing them in motion and at rest. While in the holding pen area, they are also observing the handling of the animals, noting pen conditions, water availability, etc.

Obviously 800 DVMs cannot continuously cover 900 plants that slaughter livestock, so in some establishments other specially trained FSIS inspectors perform the task of antemortem inspection.

But in addition to antemortem inspection, the public health veterinarian and other specially trained inspectors are examining each and every carcass on the rails, as required by the Federal Meat Inspection Act. They simply cannot be in the pens and on the lines at the same time.

It has been said the FSIS inspectors did not do their job to ensure humane handling at Westland/Hallmark and are to be blamed for its failure. The public health veterinarian and his fellow inspectors actually condemned 16,000 live cattle or carcasses, nearly 20 per day. These numbers represent approximately 4.6% of the 370,000 head of cattle presented to them in the three years immediately preceding the release of the videos.  They were doing their job.

They were doing their job to protect our health. True, they were not able to protect the animals from inhumane practices, but to find out why they were not able to do that, we need to revisit Congress’s actions following the 1978 passage of the HMSA.

In 2001, Congress directed USDA to spend not less than $1 million to enforce the Act. That $1 million, which had to come out of the then current USDA budget, was supposed to enforce the Act in 900 slaughter facilities? To comply, USDA hired 17 newly established district veterinary medical specialists to exclusively oversee enforcement of the HMSA.

In 2003, perhaps realizing the futility of the task at hand with the minimal fiscal support, Congress did appropriate an increase of $5 million to USDA for FSIS to hire “50 additional inspection personnel to work solely on HMSA enforcement through full-time antemortem inspection…”

 It is tough for me to imagine 50 additional inspectors doing “full-time antemortem inspection” in 900 establishments, but I am sure the Congress felt warm and fuzzy and looked concerned to their constituents who were growing tired of seeing the tapes of inhumane handling.

Beginning in FY 2005, Congress provided $10 million over several years for FSIS to incorporate its “Humane Animal Tracking System,” affectionately known as HATS at the agency, into its field computer system.

The response was typical government - instead of supplying the personnel necessary to do the job, create a computer program to measure what is being done.

HATS showed that FSIS had conducted more than 167,000 “humane handling verification activities” in livestock slaughter plants in 2007, suspended inspection 12 times for “ egregious inhumane handling violations”, and issued a total of nearly 700 “non-compliance reports” (NRs) for “less than egregious” violations.  

FSIS does take humane handling seriously, but it takes food safety seriously too. Sometimes it is just impossible to do both at the same time.

E. coli project generates new detection, control methods

Courtesy Photo Examining agar plates for bacterial counts
Kenda Jackson examines blood agar plates in studies that tested the effect of certain antibiotics on detection of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli bacteria in cattle. Jackson recently graduated from Tuskegee University in Alabama. She was an intern in the Nebraska laboratory of Rodney A. Moxley as part of a USDA Coordinated Agricultural Project grant investigating harmful E. coli strains.

After making strides in the detection and control of a dangerous microbe that has bedeviled the beef industry, a broad-ranging research program examining Escherichia coli will continue at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln at least through 2017.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln was tapped in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food & Agriculture to lead a $25 million project to investigate Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) strains that can contaminate beef. STEC strains can cause life-threatening bloody diarrhea and kidney failure.

The E. coli research has involved scientists and educators from 18 institutions who so far have published 77 refereed journal articles describing their findings, according to project director Rodney Moxley, a professor of veterinary medicine and biomedical sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Now entering its final phases, the project has led to improved detection methods, a better understanding of how STEC proliferates, improved eradication techniques for meat packing plants and food safety education for consumers and K-12 schools.

“The whole goal is to reduce the occurrence and public health risks from Shiga toxin-producing strains in beef,” Moxley said.

For example, a new study led by biological systems engineering professor Jeyam Subbiah detailed the energy and water demands for controlling pathogens in a meat packing plant. Another new study by other researchers deployed secret shoppers to 265 restaurants in seven states and found that restaurant servers are unreliable sources for warning of the potential dangers of undercooked hamburgers.

Although E. coli is widespread in cattle and humans, harmful strains can be difficult to detect. Today, USDA regulates the O157 strain and six other strains as adulterants in beef. Those seven strains, plus an eighth that caused an outbreak in Germany and other parts of Europe, have been investigated in the project.

