Research and learning from farm to fork

November 10, 2020

The Department of Animal Science at Iowa State University is unique in its ability to study the entire food system from farm to fork. This allows students and researchers to test cattle diets on the farm and analyze the impact on final beef products for consumers. Students can learn more by working with experts in nutrition on the farm and then collaborating with meat science specialists in the meat lab. This full circle approach improves the quality and impact of research by observing any live animal variations that might impact the quality of the final meat products.

One recent USDA-funded research project is a great example of this approach. This project collaboration by researchers Stephanie Hansen and Elisabeth Huff-Lonergan analyzed how dietary zinc affects cattle growth and beef quality.

They began by feeding cattle at the Iowa State University Beef Nutrition Research Farm where the research team collected initial bodyweight and genetic data on the steers. These steers were fed one of four different diets for 91 days. At the end of the feeding period, they were harvested at the Iowa State University Meats Laboratory where various samples were collected for analysis. After chilling, each carcass was assessed for quality and yield grade data. Steaks were aged for different time periods to allow for meat quality analysis across different lengths of aging.

This experiment design allowed researchers access to these samples immediately post mortem, as well as at multiple timepoints in the cooler. “This is important, because a lot of biochemical changes happen in the hours immediately after slaughter as the muscle becomes meat,” said Huff-Lonergan.

Two animal science graduate students, Katherine Hochmuth and Matt Schulte, collaborated to complete the objectives of this project. Hochmuth coordinated the live animal portion of the study and Schulte focused on the meat science side. “Having the ability to conduct research projects on the farm and then using the meat lab facilities is not only essential to student learning, but also data integrity and furthering of our scientific knowledge,” said Schulte. “Getting experience in a research project that involves both live animal production as well as meat quality assessment has been one of the best experiences in my graduate school career.”

This USDA-funded research utilized many facilities on campus in addition to the farm and the meat lab including bioinformatics, proteomics and metabolomics. “Research collaborations of this type are crucial to better understand the implications of changing cattle growth rates on the ultimate eating experience for beef consumers,” said Hansen.

These facilities and resources allow the students in the Department of Animal Science to gain the knowledge to help build and promote their respective meat animal industries. Learn more about the department’s teaching farms here:

meat grading

Note: Photo was taken prior to implementation of COVID-19 face covering and physical distancing requirements.