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A Championship Season

Three animal science students win top regional honors
Students win national marketing contest

Three animal science students
win top regional honors

Unprecedented.

That’s how one College of Agriculture and Life Sciences administrator describes the recent accomplishments of his department’s graduate students.

Terry Engle, Duarte Diaz, Lori Averette“In the past, every once in a while we’d have someone win an award for presenting the best paper at a science society meeting,” says Dr. Ken Esbenshade, head of the animal science department. This year, the department had not one winner but three.

Duarte Diaz won for the Southern section of the American Dairy Science Association. Lori Averette won first place in the graduate student paper competition at the Midwestern regional meeting of the American Society of Animal Science; Terry Engle won for the Southern section of that society.

“To have three win in the same year is phenomenal — completely unheard of,” Esbenshade says.

Reducing mycotoxins in milk

All three students are part of a top-notch nutrition research and education program that is helping farmers produce less expensive, higher-quality food in ways that protect the environment.

Diaz studied how supplements to dairy cow diets can reduce mycotoxins — particularly aflatoxin — in milk. That’s important because milk can be contaminated with the carcinogen aflatoxin when cows are fed corn or other feed ingredients containing the fungus Aspergillus.

“Among mycotoxins, aflatoxin is of particular interest because of its potency as a carcinogen and the potential of its exposure to humans through milk products,” Diaz explains. “Our research focuses on trying to minimize the exposure to the animal of the toxin present in feeds. Reducing this exposure minimizes the transfer of the toxin into milk.”

Diaz studied the effectiveness of adding different sorbents to bind the toxin in the feed, making the toxin pass through the digestive tract without affecting the cow or entering the milk. In the end, he hopes that his research on mycotoxins will lead to safer milk and healthier dairy cows while reducing the cost farmers must bear to dispose of contaminated milk.

“If we can find agents that can tightly bind different mycotoxins, we can help minimize the economic losses caused by these naturally occurring toxins,” he says.

When more is not always better

Like Diaz, Engle is focusing his research on ways to produce a healthier food product while maintaining animal health. Based on earlier research with poultry and swine, he figured that by adding copper to cattle diets, he could lower the cholesterol in their meat.

His research with Angus steers bore out his hypothesis. It also helped him get a better idea of exactly how much copper might be appropriate as a feed additive. That’s important because a high copper level in a cow’s diet can have negative consequences: It can be toxic to cattle, and it can lead to high levels of copper in manure and, in turn, the soil. In high enough concentrations, copper can be toxic to plants.

“I hope people don’t get the wrong impression that more copper is better — that is not the case,” Engle says. “When we added 10 parts per million of copper to the diet, we found about a 20 percent reduction in cholesterol, a slight reduction in saturated fats and increased polyunsaturated fatty acids in beef. Similar responses were observed with the addition of 20 and 40 parts per million.”

Now that Engle has confirmed that copper lowers lipid and cholesterol metabolism in steers, he wants to find out why. Once he finishes his doctoral degree at N.C. State in December, he’ll be able to pursue the matter further at Colorado State University, where he’ll join the teaching and research faculty.

In the long run, Engle hopes that his research will give producers information they need to produce leaner, healthier meat. And that’s good not just for consumers but for packers, as well.

“Copper improves quality by reducing back fat, which means less trim,” he explains, “and it costs the industry about $1.2 billion per year to trim and get rid of back fat.”

A link in the ongoing research chain

Averette’s research also could have important implications for processing and packing plants and North Carolina’s $2 billion-a-year swine production industry. Her aim: to find ways to produce better, less expensive feed in a state that currently brings in grain from other states.

While North Carolina doesn’t have much grain, it does have lots of trimmed livestock fat blended with soil oil that can be used as a feed ingredient, Averette explains. But while fat can provide pigs with needed energy, over time it results in poorer-quality pork.

Pigs that are fed the blend tend to have softer fat along their backs. In a packing plant, that softer fat can jam equipment, costing the packing company time and money.

