Journal Issue

Science and World Animal Production: Achievement and Failure

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
March 1970
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C.P. McMeekan

The application of the scientific approach to the understanding of farm animals has no long history. “Breeding is the greatest industry to which science has never been applied,” William Bateson said in his presidential address in 1904 to the Zoological Section of the British Association. In 1946, Marshall and Hammond reproduced this statement as the opening sentence of their book, The Science of Animal Breeding, thus recognizing some 40 years later the immaturity of the science to which they were both, by this time, committed.

To me, the formal linkage of science and the animal industry began effectively only after Sir John Hammond’s return from World War I when, concentrating on farm animals, he teamed up with F.H.A. Marshall whose media were laboratory species. This scientific partnership, which continued throughout their lives, has been matched by no other in the field; although they were not the only pioneers, no others served the industry better. Together, they set the pattern of the approach that has dominated the scene, both nationally and internationally, ever since. By concentrating on the systematic establishment of principles from the base line of the physiology of reproduction, lactation, growth, and inheritance, they laid the foundations on which the practice of animal production rests today.

Achievements of Animal Science

What has been the impact on animal production of the vast storehouse of knowledge accumulated from the labors of these pioneers? Any attempt even to summarize the practical consequences can bring only the main points into focus.

From an understanding of the physiology of the complex process of reproduction there has sprung a wide range of husbandry practices to give us reasonably effective control of this first link in the production chain. Mating control has improved the rate of multiplication, to provide young animals at times when food supplies, weather conditions, and the market are all right for them. Impaired fertility of male and female has been brought under economic control by appropriate therapeutic, nutritional, and managerial techniques. Nutritional management to exploit fully the fertility potential of both sexes has evolved. Elimination of venereal and other diseases causing death of the fetus has become feasible. Early pregnancy diagnosis is a useful tool with which to increase effective calving rates and reduce costs through detection of nonbreeding females. Artificial insemination has lifted the reproductive powers of selected males to almost unbelievable levels.

Appreciation of the dependence of the milk-secretion rate on intermammary pressure and of the milk letdown on hormone control has led to dramatic changes in milking methods. Twice-a-day milking, abandonment of hand stripping, and milking machines designed to secure full cooperation of the cow have been the practical outcomes, revolutionizing the task of cow milking which still constitutes the greatest human work load in the milk production industry.

Elucidation of the laws governing the growth and development of the animal body permits us to take useful advantage of its plasticity and resiliency to mold its conformation and composition of bone, muscle, and fat as desired. Of particular advantage to meat producers, this knowledge has assisted materially, not only in defining quality targets and in developing husbandry methods of attaining these to meet traditional market needs, but also in pointing to procedures necessary to face the challenge of new and constantly changing market demands. Such knowledge, too, has encouraged us to reduce the age of first mating and to speed up growth rate in order to increase efficiency of performance.

The gradual unfolding of the laws of inheritance, still far from complete, has given more precise tools to the animal breeder. Performance testing and hybridization, with the population rather than the individual as the parameter from which to select for production gains, have shifted poultry production both for meat and eggs from small-scale operators to large-scale factory-type breeding, with astounding consequences on rate of growth, meat yield, egg production, and economy of feed conversion. To a less spectacular extent, pig breeding and, with the special aid of artificial insemination, dairy cow improvement for milk have also begun to pass from the hands of small old-time pedigree breeders to those of a handful of population geneticists with specific objectives and the powers to attain them. Adaptability phenomena are much better understood. Cattle suited to the environmental stresses of the vast areas of tropic and subtropic lands are beginning to be evolved by appropriate crossing and selection techniques.

The animal nutritionalist, too, has played a major role. From the base line of expanding physiological and biochemical knowledge of plant and animal, livestock feeding has moved a long way from mainly quantitative concepts involving energy, protein, and mineral metabolism to embrace qualitative requirements in terms of carbohydrate composition, the amino acid and vitamin co/nplex, trace elements, and hormones. Rations today may be compounded with close regard to the specific nutritional needs of animals with full recognition of the differences between species and the changing needs of each with their physiological state at different stages of their life cycles. Such rations, too, must have close reference to qualitative characteristics and especially the deficiencies of the raw materials used, as well as due regard to the economy of feed conversion process in terms of input costs and output values. In the more sophisticated producing countries, the day of the computer and the linear programmer has come to the humdrum task of animal feeding. Even the nutrition of the free grazing animal is no longer the hit-and-miss operation that it was not so long ago. Appropriate management techniques, relating pasture production variations to varying animal requirements, have led to significant advances in per acre and per animal outputs from ruminants. Trace element supplementation of both land and livestock has helped to transform vast areas of grassland to a usable state.

The contributions of students of animal health cannot be overlooked. While much remains to be done, most of the major causes of disease responsible for ill health or death have yielded to research. Reliable rapid methods of diagnosis have permitted large stock populations to be freed from major scourges through organized detection and slaughter of affected and carrier animals; vaccines and antibiotics have brought many others under economic control; new drugs and insecticides have materially reduced the hazards of parasites. Shepherds, cowmen, and pigmen today may husband as much with the hypodermic needle and the drenching gun as with their traditional equipment.

