Hope dawns for aging feed mill

Hope dawns for aging feed mill

New infrastructure will help UC Davis assess livestock’s environmental footprint

There’s a time warp at the UC Davis feedlot.

It’s the 21st century on most of these 50 acres of pastures and pens two miles west of the main campus, where renowned scientists produce ground-breaking research on animal welfare, livestock production and environmental quality. This is where you will find, for example, the multimillion dollar environmental chambers and bovine bubbles where UC Davis Professor and UC Cooperative Extension specialist Frank Mitloehner and his team work to minimize unwanted nutrient losses by animals – which affect water and air quality – and increase those nutrient values in the products we consume.

UC Davis photo
But it’s also where you’ll find one of the most antiquated feed mills around. Built in 1960, the rusty UC Davis feed mill is better suited for a museum than preparing the precise mixtures of grain and additives needed to conduct world-class science and educate a new generation of agricultural leaders.

“That mill is badly outdated,” says John Pereira, managing partner with Frontier Ag, a merchandiser of agricultural and feed commodities based in the Sacramento Valley. “UC Davis has a top-rate animal science program that’s making a huge difference in our industry, keeping agriculture productive and sustainable. They absolutely need a new feed mill.”

And leaders from the industry are working to make that happen. Pereira is president of the California Grain and Feed Association (CGFA), which recently started the effort and donated $150,000 towards building a new UC Davis feed mill -- $100,000 now and $50,000 once construction begins in early fall 2013.

“It’s our way of supporting the work UC Davis and Frank Mitloehner are doing, which is some of the world’s finest research,” Pereira says.

Mitloehner was recently selected to chair a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization committee to measure and assess the environmental impacts of the global livestock industry. The international effort is the first step toward improving the sustainability of the livestock sector, particularly as the global consumption of meat, dairy products and eggs continues to rise.

UC Davis photoAs chair of the new committee, Mitloehner will lead representatives of national governments, livestock industries, and nonprofit and private sectors in establishing science-based methods to quantify livestock’s carbon footprint, create a database of greenhouse gas emission factors for animal feed, and develop a methodology to measure other environmental pressures, such as water consumption and nutrient loss.

“A new feed mill will really help that effort,” Mitloehner says. “We very much appreciate the California Grain and Feed Association’s contributions. We’re also reaching out to conservation groups and other stakeholders, because quantifying livestock’s environmental footprint is important to us all.”

The new feed mill will cost $5.3 million -- $2 million of that from in-kind equipment donations already pledged from industry and $3.3 million in monetary donations. The UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences contributed $100,000.

“All the preliminary work has been done,” says Dan Sehnert, animal facilities coordinator for the UC Davis Department of Animal Science. “With the help of an industry planning committee, we have a site map, an approved Environmental Impact Report, and everything else we need to get started once we have the funds.”

UC Davis animal scientists are awarded millions of dollars in grant funding, but that money can’t be used to support infrastructure, like a new feed mill. The current feed mill was a gift from the California Cattle Feeders Association in 1961.

“It was state-of-the-art at the time,” says Mitloehner, leading a recent tour of the feedlot. “And it has served us well. But now, it is totally outdated.”

Mitloehner pauses by the tarnished feed mill, its pieces patched and repatched where maintenance crews struggle to keep the equipment running.

Couldn’t UC Davis contract with commercial mills to meet its animal feed needs?

“No, because researchers are doing a lot more than keeping the animals (cattle, swine, goats, sheep, horses, poultry and others) alive and well,” says Sehnert, who has joined the impromptu tour. “They carefully control and monitor what goes in and comes out of the animals, testing for things such as feed efficiency.”

Mitloehner adds, “For example, we integrate additives into feed to reduce the nitrogen that leaves the cow. We work with very small amounts of additives, which need to circulate thoroughly throughout the feed. Much of our research depends on the ability to customize feed.”

Mitloehner leads us past pens where he and his team measure the methane in a cow’s exhale, using machines they built that exist nowhere else in the world. Two at a time, the cows breathe into a clear, plastic box which captures their breath.

“What is the carbon footprint of a gallon of milk?” Mitloehner asks. “Our research will help answer that question. We need good data to understand the true impact of agriculture on the environment.”

Industry and society depend on the data UC Davis is producing, says Ken Zeman, feed mill superintendent at Harris Feeding Company and chair of the industry planning committee that supports a new UC Davis feed mill.

“Dr. Mitloehner is one of a kind,” Zeman says from his office at Harris Ranch outside Coalinga, Calif. “His program is providing good, reliable information. His research is recognized worldwide, and his students are going on to become leaders in our industry. We need to do all we can to support that program.”

There are 1,000 undergraduates and 100 graduate students in the UC Davis Department of Animal Science. One of those graduate students is Clayton Neumeier, who is here with Mitloehner outside the methane-measuring pens, preparing feed in a cement mixer.

“Yeah, it’s pretty low tech,” Neumeier says with a smile.

UC Davis animal scientists deserve better, says Chris Zanobini, chief executive officer for the California Grain and Feed Association, based in Sacramento.

“I’m thrilled our association has made the first industry gift, because when you have a program that good, you want to do all you can to support it,” Zanobini says. “I know others will join us, because the work Frank Mitloehner is doing with air quality – along with all the work in the animal science department – is important to our operations. It’s vital to our future, not just for our industry but for our state, our nation and our world.”

To learn more about the new feed mill and how you can help, please contact Frank Mitloehner at (530) 752-3936, fmmitloehner@ucdavis.edu or Martha Ozonoff, director of major gifts for UC Davis, (530) 752-1504, mjozonoff@ucdavis.edu

12.03.2012