Isabel Walls, national program leader for food safety with the National Institute of Food & Agriculture, said she hopes the project demonstrates the benefits of a coordinated approach.

“It’s saving lives and stopping people from getting sick,” Walls said. “There’s huge economic benefit not only in reducing the cost of foodborne illness but the cost of food recalls, lost brand reputation and business failures.”

Researchers from Kansas State University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Mass., are using genetic and immunological science to quickly detect the presence of toxic strains of E. coli in cattle and beef. Many of these new methods and reagents could be applied to human patients as well. The goal is to identify illness-causing contaminants before they lead to food recalls or make people sick.

“These tests we’re developing are a big step forward, but there’s still a lot of progress to be made,” Moxley said.

More developments are expected in the coming year, with hopes that the tests will be commercialized by private industry. The goal is to publish all of the project’s discoveries in refereed journals for public use.

Other project teams conducted epidemiological studies to learn more about where the pathogen proliferates. One significant finding that came from Kansas State scientists was that a virulent strain of E. coli that killed more than 50 people in Germany in 2011 is not found in cattle. Contaminated fenugreek sprouts are believed to be the source of the European outbreak.

Recognizing that an animal’s hide becomes a major source of contamination when the hide is removed during harvest, scientists collaborated to determine the bacterial microbiome on feedlot cattle hides. Somewhat surprisingly, they found that cattle hides with a more diverse bacterial microbiome were less likely to carry STEC strains, indicating that other bacteria may effectively compete with and crowd out the more worrisome strains.

Scientists also are working on packing-house interventions, such as organic acid sprays, high-pressure processing to kill bacteria and electrostatic sprays that enable antimicrobials to more efficiently cling to meat surfaces.

In addition, experts at Nebraska and Kansas State have developed educational materials for teachers and beef industry workers.

New direction urged to better assess public health risks

Recent scientific and technological advances have the potential to improve the assessment of public health risks posed by chemicals, yet questions remain how best to integrate the findings from the new tools and methods into risk assessment.

A new National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine report recommends approaches for using 21st-century science to evaluate the many factors that lead to health risks and disease, laying the groundwork for a new direction in risk assessment that acknowledges the complexity of disease causation.

This report, published Jan. 5, builds on the findings from two earlier National Academies reports: "Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century: A Vision & a Strategy," which recommended a path whereby testing chemicals relies primarily on high-throughput in vitro tests and computational models based on human biology to evaluate potential adverse effects of chemical exposures rather than on animal testing, and "Exposure Science in the 21st Century: A Vision & a Strategy," which urged a transformational change in the breadth and depth of exposure assessment that would improve its integration with and responsiveness to toxicology and epidemiology, an announcement explained.

The committee that conducted the study and wrote the report considered the benefits of many new tools in exposure science, toxicology and epidemiology. For example, personal sensors and other sampling techniques now offer unparalleled opportunities to characterize individual exposures, particularly in vulnerable populations, and computational tools have the potential to provide exposure estimates where exposure-measurement data are not available.

Other advances include the further development of cell-based assays that can be used to evaluate various cellular processes and responses and the creation of transgenic animals from gene editing techniques that can be used to investigate specific questions, such as those related to susceptibility or gene/environment interactions.

Furthermore, "-omics" technologies have substantially transformed epidemiology and advanced molecular epidemiology fields that address underlying biology and complement empirical observation.

To ensure that these tools and methods are being used to their full potential, the report calls for a collaborative approach among scientists in the relevant fields.

“This report builds on the conceptual foundation established by the two earlier reports and indicates ways that findings from these new reports can be used in practice,” said Jonathan Samet, distinguished professor and the Flora L. Thornton chair at the department of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California. “It also identifies critical challenges to be addressed in using 21st-century science to better characterize the risks of chemicals for human health.”

The advances in exposure science, toxicology and epidemiology described in the report support a new direction for risk assessment — one based on biological pathways rather than on observations from lab experiments of effects in animals, and one incorporating the more comprehensive exposure information emerging from new tools and approaches, the National Academies said.

The new direction emphasizes that most diseases that are the focus of risk assessment are caused by multiple factors; that is, stressors from multiple sources can contribute to a single disease, and a single stressor can lead to multiple adverse outcomes. Conditions intrinsic to an individual, such as genetic makeup or life stage, or conditions acquired from one’s environment, such as psychosocial stressors and nutritional status, can contribute to a disease. The new direction in risk assessment acknowledges this complexity.

