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Search and rescue dogs do their jobs despite travel stress

Published July 20, 2017
Dogs being loaded into helicopter
Dogs being loaded into helicopter

URBANA, Ill. – When disaster strikes, you want the very best tools, functioning at their peak. In the case of catastrophic earthquakes, tornadoes, or even bombings in war zones, those tools are search and rescue dogs. But researchers have found that getting dogs to disaster sites can add to the animals’ stress.

“We’ve spent $16 billion in this country trying to come up with a machine that can sniff better than dogs, and we haven’t done it yet. Search and rescue animals can save lives, protect our soldiers in the field, and locate survivors after a disaster. We want to know how we can manage them so we can protect their performance, because their performance impacts human lives. That’s the reason behind what we do,” says Erin Perry, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science, Food and Nutrition at Southern Illinois University.

Perry, who has also been a canine handler in the Department of Homeland Security for the past 14 years, teamed up with University of Illinois animal scientist Kelly Swanson and others at U of I to learn how stress affects the animals’ performance on the job.

Search and rescue dogs fly on a moment’s notice to the site of a disaster, where they are expected to perform at the top of their game. But, just like for humans, flying can be stressful for dogs. The research team designed two preliminary studies to evaluate the effect of air travel stress on the animals’ physiology and job performance.

“Some dogs are like, ‘I’ve flown before, no big deal,’ but others, even if they’ve flown before, still show stress behaviors, and can have elevated body temperature or diarrhea,” says Swanson, Kraft Foods Human Nutrition Endowed Professor in the Department of Animal Sciences and the Division of Nutritional Sciences at U of I.

Dog owners may be familiar with the tendency towards loose stools when their animals are stressed. One of the reasons for that may be a stress-induced change in gut physiology and shift in the gut microbiome, the community of microbes that inhabit the mammalian gut. Paired with a more permeable [or leaky] gut lining, also triggered by stress, “bad” microbes can gain an advantage and cause upset stomachs. These symptoms have been observed in search and rescue dogs when traveling to a work site, but no one had ever studied the dogs’ microbiome.

In one of the studies by Perry and Swanson’s team, search and rescue dogs were flown for 2.5 hours in the cabin of a commercial airliner to the job site. In the other, dogs were “hot loaded” into a helicopter – blades whirling – for a quick 30-minute flight to the site. The team looked at slightly different factors in each study, but for both, they examined changes in the makeup of the microbiome and performance on the job.

The helicopter flight caused spikes in body temperature and the stress hormone cortisol, but the researchers didn’t observe changes in the makeup of the dogs’ microbiomes. Dogs that entered an airport, went through security, and flew for a longer period on the commercial flight showed an interesting microbial shift.

“Microbial beta diversity, which is a measure of the presence and abundance of bacterial taxa, was different between dogs that traveled compared to those that did not. Travel led to greater relative abundances of Clostridia and Bacteroidaceae populations, two of the more predominant microbial groups in the gastrointestinal tract,” Swanson explains. He says more research is needed to understand how such changes may impact the long-term health of search and rescue dogs.

But the most impressive finding in both studies was the fact that there was no effect of air travel stress on the dogs’ job performance. “They showed behavioral stress, their gut was completely turned upside down, their bloodwork showed significant effects, and it didn’t matter. They still went to work and performed beautifully,” Perry says. “Even though we see physiological impacts on these dogs, they’re such amazing athletes that they overcome the physical and environmental stress and just do their job.”

Although travel didn’t impact the dogs’ performance in these preliminary studies, the researchers emphasized that stress can occasionally cause search and rescue dogs to miss work. But gaining new insight into canine stress responses, particularly the way stress affects the microbiome, may pave the way towards potential solutions for both working and companion animals. 

“We’ve all owned dogs that were scared of lightning, vacuum cleaners, those innocuous day-to-day experiences,” Perry says. “Having a better understanding of what causes stress and how to compensate for it helps every dog, not just the ones that are out there saving lives.”

Swanson adds, “These small studies are just a starting point. In the future, we hope to apply these findings to larger studies focused on various stressor types and a longer duration of stress, similar to that experienced in the field during times of emergency. Our goals will be to develop and evaluate nutritional interventions and/or management strategies that avoid negative physiologic effects and maintain performance.”