That’s one reason why packers are starting to pay farmers a premium for quality rather than a flat rate based on a pig’s weight. Another reason is that, as farmers raise pigs that are leaner, the quality of what little fat remains becomes increasingly important when it comes to producing a meat with the taste that consumers demand, according to Averette.

In her quest for a higher-quality feed that would result in higher-quality meat, Averette tried partially hydrogenated white grease. She found that it produced a digestible source of supplemental fat that resulted in pork with firmer back fat. With that research behind her, she is now working with a North Carolina company to determine how to make the process commercially viable.

Averette isn’t certain that her solution to the soft-fat problem will be widely accepted. Hydrogenating fat is expensive, she says, and consumers might be concerned about the trans-fatty acids that are produced in the pork.

Still, she says the research experience she has gained, the contacts she has made and the reputation she is building through publishing and presenting her work should give her a solid foundation for a career in either industry or academia. Moreover, her work is one more link in a research chain that continually provides North Carolina farmers, agribusinesses and consumers with valuable solutions to food-production problems.

Students win national
marketing contest

Call it a win-win-win situation: Finding reliable markets for medicinal herbs has long eluded growers in the Southeastern United States. Now, through a new marketing plan, a solution may be at hand.

The N.C. State NAMA team Farm2Pharm, a company in Linville Falls, will buy certified ginseng and Echinacea seed of known genetic origin and traits and resell them to contract growers. Working with Farm2Pharm, these growers will, in turn, harvest and grade their crops to meet customer specifications. Farm2Pharm then processes, packages, stores and ships quality herbs to pharmaceutical companies seeking to fill a fast-growing, $21 billion-a-year herbal medicine market with mainline, research-based products.

The marketing plan is a sure winner for growers, for Farm2Pharm and for pharmaceutical companies.

And it’s literally a winner — in the National Agri-Marketing Association’s annual university competition, that is.

Developed by a team of College of Agriculture and Life Sciences students, the plan was rated tops among 29 presented at NAMA’s annual conference held in Atlanta in April.

Actually Farm2Pharm is a fictional company thought up by undergraduate students taking part in an upper-level marketing course series. They got the idea after reading a student newspaper article about Dr. Jeanine Davis’s work with mountain-grown herbs, particularly ginseng and Echinacea.

They followed up with Davis, a specialist stationed at N.C. State University’s Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Fletcher, and with other sources to learn about current and potential market size for medicinal herbs, potential customers and their needs, and changing federal regulations and other trends affecting the industry.

As they gathered such information, they developed a business plan that outlined Farm2Pharm’s sales and marketing goals and strategies, advertising and special promotional campaigns.

The culmination of two semesters’ worth of work was a five-page plan and a 20-minute presentation made in Atlanta before a panel of agri-marketing professionals from around the nation. Judges were impressed not only by the thoroughness of the students’ analysis but also their effectiveness in conveying Farm2Pharm’s objectives.

Those strengths mirror the expertise that faculty members Bob Usry and Dr. George Bostick bring to their role as team advisers. Usry, a lecturer and extension specialist in the department of agricultural and resource economics, focuses on marketing and economics, while Bostick, a professor in the department of agricultural and extension education, shares insights into communications.

Together, they aim to give students a framework that they can use in developing marketing plans for any agricultural and life sciences product or service — a framework they can use long after the competition is over.

“Developing a plan to successfully market a product or service is a science. Through this competition, students learn how to gather relevant information, analyze that information thoroughly and present it effectively in a succinct and carefully worded plan,” Usry says. “It’s a skill they can use whether they return to a family farm or enter any sales or marketing career.”

Beyond the marketing how-tos, students say they received lessons in the value of teamwork, patience and precision.

As Andrew Ko, a zoology major, points out, “I learned the value of persistence. We were rehearsing and reviewing the presentation until the last moment.

“Hard work,” he says, “pays off.”