Achievements of Ancillary Science

Men who have not worked directly with livestock must not be ignored in assessing the gains made. Marching hand in hand with the specialist animal scientists, the soil chemist and biologist, the plant physiologist, agronomist, agrostologist, and breeder have advanced knowledge of soils, plants, and their interrelationships to evolve new and more effective techniques for exploitation of these resources. In so doing, they have inevitably raised efficiency. Yields and quality of grain and forage crops used in animal feeding have been raised to dramatic heights, hybrid corn being a classic example. Fertilizers, pest and disease controls, selective weed killing, improved varieties in combination with mechanization of cultivation, harvesting, and storage methods, are standard tools of the modern arable farmer. Pasture production on both natural and cultivated awards has been revolutionized by proper fertilization, grazing management control, and conservation procedures in silage and haymaking.

During the time phase under review we cannot ignore the inputs to animal production generated by the science of engineering. They have been of a level which perhaps transcends all other contributions. The tractor with its cultivation equipment, the combine harvester and grain drier, the hay baler and forage harvester, the truck, and now the airplane as an agricultural and pastoral implement have transformed fodder production. The milking machine, the shearing machine, the chain system in meat processing, and the motorcycle in hill-country shepherding have multiplied many times the number of animals that one man can handle. Chilling, freezing, and pasteurization, by permitting extended transport and storage, have expanded the areas from which animal products can be derived from a local to a global range. Electric power has come to farms with benefits to man and animal. The telephone, radio, television, and motorcar combine to increase the efficiency of individual operators.

All this is common knowledge, taken largely for granted. Yet, when assembled even in this summary fashion, it must surely be admitted that the record of performance of science to the animal production industry is indeed impressive. Obviously, animal scientists, and the farmers who have followed the signposts that they have set up, have contributed in no small measure to the scientific revolution of the twentieth century.

The Failure of Science

Unfortunately, it is far too easy to be overimpressed by all this and to exaggerate the significance of these advances. This is because of the sad reality that the application of science to animal production, and indeed to most aspects of agricultural production, has so far touched but a small part of the world. In view of the existing and probable future needs, this part has indeed been pitifully small.

Such a strongly worded statement needs justification. From firsthand experience in every country of the South American continent, most countries of the African continent, the Indian subcontinent including Pakistan, most countries of the Middle and Far East, as well as the countries of Southeast Asia and Oceania, I know that the new technologies which I credit to science are not yet used in these vast lands to any significant degree. Hardly more than a handful of their farmers have any knowledge or understanding of production methods commonplace in highly developed countries.

The application of modern animal production technology is virtually confined to Western Europe, to the North American continent, to Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. I am not in a position from firsthand knowledge to assess the situation in Russia or Mainland China. Perhaps the former might be included in the list. The main technical exception to my over-all generalization, however, is in poultry production. Mostly with foreign capital and under foreign management, factory-scale operations on the modern pattern have invaded even some of the less developed countries.

Sound support for this general view comes from the experience of the World Bank in trying to bring development to its underdeveloped member countries. There are some 80 of these. Their economies rest mainly on agriculture with animal production of great and increasing, significance. Operating over the last 20 years, under conditions where capital supply has not been a constraint, the Bank has found it feasible up to 1969 to make 24 development loans to only 18 countries for increased animal production. These are expected to affect about 21 thousand farmers, 37 million acres of land, 6 million head of beef cattle, 100 thousand dairy cattle, and a quarter of a million sheep.

Impressive though these figures are at first sight, they involve only a minute fraction of the livestock populations of the underdeveloped countries. Thus the 6 million head of beef cattle likely to benefit from the projects financed represent under 1 per cent of the present cattle population of countries to which science has yet to be applied. The cattle of the Western world to which science has been applied total only about 30 per cent of the present world cattle herd.

The relative insignificance of the World Bank effort is stressed further by the fact that the half billion dollars of investment involved has not been devoted to the financing of advanced techniques that I have already mentioned as responsible for the spectacular increase in efficiency of animal production. They are being spent on the most elementary of inputs: fences and stock water supply to permit the beginnings of managerial control; yards and corrals to offer the beginnings of health protection measures; seeds and fertilizers to begin to increase fodder production.

Quite clearly, we have failed to apply our science world-wide. That we must do so is surely the greatest challenge facing us. That we must do so now is an inescapable obligation. The obligation is not only to science itself but to the world which so urgently needs it. We must appreciate that the chances are very great that there will be about twice as many people to be fed a mere 30 years from now. Continued preoccupation with already well-developed lands will not feed these extra people. The full potentialities of science relative to needs will not be achieved until we turn our attention to the vast areas of undeveloped lands so urgently demanding better use.

But this is an immense subject that needs separate treatment.

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