The first article, “Effects of air travel stress on the canine microbiome: A pilot study,” is published in the International Journal of Veterinary Health Science and Research. Perry (formerly Venable) and Swanson’s co-authors are Stephanie Bland from Southern Illinois University and Hannah Holscher, an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at U of I. The study was funded by Southern Illinois University.

The second article, “Physiological effects of stress related to helicopter travel in Federal Emergency Management Agency search-and-rescue canines,” is published in the Journal of Nutritional Science. Perry and Swanson’s co-authors are Natalie Gulson, from Southern Illinois University, and Tzu-Wen Liu Cross from the Division of Nutritional Sciences at U of I. The study was funded by CANIDAE pet food company and the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation.   

Farm-to-Walmart fresh produce in China has unexpected middlemen, provides risk protection for farmers

Published July 20, 2017
label on a watermelon from China Wal-Mart
Photo credit: Robert Thomson

URBANA, Ill. – When Hope Michelson joined a group of economists working to evaluate Walmart’s direct-to-farm sourcing program to its stores in China she believed the research would confirm a straight-forward journey of melons and other produce from point A to point B.

Upon closer examination, Michelson, from the University of Illinois, and her colleagues at the University of California, Davis and the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy at the Chinese Academy of Sciences learned that the journey from farm to Walmart stores has a few additional stops along the way. Although the trip isn’t as direct as they expected, Walmart’s program may provide economic incentives that afford farmers some benefits.

Michelson traveled to China three times during the course of the project, staying for several weeks each time to visit farms and observe firsthand how Walmart’s program worked.

“In 2010, Walmart announced a commitment to support sustainable agriculture. One of their stated goals was, by 2015, to source from 1 million small and medium farmers. A second goal was to increase the incomes of these small farmers by 10 to 15 percent. They needed evidence as to whether or not they were achieving their goal,” Michelson says. “Walmart thought that they were buying direct from many small farms in China, but we quickly discovered the presence of at least one intermediating layer of private firms sitting between the farm and Walmart. With 416 Walmart stores in China, we found 73 primary and 125 secondary buyers between farmers and the stores. The sales turned out to be a lot less direct than we – or Walmart – originally thought.”

Michelson says that the research team expected to find large contiguous areas called farm bases, functioning like farmer cooperatives and interacting directly with Walmart buyers. “That was the model that we had in mind. What we observed when we arrived and started visiting farms and farmers looked more like company farms with different models of managing labor and land, including a system relying on wage workers. We thought we’d see a village in which, for example, everyone was producing honeydew melon and a Walmart pick up—that level of directness. But for the most part we didn’t see individual plots run by families. We saw large farms.”

Some of the farms had aggregated and then subleased land back to farmers. In others, the owners managed all of the production and hired the same farmers that they had aggregated the land from as workers. With this arrangement, Michelson says there are some advantages for farmers.

“There is some risk-mitigation happening when the company assumes the risk of production and marketing,” she says. “In many cases the company was making big investments, too. They had big storage warehouses, and irrigation systems—serious capital investments to increase productivity. But at the same time, the benefit will depend on exactly how the risks and benefits are shared.”

Michelson explains that farming and land rights are very complicated in China, and although there are more intermediaries than they anticipated, the model in China still has fewer middlemen than the traditional supply chain.

“We interviewed many of the intermediary vendors,” she says. “Some of them seemed like traditional spot-market buyers, just guys who go out and buy. They don’t have a lot of capital. They have a relationship with the Walmart buyer, negotiating the price and handling the communication.”

Because of the many food scares, scandals, and safety concerns in China, Michelson says Walmart believes that shortening the food chain will mean safer foods. Consumers can know where their food comes from as well as the reputation of the farmer. Outbreaks can be traced.

Michelson says understanding how intermediary vendors function in China’s supply chain is important because it affects whether and how farmers might benefit from the relationship. She has also studied Walmart’s fresh fruit and vegetable supply chains in Nicaragua and India.

