Retiring genetics professor sees pork industry shift

Retiring genetics professor sees pork industry shift

Max Rothschild

Max Rothschild has spent the past 40 years as an animal science professor at Iowa State University, holding the title of C.F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in Agriculture and Life Sciences. Over his four decades at ISU, he has been recognized globally as one of the leaders in swine genetics research.

Rothschild will retire June 29.

IFT: Where are you originally from, and what made you choose a career in animal science?

ROTHSCHILD: I am a Midwesterner. My father was from Kirksville, Missouri, and my mother was from Maquoketa, Iowa. I was born in Highland Park, Michigan, an identical twin, and this may have also influenced my interest in genetics. I lived there for three years and then three years in Greensburg, Indiana. This I where I got my first “animal science” influence as we lived in the country across from a farm and my dad had a work colleague who had pigs on another farm that we visited often and where I learned to fish.

When I was 6 we then moved to California where I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles. I was still quite interested in animals and decided to apply to UC-Davis and major in animal science and take lots of genetics classes. I worked at the swine farm and the dairy as a student and got  my B.S. there in 1974, and then got a M.S. at the University of Wisconsin in 1975, followed by my PhD at Cornell University in 1978. I then taught two years in the dairy science department at the University of Maryland and worked at USDA Beltsville for my research in dairy cattle.

IFT: So much has changed since you started at ISU. What has been the most positive change in animal agriculture over that time?

ROTHSCHILD: When I started in 1980, livestock production units were smaller and there were many more individual purebred breeders — perhaps 95% of all pig breeding stock was from purebred breeders. Now it is 97% from commercial breeding companies in pigs, and also chickens, and cattle breeding is more concentrated. 

The biggest positive changes are improved genetics and now application of DNA technology (genomics). Livestock grow faster, with less fat and waste. Dairy cattle produce much more milk so the livestock footprint, while more concentrated, is so much more efficient thanks to improved genetics, disease control, feeding and management.

IFT: What has changed that perhaps should not have been changed?

ROTHSCHILD: Sadly, many of those great stock men and stock women and breeders I met when I first came here over 40 years ago no longer raise livestock.

IFT: There seems to be very little guesswork when it comes to genetics. Is there still a place for good old-fashioned stockmanship? 

ROTHSCHILD: Certainly science does help make most of the selection decisions, but as we fine-tune the genetics of efficiency we need good stock men and women to feed and manage animals to their maximum genetic potential. They can never be replaced.

IFT: How do you see the pork industry evolving over the next 25 years? 

ROTHSCHILD: In the U.S. I suspect there will be two big movements. The movement to produce commodity pork for everyone will be led by advances to reduce disease, improve growth rates, improve reproductive efficiency and to improve meat quality. Work will be devoted to reducing effects of heat stress on pigs and all agriculture.

The other direction will be using genetics, feeding and management to produce highly specialized quality pork products for specialized markets. Also the demand for meat, milk and eggs will grow the most in developing countries. Interestingly I see enormous changes coming in livestock production in the developing world. My work in Africa, Asia and Latin America suggests to me that the real revolution to feed people will come in these regions as they employ modern techniques. 

IFT: What sort of genetic changes do you see in the future, specifically when it comes to new technologies?

ROTHSCHILD: Measuring traits will be more automated with sensors and camera technologies, and use of genomic technologies and discoveries will continue to advance. We will understand the biology of our livestock more completely and be able to improve animal welfare and production efficiency at the same time.

The avalanche of data will then require artificial intelligence to be employed to make decisions based on all available information. However, good people who understand the biology and life cycles of livestock will be needed to manage these changes.

A lot has been said about “lab meat.” Even if that production is sustained and improves and is affordable, it will require animal scientists and geneticists to help pick the right animals from which the cells are harvested so growth is fast and meat quality is high.

IFT: What are your plans after retirement?

ROTHSCHILD: I plan to stay connected to ISU for two to three years at some level. I will also spend more time with family. I want to travel with my wife and also fish as much as I can.

IFT: What have you enjoyed the most about your career?

ROTHSCHILD: I always loved three things. Those were teaching ideas about genetics and animal breeding to students and producers who were interested in livestock production, the colleagues, students and producers I worked with, and I loved research and making discoveries that could be implemented in production settings.


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