What if you could flip a switch in a cow or hog’s brain to make it think it’s hungrier than it really is? New research shows those tools may one day be available.


There are two main components to hunger: the physical and the mental. The physical is obvious: animal tissues need nutrients to be sustained and grow. The mental has long been somewhat of a mystery. But a recent discovery sheds a little more light on the mental part of hunger, and though the primary implications deal with human obesity, the application of the technology could cause major change in the livestock industry.


A University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) study published in early January 2018 shows a new take on brain cell tissues, specifically cellular cilia fibers. They’re part of what helps move electrical signals throughout brain tissue. Now they’ve been found to do a lot more than that.


The brain and hunger

Cilia fibers are essentially tentacles that are common cell structures throughout the body of a human being or other animal. In addition to helping propel electrical signals to synapses in brain cells, research led by Jeremy Reiter, a UCSF School of Medicine professor in a lot of things way beyond my comprehension (cilia, centrioles, polycystic kidney diseases) shows certain cellular cilia help trap leptin — the chemical secreted by fat cells and regulated by brain cells. If leptin levels are too high, obesity risk grows. Too low and it can be a sign of malnourishment.


Just like any part of the body, those cells can become mutated, changing the function of the cells responsible for managing leptin. Reiter and his team found that when this mutation happens in a certain way, it modifies a protein that alters how cells respond to leptin, with specific protein interactions at the cellular level potentially changing how the brain perceives hunger. In other words, when mutated the right way, they can cut down on the mental side of hunger. And if your brain doesn’t think you’re hungry, it could lead to a decline in obesity.


That critical human health issue is the focus and most immediate target for Reiter’s research. But what if the same principle and practice can be applied to livestock animals to the opposite effect? Can we make pigs and cattle think they’re hungrier than they normally would be, causing them to eat more and shortening the time to finish out, process and get those animals into the human food supply?


Livestock applications

Reiter’s research has only been with the human brain, but he says it’s safe to assume the same cilia structures exist in the brains of cattle and hogs. There are even drugs under development that target cilia function in other cells in the human body (for example, Vismodegib targets skin cancers). Though research has yet to move this direction, Reiter told me there’s no reason to believe the same functionality isn’t present in the brains of cattle and hogs.


“Modifying the function of cilia is certainly something I think about,” Reiter said. “Whether feeding behavior will be similarly amenable to drug-mediated changes remains to be seen!”


According to the American Meat Science Association, it takes 115 to 120 days to feed, grow and finish a hog to an average 280-pound market weight. During finishing, each animal is typically fed 610 pounds of feed per day during that six-week timespan.


So what if, through the clinical stimulation of protein structures in animals’ brains, we can compel them to eat larger quantities of feed in shorter timeframes? One day, it may be possible to finish a hog to market weight in eight weeks instead of 16. It’s ambitious, but possible!


Cutting down on finishing time could enable pig farmers to raise more animals, as they’d shorten the amount of time each animal would occupy in his or her barns. That means an increase in the supply of the animals going to market. In addition to the obvious market price implications of a higher supply (putting a premium on the continued expansion of marketing opportunities around the world), there are logistical challenges, including:


  • Veterinary services: With more animals being produced, the demand for veterinary work will increase.
  • Pharmaceuticals: Supplies of vaccines and common treatments for livestock animals will have to increase.
  • Transportation: More animals going to market will increase the need for the transportation necessary to get them to processing, then to consumers.
  • Processing/packaging: A higher meat supply will require more materials and manpower to get it all processed and prepared for the consumer.


Another consequence one that’s been the subject of a lot of scrutiny for cattle producers, especially is land use. Being able to raise a larger number of animals in the same space because of more intensive feeding and weight gain can go a long way toward making overall livestock production more efficient in its land use.


Implications to the ag marketing world

The products necessary to raise a livestock animal will likely see changes if finishing time-frames are shortened. For example, the optimal feed ration for a finishing steer may require higher protein contents, upping the quantity of feed ingredients necessary for that adjusted ration. That will cause an increase in corn, soybean and forage demand. With higher demand will come higher production, leading to an increase in the inputs and tools necessary to produce those protein sources. So in some ways, it will be a case of a rising tide raising all boats. The successful agribusinesses in this new era of livestock production will be those who can best meet those growing customer needs and do so most efficiently and cost-effectively.


The ag marketers who can effectively showcase companies that best align with livestock producers and their changing needs will be the ones who see market share grow. That may take more dialog in the future. In the transition from today’s production systems to those with faster-gaining animals, the most successful companies will be those that can communicate directly with their producer customers, learn their needs and make similar changes to continue to meet those needs. It may require new levels of flexibility, both in how products and services are provided and how marketers convey how they provide them.


The change won’t be entirely disruptive to the industry, but it will add a premium to those paying attention to customer needs and offering flexibility in production systems. Is your company up to the challenge?

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