“These sourcing relationships don’t just drop out of the air,” she says. “There is nearly always an institution determining how the farmers will benefit. In Nicaragua, it was often an NGO; in other locations, farmer cooperatives do the work of aggregating the product and negotiating the sales relationship with the buyer. Who is the intermediary, what are the details, and who is the buyer? All of these components are extremely relevant to the outcomes, to the benefits that small farmers do or do not receive. Yet these details are often absent from other research on the topic of small farmer contracting or small farmer participation in value chains. If we care about the development impacts, we need to understand how these intermediaries determine what those impacts will be.”

Michelson also describes one of the largest apple production enterprises in the world in Shandong province that had an interesting distribution model. “Many individual farmers each have a small plot of land with apple trees. A company managed individual relationships with each of the nearly 1,000 farmers. The company gave them some technical advice and services related to pest management and the farmers sold exclusively to the company. The farmers still seemed to have a fair bit of autonomy and controlled the asset of production.”

The study, “Connecting Supermarkets and Farms: The Role of Intermediaries’ in Walmart China’s Fresh Produce Supply Chains” is published in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. In addition to Michelson, authors are Xinzhe Cheng and Steve Boucher of University of California, Davis; Jikun Huang from the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy; and Xiangping Jia from Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University. The research was supported by a grant from the Walmart Foundation.

Hope Michelson is an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois. She is also a faculty member in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at U of I.


Feed intake study in beef cattle could lead to more efficient breeds

Published July 18, 2017
Shike with GrowSafe system
Shike with GrowSafe system

URBANA, Ill. – A change is coming to the cattle seedstock industry. Breed associations have long been interested in finding the genetic basis for feed efficiency, with the aim of breeding more efficient animals. But the first step – accurately measuring how much cattle eat across different life stages and diet types – has been a missing piece. A new study from the University of Illinois helps fill the gap.

“Grain intake in the feedlot is relatively easy to measure and the industry now has a substantial number of feed intake records. But forage intake while a cow is grazing is extremely difficult to measure. We need to get a handle on that to really capture feed efficiency for the entire beef production system,” says Dan Shike, associate professor of beef cattle nutrition in the Department of Animal Sciences at U of I.  

The concern relates to the fact that intake regulation varies depending on diet type. In other words, a cow can fill up on forages before meeting her basic nutritional requirements. The same cow being fed grain in a controlled setting like a feedlot will likely meet those requirements on less feed. However, feed intake evaluations are typically done in the feedlot, potentially misrepresenting the efficiency of the animal over her lifespan.

“Prior to our study, there were limited data evaluating the relationship of intake on a grain diet with intake on a forage diet. If they are related, we may be able to use the intake data we have from the feedlot to extrapolate throughout the cow’s life,” Shike explains. 

Shike and a large team of collaborators from 11 institutions set out to determine if there was a relationship between feed efficiency in forage-fed cattle and in grain-fed cattle. Both heifers and steers were fed out of a GrowSafe system, which precisely tracks intake to individual animals. Heifers were fed forage during a growing period of 70 days, then switched to grain for a 70-day finishing period. Steers were fed grain for both periods. The team looked for relationships between dry matter intake and average daily gain in the two periods, and found a strong correlation for both heifers and steers for dry matter intake.

“The study suggests that dry matter intake is repeatable across varying stages of maturity and diet types in cattle, and accurate feed efficiency measures can be obtained in either the growing or finishing period,” Shike says. “And our results show that measures of dry matter intake and feed intake in heifers are relevant, no matter what they were fed.”

The team also analyzed the data by breaking the intake evaluation period into smaller chunks. “We found that intake evaluation periods can be shortened from the standard 70 days. We’re not suggesting going clear down to 7 or 14 days, but I think you could go from 70 to 42,” he says. Some breed associations are already adopting a shorter feed intake evaluation period as a result of this and other work.

Having more information about feed intake can lead to a more economical operation. Raising more efficient animals can reduce feed waste and potentially increase profits.

“We, as a cattle industry, have gotten very good at tracking our outputs,” Shike says. “We know how they grow, what their carcass characteristics are, and we can predict those very well in the next generation. But we don’t have a good handle on the input; really just a handful of feed intake records existed prior to this project. Some breeds had no feed intake records.”