The four agencies that requested the study — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Food & Drug Administration, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences — are all involved with application of these 21st-century scientific approaches, including their use in various components of risk assessment, particularly hazard identification and exposure assessment.

Assessment of risks from chemicals and other agents provides needed information to decision-makers who must find solutions to protect public health. The scientific growth highlighted in this report will lead to better information for answering pertinent questions about the complex health problems that society faces.

The committee emphasized that technological growth is outpacing the development of approaches to analyze, interpret and integrate the diverse, complex and large data sets in these fields. The report proposes an agenda for enhancing use of the findings from these emerging technologies that includes developing case studies that reflect various situations of decision-making and data availability, testing case studies with multidisciplinary panels and cataloguing evidence evaluations and decisions that have been made on various agents so expert judgments can be tracked and evaluated.

N&H TOPLINE: New tool revolutionizes mapping of complete animal genomes

University of Kent/BBSRC chickens

Researchers at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) and the University of Kent in the U.K. have developed a new cost-effective approach to mapping and assembling genomes using a novel method that is particularly effective for bird species.

Developed with funding from the U.K.'s Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), this new method enables geneticists to assemble complete (chromosome-level) genome assemblies.

Genetics studies have long faced the major problem that although sequencing an animal genome is easy and cheap, assembling sequences to the complete chromosome level is difficult and expensive, an announcement said. Chromosome-level genome assembly is much more useful to genetic science and practical application, but without significant investment, it has been difficult to achieve for many species.

Traditional methods of chromosome-level genome assembly were time-intensive and cost-inefficient in comparison to simple genome sequencing. As a result, most animal genomes that have been sequenced are not assembled to the chromosome level.

The new method developed by the RVC and University of Kent Comparative Genomics teams — and published in a new Genome Research paper titled "Upgrading Short Read Animal Genome Assemblies to Chromosome Level Using Comparative Genomics & a Universal Probe Set" — allows geneticists to reach chromosome-level genome assembly both cost-effectively and fast.

The team’s specific breakthrough is to use universal probes to anchor scaffolds to chromosomes physically.

The method of using probes to map genomes has existed for a long time, but this research — with contributions from Cytocell Ltd. and Digital Scientific UK — is the first to make a complete panel of universal probes that work equally well on any avian (and, often, even on reptile) genomes.

This means that once DNA has been extracted from around 250 probes, these can be used as universal probes, and it is possible to apply them to any avian genome equally successfully. It then becomes a cost-effective way of assembling a complete genome to the chromosome level, relative to designing probe libraries, choosing probes, verifying them and mapping them for each genome separately.

Until this study, the genomes of only three bird species had been published as assembled to a complete chromosome level. Yet using this method, the research team was able to map and assemble the complete genome of pigeons and the peregrine falcon, with all other bird species also easily accessible.

The researchers said this new method will have significant practical implications; for example, in the farming industry, mapping the genomes of poultry species will enable a deeper understanding of genetic characteristics. It will also enable diseases to be tackled at a genetic level.

Birds were used to develop and test this method because avian and reptilian genome sequences are more evolutionarily conserved than mammals, making it easier to select universal probes. Avian genomes are also three times smaller than those of mammals. However, based on the success of this method, the research team will now apply the same approach to mammals.

Genetic test possible for hillside-preferring cows

Photo: Douglas McCreary/UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center. hillside grazing beef cattle
A University of California-Davis researcher is helping to develop a genetic test that will aid ranchers in breeding cattle that prefer to graze on hillsides, alleviating pressure on lowland meadows and creeks.

Most of the 5 million cattle that graze on California’s rangelands like to forage in the valleys and hang out by creeks, which can lead to overgrazing in riparian areas while letting perfectly good forage on hillsides go to waste.

However, some cows prefer to climb hills and mountains and eat along the way. If more cattle climbed the trail less traveled, rangelands would be more productive and sustainable throughout California and the West, according to the University of California-Davis.

That is why a team of researchers, including University of California-Davis animal geneticist Juan Medrano, is working to develop an easy, inexpensive genetic test to help ranchers improve cattle distribution by breeding hill-climbing cows.

“It’s very exciting research,” said Medrano, a professor with the department of animal science who is collaborating with scientists throughout the West. “DNA technology makes it relatively easy to test and breed for production traits like milk yield and growth rate. It’s brand new to identify genetic markers linked to animal behavior. This could have a huge impact on food security and rangeland management.”

