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NIFA programs support adapting animal production to climate change

By Rachel Melnick, American Association for the Advancement of Science Policy Fellow, National Institute of Food and Agriculture
April 14, 2014

When combining “climate change,” “heat stress,” and “agriculture,” most people think of drought and wilted crops — and they’d be right — but there is much more to it than that… for instance, the effect climate change can have on animals.

To combat this, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is providing more than $30 million over 5 years to support research into mitigating the impact of climate change on animal production. Two such programs are being conducted with an international flavor because climate change affects agriculture on a worldwide scale.

Heat stress is one of the greatest environmental factors to impact the poultry industry because it reduces egg production, quality, and safety. NIFA provided an Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) grant of nearly $1 million to University of Delaware professor Carl Schmidt to discover if breeding changes could adapt chicken production to changes in climate.  Along with colleagues from Iowa State University and North Carolina State University, Schmidt traveled around the globe, including Uganda and Brazil, to get blood samples from African and South American backyard chickens. Backyard chickens are raised in open environments and are exposed to far greater environmental stressors and diseases than birds raised in American indoor production facilities. The goal is to determine if backyard chickens from the warmer regions have genetic differences that allow them to deal with the heat stress and diseases. American poultry breeders can use this information to improve their flocks by making them more resilient.

Schmidt’s team is also trying to find genes that will help poultry better absorb nutrients from feed. A discovery along this line of research could reduce the amount of feed poultry producers would have to truck in, and thereby reduce the industry’s overall carbon footprint.

In another project, a NIFA-funded AFRI grant of $860,000 is supporting international work in all livestock and poultry production through an eXtension. eXtension is an interactive learning environment delivering research-based information from America's land-grant university system.  Led by University of Nebraska’s Rick Stowell, a team from Washington State University, Texas AgriLife Extension, University of Georgia, Cornell University, University of Minnesota, and other partner universities, developed “Climate Change: Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation in Agriculture,” which focuses on livestock and poultry production.

The U.S State Department and USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service invited the project to participate in a recent international meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome. The group advises developing countries on ways to mitigate greenhouse gases in new livestock and poultry facilities. The eXtension format includes monthly newsletters, webcasts, archived fact sheets, a roster of experts, and online courses. Nearly a third of the website’s hits are from foreign countries. 

NIFA is USDA’s leading extramural research agency.Through federal funding and leadership for research, education and extension programs, NIFA focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people's daily lives and the nation's future. For more information, visit www.nifa.usda.gov.

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