An animal’s feed intake is just one the many traits that make up its phenotype – or outward appearance and behavior. The study provides more data on this trait across the lifespans of both steers and heifers.

The article, “Effects of timing and duration of test period and diet type on intake and feed efficiency of Charolais-sired cattle,” is published in the Journal of Animal Science. The project was supported by a USDA NIFA grant, and the study’s authors include researchers from the National Program for Genetic Improvement of Feed Efficiency in Beef Cattle, as well as associated graduate students and staff.

News Source:

Dan Shike, 217-333-0322

Dust particles in livestock facilities: Sweat the small stuff

Published July 18, 2017
sunlight illuminating dust in a room
In a home setting, dust illuminated by sunlight is usually too large to cause respiratory stress. In livestock facilities, particles that are 2.5 microns or smaller are the ones to worry about. Photo credit: Pixabay

URBANA, Ill. – A beam of sunlight streams into your living room, illuminating a Milky Way of dust particles hanging in the air. Although the air looks thick, those visible dust particles are so big that they can’t reach the smallest branches of the respiratory tree in your lungs. It’s the dust we can’t see—smaller than 2.5 microns, called PM 2.5—that can cause allergies and other respiratory problems.

Inside livestock facilities, the dust particles are much more abundant than in a living room, and can cause pulmonary problems for anyone who breathes the air, including the animals. A recent research project on air quality characterizes the dust particles found in different livestock facilities. For the study, the air was sampled for three consecutive days in each of three types of animal production facilities—poultry, dairy, and swine.

“If you’re going to regulate air quality, first you have to measure it. And before you measure it, you have to characterize how to measure it and what’s in it,” says Richard Gates, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at University of Illinois and member of the research project team.

Gates says not all livestock facility dust is alike. “In order to manage or regulate the dust, we first have to understand its characteristics. Until we have that, we can’t make models that describe the emission from a building, how much of it drops out within 100 yards of a building, and how much of it travels much further from the facility.”

According to Gates, laying hen facilities are recognized as a very dusty environment; a dairy facility is a very open, airy environment with lots of fresh air; and a swine-finishing building, although not considered to be terribly dusty, is actually the worst overall in dust level, especially at the most dangerous particulate matter (PM) level.

“Of the three types of livestock buildings, swine facilities tip the scales in terms of having the highest amount of the dangerously small, PM 2.5 size particulate matter—significantly higher,” Gates says.

Anecdotally, Gates says a high percentage of people who work in livestock facilities, over time, develop respiratory issues. “They should be wearing protective masks at all times. On bigger farms it’s a requirement,” he says. “In the early days of raising livestock, masks weren’t available, and in developing countries, availability is still an issue. And pigs are affected, too. One of the major challenges in swine production is keeping them healthy without the use of antibiotics, and respiratory stress is one of the health issues.”

The lead researcher on the project, Ehab Mostafa, collected the data at livestock facilities in Germany, which are believed to be comparable in terms of dust to facilities in the United States, and conducted the first analysis. Mostafa also developed a sedimentation cylinder to measure the particulate matter. Air is blown into the top of the cylinder. Then a particle counter inside measures the density and weight-per-surface area of the particulates as they fall to the bottom.

“Interestingly, the particles are not all spherical,” Gates says. “Without scientific ways to characterize their shapes, then every model that we use to predict how many there are and how to measure them and their fate are wrong – because the models have been assuming spherical particles. We’ve known that they couldn’t all be perfectly round, but this study demonstrates you can use these derived values and improve predictions for more accurate models by accounting for differences in properties at different sizes and types of particulate matter.”

Gates says this research is a rigorous scientific approach to characterizing these particles. The information will be used as input for models to discover the fate of the dust as it leaves the building and its effect on the external environment.

“There are important outcomes from this research,” Gates says. “One is to characterize what’s going on in these three types of facilities. Then, with that information, we can compare it to what we already have for health standards for humans and animals. For example OSHA has an 8-hour exposure limit for PM 2.5.”

The study, “Physical properties of particulate matter from animal houses—empirical studies to improve emission modelling,” is published in Environmental Science and Pollution Research. It is authored by Ehab Mostafa, Christoph Nannen, Jessica Henseler, Bernd Diekmann, Richard Gates, and Wolfgang Buescher.