Nature and nurture

One-third of California — 38 million acres — is rangeland. Most of it is mountainous or hilly and managed for livestock production. Rangeland grazing feeds livestock but also offers many environmental benefits, such as keeping weeds and other invasive species in check, providing water storage and carbon sequestration and supporting habitat for animals and plants found nowhere else in the world.

Problems arise, though, when rangeland is overgrazed and cattle spend too much time near running water, where manure and calving can create water quality risks for people downstream.

For decades, researchers have been working with ranchers to keep cattle from overgrazing and congregating by creeks. They build strategic fencing, for example, and provide water and salt licks on ridgetops away from running water. Cowhands often herd cattle from low-lying pastures, but that is labor intensive and is only a temporary fix.

A few years ago, Medrano's colleague, New Mexico State University professor of range science Derek Bailey, had an intriguing thought: What if we combine nature and nurture?

“I’ve been watching cattle for years, and there are always some cows that just take off for the hills, like they didn’t know they weren’t elk,” Bailey said. “They could be belly-deep in green grass and just bolt for the hills. They like it up there. We can breed for other traits. Why not select for hill climbing?”

Bailey joined forces with Medrano and a team of researchers that includes animal genetics expert Milton Thomas at Colorado State University. Funded by a grant from Western Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, the group is close to developing a genetic test for whether a bull is likely to sire daughters who like to climb hills.

Spatial learning

To identify hill-climbing cattle, Bailey and his crew put global positioning system (GPS) collars on 180 cows on seven ranches in three western states and took measurements every 10 minutes for months at a time. They tracked the cattle’s slope use, elevation gain and distance traveled from water.

They also took blood samples that Medrano and his team analyzed for chromosomal commonalities. Medrano found overlap in genes linked to locomotion, motivation and spatial learning.

“Results so far are very encouraging,” Medrano said. “Soon, we will be able to test and breed for hill-climbing behavior.”

With both plants and animals, breeding for one trait can sometimes produce unintended consequences like predisposition to disease or low calf weight. Researchers are looking closely at that possibility and have so far found no correlation between hill-climbing behavior and undesired traits.

“We’ve looked at calf weaning weights, pregnancy rates, blood pressure, even disposition,” Bailey said. “We had one theory that hill-climbing cows tended toward the meaner end of the scale, but that’s not the case.

“Some cows just prefer to climb more than other cows,” Bailey said. “If breeding can move the bell curve in that direction, management tools like fencing and herding will be much more effective.”

California ranchers are intrigued by the possibility.

"I can see many ecological and economic benefits to breeding for cows who like to travel," said Clayton Koopmann, a rancher and rangeland management consultant who runs cattle on hilly ground throughout the San Francisco Bay Area of California. "Forage would be consumed more evenly, and that's good for livestock production and for the environment."

Eggs average under $1 for first time since 2006

white eggs in carton

Urner Barry’s Midwest large quotation averaged just 90.5 cents/doz. for 2016 — the first time the industry benchmark averaged less than $1.00 since 2006. Compared to the record $1.88/doz. market of 2015, Urner Barry analyst Brian Moscogiuri said prices fell nearly 52% year over year.

“Following the nation’s bout with avian influenza, which reduced the U.S. flock by about 34 million layers, production has completely recovered,” Moscogiuri said, adding that the U.S. Department of Agriculture just reported "the largest flock in history for Dec. 1, 2016, at 311.58 million egg laying hens.”



The USDA December “Chicken & Eggs” report showed that egg production totaled 8.53 billion during November 2016, up 10% from last year. Production included 7.44 billion table eggs and 1.09 billion hatching eggs, of which 1.01 billion were broiler-type and 81.0 million were egg-type.

The total number of layers during November 2016 averaged 367 million, 7% higher than last year. November egg production per 100 layers was 2,328 eggs, 3% higher than the same period in 2015. All layers in the U.S. on Dec. 1, 2016, totaled 369 million, up 6% from last year. The 369 million layers consisted of 312 million layers producing table or market type eggs, 53.6 million layers producing broiler-type hatching eggs and 3.49 million layers producing egg-type hatching eggs.

The rate of lay per day on Dec. 1, 2016, averaged 77.9 eggs per 100 layers, up 3% from Dec. 1, 2015.

Egg-type chicks hatched during November 2016 totaled 42.5 million, which was lower than the same period in 2015. Eggs in incubators totaled 46.1 million on Dec. 1, 2016, down 4% from a year ago. Domestic placements of egg-type pullet chicks for future hatchery supply flocks by leading breeders totaled 270,000 during November 2016, a 24% increase from November 2015.

