Interview: Dr Ajmal Khan on the future of ruminant nutrition

LifeStart sat down with Dr Ajmal Khan, Senior Scientist for Ruminant Nutrition at AgResearch, New Zealand, to discuss the future of ruminant nutrition

LifeStart: Why and how did you first become interested in the field of ruminant nutrition?

Dr Khan: I was born into a family that has been engaged in animal and crop production in a fertile delta of the Indus for generations. I was fascinated by farm animals. My interest grew further while I was getting my undergraduate degree in Animal Science and my post-graduate degree in Animal Nutrition. Understanding the principles in animal nutrition and physiology, and translating them to improve on-farm performance of animals then became the passion of my life!

LifeStart: How important do you think the link is between ruminant nutrition in early life and lifetime performance? How so?

Dr Khan: Neonatal nutrition is linked to the performance of animals while they are young as well as potentially later in life. I always wondered why the animals with very similar genetic background (e.g. half-sisters) perform differently in a herd. The way we feed and rear the animals could potentially contribute to that variation. We are now exploring a "lactocrine hypothesis" or the epigenetic effects of feeding and rearing practices on the long-term performance of animals. We need more exploration to pinpoint mechanisms that are affected by early life experiences and which also persist over the lifetime of an animal.

LifeStart: What do you think will be some of the most important aspects of ruminant nutrition in the future?

Dr Khan: We need to do several things. We should aim to develop ethical, efficient, economically sound and environmentally friendly feeding systems. I like to call these the 4 E's. We also need to manage feeding and physiological transitions to reduce on-farm morbidity. Additionally, we should gain an understanding and possible ability to manipulate the rumen and gut micro-biome. It is also a goal to set up young ruminants for resiliency and efficiency over their lifetime.

LifeStart: Where do you think the research should go from here?

Dr Khan: With rapid, on-going progress in both biological and computational tools, we are entering an era of precision in agriculture where we will continuously generate and use enormous amount of biological data for decision-making and precision feeding. Therefore, a marriage between animal biology, sensor technologies, Big Data and/or IT is required, and this will potentially challenge the orthodox ways of experimentation for discovery and/or its application.

LifeStart: Do you find it difficult for farmers to transition to new ideas in ruminant nutrition after being rooted somewhat in the thoughts and ideas of the past? Or, do you find that farmers are open to new, science-based approaches?

Dr Khan: Transition is always interesting and difficult! Generally, farming is an income generating activity for both rural families and larger agriculture companies & cooperatives. There is always variability in the farming community about taking up new things because of differences in personal attitudes, size of operations, skills, time, competition and investment. Farmers generally adapt to new technologies to improve farm income, return on investment or to abide by new rules and laws. Demonstrating the need and benefits of an innovation clearly, and in real life applications, can attract farmers towards new things.

LifeStart: If you have found it tough to convey the importance of new understandings about ruminant nutrition, what do you feel would make accepting these new ideas and methods easier?

Dr Khan: We really need to do a good job of defining the needs as well as demonstrating the benefits to farmers. Once they fully understand the positive changes these new methods and technologies can bring about, they will want to try. And once they try, they will see the results for themselves!

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