MARC celebrates 50 years of research
By Doug Rich
The Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center near Clay Center, Neb., is celebrating its golden anniversary this year, and several activities have been planned to commemorate the anniversary, according to John Pollak, MARC director.
The official USDA Agricultural Research Service recognition of the 50th anniversary will be June 4 at the center. June 16 to 19, MARC will partner with the University of Nebraska and Nebraska Cattlemen to host the Beef Improvement Federation. The meeting will include a symposium celebrating the center with speakers taking about MARC and a beef producer panel discussion.
“We sent out invitations to organizations to hold their board meetings or membership meetings at MARC, and these will be taking place throughout the year,” Pollak said.
MARC was officially authorized by Congress on June 16, 1964. The 34,000-acre site was originally a Naval Ammunition Depot during World War II. Large concrete bunkers still dot the landscape around the center. Pollak said the bunkers are used primarily for storage or incineration.
The center maintains 24,000 acres of pasture split evenly between warm- and cool-season grass, 1,900 acres of irrigated pasture, 2,500 acres of corn, 500 acres of the cropland that are rotated to soybean production, and two alternative crops grown for additional grazing. All of the buildings at the center were built after it was authorized in 1964.
There are six research units at the center including animal health, environmental management, genetics and breeding, meat safety and quality, nutrition, and reproduction. Pollak said 50 percent of their research is focused on beef, 30 percent on swine, and 20 percent on sheep.
Kreg Leymaster, a research geneticist, has been at MARC for 36 years. Leymaster began his career at MARC working half time on swine research and half time on sheep research. Ten years ago he switched to sheep research full time.
“There has been tremendous change at the center during that time,” Leymaster said. “Over time there has been a gradual shift toward more focus on basic research and understanding how things really work, but still have the effort to produce a product that our stakeholders can use.”
Twenty years ago, Leymaster said researchers started a large program in the field of genomics. A lot of the research they do now is directly tied to development in genomics.
“That work started in the late 1990s when we were putting together a very rough roadmap of the DNA information for cattle, sheep, and swine,” Leymaster said. “That has progressed to where we now have the full sequence out there with 3 million pairs of information. Now we have a full roadmap.”
Gary Bennett, supervisory research geneticist at MARC, is working on a project selecting for genetic markers in cattle that was started in 2005. Bennett said they looked around at the commercially available markers as well as some they had identified at MARC and thought some of them were associated with carcass traits like fatness.
“What I am trying to do is increase the frequency of some of these rarer alleles so that we can get better estimates,” Bennett said. “For instance some of these markers had a frequency of only 10 percent. When the frequency is low we have hardly any animals in one of those homozygous genotypes. The idea is to get the frequency of those markers up to 50 percent so we can have animals in each of those homozygous classes and heterozygote classes so we can get a better estimate of what the marker really does.”
Another change at MARC has been the big shift to food safety issues. Leymaster said USDA has put a fair amount of money into trying to address food safety issues for consumers. Tommy Wheeler, supervisory research food technologist, said the Meat Safety and Quality research unit was formed in 1983 and the first food safety science came to the center in 1988. Meat safety was not part of the center originally, but meat quality was part of the early evaluation studies. The unit was formed because of a growing realization that safety was an important aspect of meat production. The food safety program really began with an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7.
“Initially a lot of the work was done on surveys to find out how common the pathogen is, where do we find it, what are the key risk factors and then find interventions for the processing plants to implement,” Wheeler said. “Even today a lot of work is done with companies to make sure they have effective intervention and that they are cost effective and do what they are supposed to do. It has evolved into a lot of work on detection of pathogens all the way to sequencing bacteria genomes.”
Steven Shackelford, research food technologist at MARC, said the meat quality research at MARC has always focused on tenderness, trying to understand the biology and breed effects on tenderness and improving the consistency of tenderness.
“In some way that led us into instrument grading research, which led to a camera system that all of the major packers use today,” Shackelford said. “We worked on instrumentation both for the grading camera and for prediction of tenderness. This work continues and there have been several evolutions of the camera.”
There have been other changes at MARC over the years. One of those, of course, has been the improvement in computer equipment.
“When I started here we did not have computers in our offices,” Leymaster said. “We had a computer processing center and used punch cards. We carried boxes full of punch cards down to the processing center and fed them into the reader. Now we have more power available in an iPhone than what we had here by far at that time.”
The tools to analyze data have evolved rapidly. Much larger data sets can be analyzed and they can handle more complex questions.”
“One of the real strengths of our research center is our ability to work with people with different areas of expertise to solve important problems facing the meat industry,” Leymaster said.
That is one thing that has not changed at MARC in the last 50 years and will not change in the next 50 years as they research more complex issues.
Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.