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OSU's Global Impact
A world of research at Oregon State University
Updated: 17 hours 32 min ago
Wed, 01/30/2013 - 12:22pm
“Frightening and stressing cattle is bad because it’s wrong to treat animals badly, and it’s also bad business.”
— Temple Grandin, Animals Make Us Human
The Black Baldies cluster inside the holding pen as if glued together, waiting. They know the drill. Quietly, a cowboy coaxes the cows toward the sorting shed, where they’re about to be artificially inseminated. One by one, they enter the “squeeze chute,” a hydraulic contraption that closes in around the animal to hold her steady. Over bursts of disgruntled mooing, a second man reads out a number printed on each cow’s ear tag as a research assistant records it in a ledger. Ranch manager Kenny Fite, wearing hot-pink latex gloves up to his elbows, administers the bull semen, which has been chilling in a giant vat of liquid nitrogen.
A few of the cows balk, but most endure the process with placid resignation. Cattle prods (“hot shots”) are forbidden here at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Union. Yelling, too, is verboten. Instead, Fite and his team gentle their cows into compliance. It helps that the chute’s design was inspired by Temple Grandin, the internationally renowned animal-behavior expert who gave several lectures at Oregon State in 2010. Her innate sensitivity to animals’ feelings and fears has revolutionized livestock handling.
“You have to remain calm and have patience,” explains Oregon State researcher Reinaldo Cooke, who frequently cites Grandin in his work at the other Eastern Oregon ag research center in Burns. Cooke’s cattle-handling expertise is in demand all over, garnering invitations to speak and consult across the American West and abroad.
“Cattle have their own temperament, just like people,” says Cooke, who grew up on the rangelands of Brazil. “Some are more prone to stress, which causes problems for health and reproduction.”Right and Wrong
Ethical skills count as much as finesse with a syringe, a scalpel or a stethoscope.
That’s why discovering ways to minimize stress in cattle is a research priority in Cooke’s lab. Handling by humans — vaccination, castration, insemination, supplementation, transportation, especially the long haul from ranch to feedlot — can suppress a cow’s immune system, depress her appetite and disrupt her hormonal balance. Studies show that a stressed animal is more likely to be a sick, scrawny, infertile animal — hardly the formula for business success if you’re a rancher or dairyman.
The stakes are huge. In Oregon, beef and milk ranked third and fourth, dollar-wise, among farm and ranch commodities for 2011. For these industries, together worth more than $1 billion, low-stress handling isn’t just a check-off box on the compliance list for animal-care protocols overseen by OSU’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (see “The Ethic of Care,” Terra, Fall 2012). It’s not even just the right thing to do for the animals. Humane, ethical care is critical to growers’ bottom line.
“In our industry if we were treating the animals bad, we would not be successful,” notes Dave Bohnert, director of the Burns research center. “The poor managers, the people who aren’t doing it right, aren’t going to be in business that long.”
When the subject of livestock abuse comes up, he frowns deeply. He recalls the notorious 2009 incident in California when hidden cameras captured a sick cow being pushed along a concrete floor by a forklift. The video went viral, playing over and over on TV for several news cycles — the animal-abuse equivalent of the Rodney King police beating. It sickened the nation. And it outraged Bohnert.
“All it takes is one or two bad events where you’ve got some bad employees or managers, where you’ve got downed cows that are being mistreated or you’ve got starved horses or cattle, and it’s a black eye for the whole industry,” Bohnert grouses. “But in reality, that’s a very, very small proportion of our industry.”
Red Tape for a Reason
If you drive east from Corvallis along Highway 20 into Malheur County — one of Oregon’s top beef-producing counties with 100,000 head — you might wonder how cattle can thrive here at all. Desert vegetation — sage, rabbitbrush, juniper, Ponderosa pine — stretches from horizon to horizon. Rain is rare. Frost is frequent. And grass is green for just over a nanosecond. For cows, that means eating dry, fibrous forage or hay much of the year. Out here, extra protein and other nutrients are essential supplements to the poor-quality grasses.
In Burns, Bohnert devotes much of his time to nutrition research, analyzing protein, fiber, nitrogen and mineral content to design optimal diets. So does Tim DelCurto, his counterpart farther east in Union. Rangeland ecology, too, gets a great deal of scrutiny at OSU. But whether the scientists are studying stress by measuring cortisol (a stress-triggered hormone), diet by analyzing ruminal fermentation (digestion), or ecology by tracking cattle via GPS collars, each study must pass muster with the university’s animal-care protocols.
There was some grumbling in the beginning, back when attending veterinarian Helen Diggs tightened up on reporting and spearheaded OSU’s accreditation review by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC).
“A few people had to be dragged to the table screaming, ‘I don’t know why I have to justify this!’” Bohnert recalls. “The new daily reporting system, I’ll admit, was something I initially felt was going to be a royal pain in the neck. Every day, I’ve got to log into it and let OSU’s attending veterinarian know that our animals are being cared for properly and everything’s OK. Sometimes it’s frustrating, the red tape you have to go through. However, I understand and acknowledge that we need to do everything in our power to make sure that OSU’s animals are treated properly and that we can document proper care. That’s just the cost of doing animal research.”
An Evolution in Attitudes
Teddy, a Black Angus with a white blaze on his forehead, looks formidable, weighing upwards of 1,300 pounds. Yet this hulking creature that could knock you flat with a well-aimed kick is scared of the dark. “Cows are just like big babies,” says pre-vet teaching assistant Erin Mason, who’s giving an animal-facilities tour on campus for students enrolled in ANS 121, Intro to Animal Sciences. Learning the stressors for cows — loud noises, dark places, sudden motions, unfamiliar routines — is Chapter 1 for anyone who wants to work with livestock.
