Exceptional Research Amid COVID-19 Benefits the Pork Industry

January 27, 2021

In March of 2020, animal science professor, Nick Gabler and graduate student, Emma Helm initiated a research protocol to evaluate strategies to successfully slow the growth of hogs. This critical need resulted from packing industry workers contracting COVID-19, leading to shut-downs or slow-downs.

Gabler’s novel solution was to develop diets that would slow down the growth of hogs approaching market weight, thus allowing time for the packing sector to adjust to this unexpected turn of events. His research brought one of the tenets of Iowa State University, ‘science with practice,’ to a critical need faster than any other group in the country.

The research was a central piece of a national webinar hosted by the Iowa Pork Industry Center (IPIC) on April 21, 2020. The webinar had leading nutritionists across the country servicing pork producers, representation from more than 50% of the U.S. ownership and management of sows, dozens of technical service nutritionists in allied industry, state pork commodity groups and extension professionals from other agriculture serving academic institutions. Follow-up webinars and research projects ensued from Gabler’s program coupled with rapid dissemination to the industry. 

The rapid response and effective dissemination resulted in immediate implementation of the findings, allowing producers to precisely regulate pig growth in a manner never before seen in the pig industry. In short, Gabler’s novel data provided pork producers with a feasible strategy to navigate the pandemic that would have otherwise been lacking.  

Gabler and Helm were recently selected as two of the 12 individuals and teams at Iowa State that received a COVID-19 Exceptional Effort Award to recognize extraordinary and innovative ways to overcome the challenges of the pandemic. They were recognized for their exceptional research impact out of 647 total nominations.

Gabler was awarded the research impact award for delivering practical, science-based solutions to pork producers in order to overcome the challenges of packing plant shut-downs. The impact of Gabler’s research was clearly illustrated by its rapid implementation across a wide swath of pork producers in Iowa and beyond.

Helm was awarded the graduate student research impact award for working with Gabler and selflessly leading two impactful research studies of pandemic effects on the swine industry. Typically, during a graduate student’s final year of their PhD program, they are working diligently to finalize their dissertation research, finalize manuscripts for publication and prepare for their defense. Unlike most graduate students, Helm pressed pause on her dissertation work in March, April and May to lead two of the most impactful research studies affecting the U.S. swine industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While most realize the significant impact that Helm’s work presented at the IPIC meeting on the evening of April 21st had on the swine industry, what wasn’t apparent was Helm’s meritorious effort with on-farm data collection earlier that morning followed by statistical analysis and the development of materials to share with the industry by that evening.  Not only did this work dramatically reduce the number of hogs requiring humane euthanasia and disposal, it enabled many producers a feasible strategy to navigate the pandemic that would have been lacking in the absence of Helm’s effort. 

Gabler and Helm’s research in response to the COVID-19 pandemic addressed an animal welfare and economic issue during a time of extreme uncertainty making them both well-deserving of these awards. Since then, Helm successfully defended her PhD dissertation in November 2020.

For more on Gabler and Helm’s research, please visit the Iowa Pork Industry Center website at https://www.ipic.iastate.edu/.

You can read more about the other Iowa State COVID-19 pandemic exceptional effort award recipients here: https://www.inside.iastate.edu/article/2021/01/07/effort

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Photo courtesy of the National Pork Board, Des Moines, Iowa USA.

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