Support for this research was provided by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), Zentralverband der Deutschen Geflügelwirtschaft (ZDG), Umweltverträgliche und Standortgerechte Landwirtschaft (USL), and the University of Illinois.


Corn market figures in lower yields

Published July 17, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – According to a University of Illinois agricultural economist, recent volatility in corn prices indicates concern about the 2017 U.S. corn crop. Temperature and precipitation during July are critical to developing corn yields. With the good and excellent ratings from the USDA’s July 10 crop condition report showing a 3 percent decline and weather forecasts over the next two weeks showing extreme heat in many areas of the western Corn Belt, the potential for lower corn yields is acute.

“Weather conditions in July have been far from perfect in many of the main production regions,” says Todd Hubbs. “Although portions of the eastern Corn Belt received some precipitation recently, areas of dryness continue in many areas. The National Weather Service 8-14 day outlook released on July 16 indicates probabilities of above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation over much of the Corn Belt through July 30.

“An indication of the effect on corn yields will be revealed in the weekly crop condition ratings,” Hubbs continues. “Good and excellent ratings for the week that ended July 16 currently hold an expectation of a 1 to 3 percent decline. Deterioration in crop condition ratings may continue for the week ending July 23 because of high temperatures and the lack of widespread precipitation.”

The importance of the 2017 U.S. corn yield potential for corn prices is underscored by the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates data released on July 12. Ending stocks for the 2016-17 marketing year increased by 75 million bushels to 2,370 million bushels due to lower feed and residual levels. The increase in carryout for the 2016 -17 marketing year combined with the larger-than-expected corn acreage revealed in the June Acreage report mitigated some of the corn price increases due to weather issues. The most recent USDA projections for the 2017-18 marketing year set consumption at 14.35 billion bushels, 220 million bushels below expected consumption during the current marketing year. Stocks at the end of the 2017-18 marketing year are projected at 2,325 million bushels or 16.2 percent of projected use.

“Based on the forecast of 83.5 million harvested acres, the current USDA yield projection of 170.7 bushels per acre sets production at 14.255 billion bushels,” Hubbs says. “Under this scenario, the USDA sees the 2017-18 average farm price between $2.90 and $3.70. Although the USDA maintained the 2017 yield projection, there is an expectation of lower yields to be reflected in the USDA’s August 10 Crop Production report.” 

According to Hubbs, based on a model of the relationship between average farm price and the end of year stocks to use ratio, the projected ending stocks-to-use ratio for the 2017-18 marketing year expects the average farm price near $3.58 per bushel. Although the relationship between ending stocks and average farm price is not perfect, the model allows for the estimation of where the current market expectations of corn yields may fall for the 2017 corn crop.

December 2017 corn futures closed at $3.89 on July 14. Calculation of the marketing year average farm price of corn is performed by using the historical 5-year average of monthly farmer sales ranging from September to August, the 3-year average of corn basis from central Illinois, and the closing prices for corn futures on July 14.

“The futures market reflected an average farm price for the 2017-18 marketing year near $3.78, which is above the current USDA range,” Hubbs says. “Unless the market believes U.S. corn consumption exceeds 14.35 billion bushels during the year, the average yield reflected in the market is below the current 170.7 bushels per acre. Based on the model of the relationship between ending stocks and average farm price, calculations indicate the market is currently trading on a 2017 average yield in a range of 163 to 166 bushels per acre. Although lower average corn yield in this range would provide support for prices, the prospect of demand rationing would surface if yields fell to around 160 bushels per acre.”

Yield potential for this year’s crop and corn price movements will continue to follow the information contained in reports on weather conditions, weather forecasts, and crop condition ratings, Hubbs concludes.

“A large amount of uncertainty surrounds speculation about the size of the 2017 corn crop,” Hubbs says. “Corn prices will continue to trade in a wide range as we move through the crucial periods of the corn-growing season in the United States. The high level of uncertainty makes anticipating the price direction difficult, but it seems there is more production risk than currently reflected by the corn market. The USDA's August production forecast will be highly anticipated, as it will establish a benchmark for forming production expectations.”