In his left side, Teddy has a “cannula,” a surgically implanted rubber window something like a porthole. Through this porthole, the contents of his stomach can be easily accessed and analyzed for teaching and research. Given a choice, Teddy surely would prefer grazing on the open range to facing a clump of wide-eyed undergrads who are about to stick their arms inside his stomach. Still, as a teaching cow at OSU, he gets top-notch treatment in strict adherence to animal-care protocols. And soon, he’ll be residing in a new, high-tech facility equipped with the latest in Temple Grandin designs. Phase 1 of the James E. Oldfield Animal Teaching Facility on the Corvallis campus opened in the fall. Phases 2, 3 and 4 will be rolled out over the next several years.
Ballooning interest in Animal and Rangeland Sciences, whose enrollment has spiked four-fold since the 1990s, brings with it an evolution in attitudes in the department and across all disciplines that work with animals. One signal: A tenure-track position has been created to study the “human-animal bond.” Another sign: VM 739 (Veterinary Medical Ethics) and ANS 315 (Contentious Social Issues in Animal Agriculture) are now part of the curriculum at Oregon State (see sidebar). Perhaps the strongest indicator of Oregon State’s animal-welfare mindfulness is the flying-colors report conferred on the university by AAALAC along with whole-campus accreditation in March 2012.
“We’ve changed so much in Oregon since I came here in the late ‘90s,” says Bohnert. “I think there’s a bigger awareness. In our industry, in general, we realize that we want to minimize the pain and stress to animals.”
Tue, 01/29/2013 - 5:42pm
Making ethical choices about animals can be a philosophical high-wire act — a precarious balance of practicality and principle. Weighing practical needs against “normative ethics” — right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust — requires more than a handbook of do’s and don’ts.
“The institutional protocols — the laws, regulations, policies — provide a framework, but a lot of situations are subject to interpretation,” says OSU Professor Jill Parker, a large-animal surgeon who teaches Veterinary Medical Ethics to second-year veterinary students. “Decisions need to be based on a reasoned decision process.”
For students eyeing careers at clinics, biomedical labs or other veterinary enterprises, ethical skills count as much as finesse with a syringe, a scalpel or a stethoscope. Through role-play and case studies, Parker pushes her students to challenge their assumptions. In one scenario, for example, fictional researchers at a make-believe university are using pigs to develop heart valves for humans. Parker’s students pretend to be various characters, such as university researcher Dr. D. Zyne and heart patient B.D. Hart. The scenario is further complicated by hypothetical animal-rights protesters.
Across campus in Animal and Rangeland Sciences, Matt Kennedy wades into equally uncomfortable territory when he teaches Contentious Social Issues in Animal Agriculture. The course, which draws 200 students yearly from majors as diverse as engineering and art, tackles such hot-button issues as agri-terrorism, horse slaughter, wolves versus livestock, gestation crates for pigs, genetic engineering and the history of the animal rights movement.
“We educate them to look at the facts before the emotions,” says Kennedy, who manages the Campus Swine Unit and Steer-A-Year program. “Our goal is not to sway them to one side or another, but to let them make their own decisions through critical thinking.”
Tue, 01/29/2013 - 2:27pm
Forest scientist and Oregon State University alumnus Steve Sillett studies and climbs the largest trees in the world. Since 1987, he’s climbed more than 1,000 of these arboreal giants, many of which reach heights greater than 200 feet tall and diameters upwards of 20 feet. Sillett’s study of old-growth forests — and in particular redwood canopies — has changed the way scientists view aged trees.
Sillett holds the Kenneth L. Fisher Chair in Redwood Forest Ecology at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. His research has been featured in National Geographic six times since 1997. He last appeared in the December 2012 issue, in which he discusses climbing the world’s second-largest tree in the Sierra Nevada. Recently, Sillett answered some of our questions about his research and what it’s like to climb into trees more than 3,000 years old.
Read the interview on Powered by Orange.
Mon, 01/28/2013 - 5:24pm
Connections to Asia are expanding. They encompass a wide range of activities including academic conferences, student exchanges and faculty collaborations. They focus on business, engineering, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, wood science, music and more.
The university’s growing international influence is fueled by student recruitment through INTO OSU as well as by direct enrollment in many of our leading research-based graduate programs, says Provost Sabah Randhawa.
“OSU enjoys a strong reputation in Asia and is cited as one of the top 150 universities in the world in international ranking programs,” Randhawa adds. “Many top universities in the region are eager to partner with us for student and faculty exchange programs and global research initiatives.”
The Global Business Analysis Group is working with Dalian University of Technology and the City University of Hong Kong in China and with Yonsei University in South Korea. Researchers are focusing on supply chains, sustainability, business law and operations management.
Apparel and Aging
With colleagues in China, Taiwan and South Korea, Oregon State researchers are exploring cross-national consumer behavior in the domestic and international textile and apparel industries.
Earthquakes and Tsunamis
In Indonesia, Oregon State researchers are working with scientists on the historical record of earthquakes and tsunamis. The subduction zone just west of Sumatra is similar to the Cascadia subduction zone off the Oregon coast.
For the past 12 years, Oregon State’s Department of Music has conducted an exchange program with the cultural ministry of Henan Province in China.
Oregon State scientists are participating in the search for new antibiotics with colleagues in China, Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand. In Indonesia, they are identifying novel compounds with antimicrobial benefits.
Environment and Agriculture
Air quality, dam construction and agricultural crops are under study byOregon State and Chinese colleagues. They have documented the impacts of polluted air and dam construction. Agricultural scientists have focused on grass seed, forage crops and livestock.