Initiative driving support of Michigan's animal agriculture industries

MSU and animal agriculture commodity organizations partner to address industry’s most pressing challenges.

Tina Conklin, a food processing specialist at MSU, works on a project looking at shelf life and packaging concerns associated with uncured vacuum-packaged meat products.
Tina Conklin, a food processing specialist at MSU, works on a project looking at shelf life and packaging concerns associated with uncured vacuum-packaged meat products.

Tackling both short- and long-term priorities linked to the sustainability of Michigan’s animal agriculture industry is the objective of a relatively new initiative that brings together Michigan State University, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and animal agriculture industry organizations.

From managing antibiotic resistance and curbing infectious diseases to improving animal welfare and boosting environmental stewardship, the Michigan Alliance for Animal Agriculture (M-AAA) focuses on pooling resources for the advancement of the industry.

Agricultural leaders recognized that deploying the expertise of MSU’s outreach and research capacity would give producers access to the latest information that directly addresses their needs.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Services, every $1 of investment in research yields $10 in economic return.

“In the initiative’s first five years, producers, the state of Michigan and the animal agriculture commodity organizations have seen the numerous benefits that have resulted in improved animal health, greater economic impact for Michigan and the sustainability of animal agriculture industry,” said George Smith, associate director of MSU AgBioResearch and a member of the M-AAA leadership team.

“The dedicated funding drives more targeted research to address Michigan-specific issues. The M-AAA improves our ability to quickly and effectively communicate these research results back to Michigan farmers in forms they can use to improve their farm businesses,” added Ron Bates, director of the MSU Extension Agriculture and Agribusiness Institute and a member of the M-AAA leadership team.

Thus far, the M-AAA has provided funding for projects on topics such as new animal housing standards mandated by the state beginning in April 2020. MSU Department of Animal Science researchers Juan SteibelJanice Siegford and Cathy Ernst are looking at the safest and most efficient ways to adhere to the new requirements while considering issues such as animal behavior and genetics.

Mary Kelpinski is the chief executive officer of the Michigan Pork Producers Association and also a member of the M-AAA leadership team.

“We really value the ability to help direct university research toward issues that are affecting farmers today,” she said. “Serving as one of the reviewers of grant proposals allows me the opportunity to make sure the funded research proposals are benefiting today’s farming needs and future challenges. Farming has changed over the years, and we need to continue to find ways to raise more food in a safer, more sustainable manner to feed our growing populations.”

Multiple M-AAA projects have focused on bovine leukemia virus (BLV), a retrovirus that suppresses the immune system of cattle and makes them vulnerable to additional disease development. BLV is a major priority of dairy and beef producers, with losses of roughly $2.7 billion annually in the dairy industry alone.

Paul Coussens, professor in the MSU Department of Animal Science, showed that BLV-infected cows had a reduced response to immunizations. Paul Bartlett and Ron Erskine, professors in the MSU Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, showed that removing highly infectious BLV cows, known as super-shedders, from the herd can relatively quickly lessen the spread of the virus.

Led by MSU Extension’s Phil Durst, a team of MSU researchers and outreach specialists tested 38 herds from Michigan and Ohio and found 35 with BLV. The group created recommendations for producers on how to mitigate the spread of BLV, citing best practices such as regularly changing vaccination needles and examination sleeves.

In 2019, M-AAA received an investment of $2.6 million from its partner organizations and chose 20 projects for funding in one of three categories: research, extension or seed funding.

In one of these, Jeannine Schweihofer, a meat quality MSU Extension educator, is examining shelf life and packaging concerns associated with uncured vacuum-packaged meat products. The objective is to increase efficiency for processors, enabling the production of larger batches of products while reducing the time and resources expended.

M-AAA is modeled after Project GREEEN (Generating Research and Extension to meet Economic and Environmental Needs), established more than 20 years ago to support Michigan plant agriculture. GREEEN and M-AAA are now co-funding a project led by Maninder Singh, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, to improve the management of ear rot and fungal contamination of corn silage. Contamination can result in health issues for the cattle, swine and poultry who consume the corn silage.

This article was published in In the Field, a yearly magazine produced by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. To view past issues of In the Field, visit For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at or call 517-355-0123.

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