EPA nominee promises to uphold RFS law

Sen. Deb Fischer's office EPA Scott Pruitt with Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer
Sen. Deb Fischer pictured with EPA administrator nominee Scott Pruitt following a meeting between the two to discuss his upcoming confirmation hearing.

Confirmation discussions are picking up for Scott Pruitt, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

During his tenure as Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt has been an outspoken opponent of many of EPA’s activities, winning the support of farmers. However, his criticism of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) has some in farm country on edge.

During meetings with Midwestern senators over the week, Pruitt seemed to allay some of those concerns by not only voicing support for the RFS but for the “rule of the law.”

Included in a meeting Thursday afternoon with Pruitt were Sens. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), John Thune (R., S.D.), Joni Ernst (R., Iowa), Mike Rounds (R., S.D.), Deb Fischer (R., Neb.), Roy Blunt (R., Mo.) and Pat Roberts (R., Kan.).

““We got a very positive response on Mr. Pruitt’s support not just for the RFS but, more importantly, for the rule of law,” Grassley said in a statement following the meeting.

The "rule of law" remarks refer to EPA's decision in recent years under the Obama Administration to cut back on RFS biofuel blending requirements set by the 2007 energy law that reauthorized and strengthened the RFS. The reductions in blending levels came despite objections from the biofuel industry and its allies in Congress, including Grassley. However, EPA last year returned the 2017 targets to statutory levels.

“The RFS ... is an important tool in the mission to achieve energy independence to the United States,” Trump said on the campaign trail in January 2016. “I will do all that is in my power as President to achieve that goal. ... As President, I will encourage Congress to be cautious in attempting to change any part of the RFS.” Since being elected, Trump’s spokespeople have reiterated his continued support for ethanol, and that is expected to continue once he takes office.

Pruitt support

The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) formally endorsed the nomination of Pruitt as EPA administrator. AFBF president Zippy Duvall called Pruitt “an ideal nominee” who “has profound respect for the laws written by Congress.”

Duvall conveyed that endorsement in a letter to Senate Environment & Public Works Committee chairman John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) and ranking member Tom Carper (D., Del.). In the letter, Duvall cited how Pruitt contested the EPA "waters of the U.S." rule when he defended “the bipartisan view of Congress that the agency has illegally overstepped its bounds and ignored the U.S. Supreme Court.”

The letter also referenced Pruitt’s work to defend Congress regarding the Clean Power Plan and cap-and-trade provisions, whereby he soundly took the view “that Congress has not authorized the sweeping attempt by EPA to coerce action by the states.”

“In recent years, farmers and ranchers have suffered under burdensome, unnecessary and, too often, unlawful federal regulations promulgated by the EPA,” Duvall said. “We desperately need an administrator who understands the challenges our farmers and ranchers face in producing safe, wholesome and affordable food for our nation and the world.”

Duvall said AFBF’s support for Pruitt is based on his “respect for the law” and his understanding of the need for an agency to “live within the statutory programs Congress has authorized.”

The Missouri Cattlemen's Assn. (MCA), joined by the Missouri Agribusiness Assn., Missouri Dairy Assn., Missouri Egg Council, Missouri Farm Bureau, Missouri Forest Products Assn., Missouri Pork Producers Assn. and Missouri Poultry Federation, penned a letter to U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) and Blunt supporting the confirmation of Pruitt as well.

"As a leader in working to restore EPA to its original, lawful mission, Pruitt has earned bipartisan respect and recognition during his time as attorney general," the groups stated in the letter. "An expert of constitutional law and the federal regulatory system, Pruitt would provide the balance desperately needed at the EPA."

MCA president Keith Stevens said EPA is in need of reform, noting that the agency's regulatory overreach hurts existing farm and ranch families and threatens to prevent the next generation from entering the profession of agriculture.

"It has been one regulation after another. From promulgating regulations on farm dust to claiming jurisdiction over every drop of water in the country, the agency has acted more like an activist group than an agency rooted in sound science," Stevens said of EPA. "We welcome an end to the pervasive invasion of private property rights."

Fischer, who also met with Pruitt earlier in the week, said her discussions with Pruitt focused on how he intends to unroll the “reams of federal red tape and put the agency back on the right track.” She said doing so “will empower our communities and small businesses to grow and prosper.