The research behind the LifeStart program

My name is Fernando Soberon. I’m the Technical Services Manager for Shur-Gain USA, one of the Nutreco companies. In 2005, I started my Master’s at Cornell University, working with the mammary glands of lactating cows, mainly the transition period and frequency of milking, after parturition. That started my interest in how the mammary gland develops and it eventually developed into my Ph.D. under Dr. Mike Van Amburgh at Cornell as well, where we looked at the effects of early life management and nutrition on the long term performance of that heifer. We were fortunate enough to have a large data set that allowed us to evaluate multiple management and feeding criteria that actually had an influence in their production later in life.

The concept of LifeStart is referring to those things that happen really early in the life of an animal and have a later effect or a consistent effect throughout their life. In the case of dairy cows, we’re talking about how feeding and management practices actually influence their production three, four, five years down the road. This is a multi-species effect. It actually has been proven in swine, affecting reproductive performance. It has been proven in chicks. It has been proven in dogs. It has been proven in multiple animals, the fact that certain stimuli really early in life, sometimes it’s the first three days, sometimes we have about a month post birth, will actually change the way that the genes are expressed and will actually change the potential of that animal for life.

The whole purpose of LifeStart is both to better understand the stimuli and the nutritional factors that affect the long term performance of animals so we can better take advantage of this and increase the profitability of our animals.

If we go back in history to try to understand where all of this started, the concept of epigenetics was first described in 1940. It was not until 1953 that it was actually described a non-genetic effect that has permanent consequences in the life or the performance of a given animal, or of a given person even. It was in 2008 when a very direct description linked to the mechanism of action was found in pigs, talking about the reproductive development of sows that had consumed colostrum from their mother or not. They actually found a direct mechanism that is affecting gene expression. And that started a whole new way of research, ideas and interest on the topic of LifeStart.

Now, we have enough evidence of at least seven different species to know that this is a consistent effect that is needed for the normal development and normal survival of a species. But we can, as producers, take advantage of it increasing the profitability of the animals.

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