Feeding experimental pigs at Foulum: Precision. Precision. Precision

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Some of the experimental pigs in Foulum suffer from schizophrenia, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. And they’re fed with custom feed that’s measured out down to the gram. Ole Møller Andersen and Rasmus Andersen, who are in charge of the feed mill in Foulum, do their job with precision and professionalism – along with a good dose of black humor, jokes and fooling around.

2018.12.04 | Lene Ravn og Ida Marie Jensen (fotos)

If you didn’t know better, you’d probably mistake the pig shed for part of a totally ordinary farm. Rows of pigs, each in their own box, grunting for attention – and maybe some food. But what’s going on in the pig sheds at the Department of Animal Science in Foulum is far from ordinary animal husbandry. 

“Right now we have a pig with the gene for schizophrenia, while there are others that have cardiovascular disease,” explains experimental assistant Rasmus Isaksen casually. But with pride.

They’ve also had pigs with Alzeheimer’s, ALS and diabetes. As well as chickens, horses and pigs in the sheds. And mink. And rats. When Andersen and Isaksen describe their workplace, it sounds a bit like a bad sci-fi movie. But it’s all real. Because Foulum is not just a center for the study of the agricultural sciences and  animal husbandry in general. Doctors use the department’s animals to study diseases and test medicines.

Isaksen and Andersen scratch the pigs behind their ears, because it’s important that they can handle them when samples are taken for research.

Pig feed designed by scientists

Andersen and Isaksen are responsible for producing the different kinds of feed the scientists want to test on the animals. They use precisely designed recipes in the feed mill next to the pig sheds. 

Right now, some scientists are testing how the pigs absorb different enzymes in their digestive tract, while others are working on replacing the soybeans in swine feed with a domestic ingredient that doesn’t need to be imported from abroad – like Danish sea lettuce. And some of the pigs are being fed what Isaksen calls ‘fat feed’, which consists of 30 percent sugar and 15 percent pork fat. 

“It makes the pigs fat. They’re probably going to have diabetes,” concludes Andersen.

Have you divided up the work between yourselves?

“Yes. I mostly deal with Ole,” Isaksen replies promptly, looking over at his partner. 

“Yes, and I deal with everything else,” says Andersen just as swiftly.

The truth is that they share the responsibility, even though Isaksen has only been there since the summer, and Andersen has been there for about a decade. The feed mill was constructed recently, and their responsibilities are new to both of them.

The new feed mill was finished this past summer, which is also when Isaksen started working at Foulum. So the story goes that it was built for him: “I’ve done the math, and it works out that it’ll be torn down when I retire in 45 years,” Isaksen says – who apparently is planning on staying on in Foulum for not a few decades.

From independent farmer to university employee

Running the feed mill is old-fashioned miller’s work – plus some rather untraditional ingredients and a fair amount of equipment the partners appreciate a lot. Sometimes the feed mill takes up all their time. 

“That’s how it is when a lot of the scientists get the ideas into their heads that feed simply falls from the sky. Then we’ll be busy,” Isaksen explains.

On other days, they don’t spend any time in the mill, instead caring for the animals along with the 25-30 other experimental assistants at the Centre for Livestock Facilities.

And it isn’t exactly ordinary agricultural work. The experimental assistants take blood samples, stool samples, milk samples, measure out feed by the gram, observe the animals and a thousand other tasks that you’d never find in an ordinary pig shed. 

“Well, this is basic research, so everything moves slowly. If there are eight pigs that are going to be part of an experiment, it might take a whole day to care for them,” says Andersen.

Andersen know livestock inside out. After finishing his training as a farmer in 199, he was an independent pork farmer with two employees in Vebbestrup outside Hobro for five years – until he decided to quit:

“Because I wasn’t earning any money,” he says and continues:

“I made the decision a lot of other farmers should make. I had promised myself that if I didn’t start turning a profit after five years, I’d quit. And the profit didn’t come.”

Experimental assistant Ole Møller Andersen, a former pig farmer.

In 2008, he got a job at Aarhus University’s campus in Foulum – and is grateful for financial stability, being able to use his expertise as a farmer and being able to have free time outside of his work.

Rasmus Isaksen, on the other hand, has only been working at Foulum since August of this year. He’s a trained agricultural technologist. He has also worked as an independent horse feed developer, and also worked at a recycling station for a year. Both of them agree that the job in Foulum is absolutely, utterly different than what they were used to before. 

“There’s no comparison,” Isaksen asserts.

But let’s try anyway.

In Foulum, the boundaries between research, pig shed and office are fluid. So you’ll often find a little hay on the office floor, and advanced equipment in the pig shed.

Precision and professionalism

What’s the biggest difference between what you do here and what you did before?

“It’s the precision. When we make the feed, we measure in grams – and a quarter gram. Today I just weighed out 6.25 grams of feed. That really isn’t much, and you don’t do that out in the real world,” Isaksen replies.

Andersen nods:

No, it’s not that much. The pigs are the only thing that’s always the same,” he says, and stresses that research is difficult. 

Isaksen agrees:

“When you come out here, you have to be open-minded and just dive in, because a lot of really crazy stuff is being done. And what you’re supposed to do may not exactly make sense.”

For example, as when he was given a special task recently:

“I was told to milk a pig. That may be the job that’s puzzled me the most,” Isaksen says, making a face.

“Yeah, you really thought we were pulling your leg,” his partner laughs.

The skull is from the head of a wild board that was boiled years ago. Now it serves as a sort of centerpiece on the lunchroom table. “It stinks when you boil it,” Andersen remembers.

The skull on the lunchroom table

The lunchroom at the center reveals a lot about the place. There’s a kitchen along one wall, and a bulletin board against the opposite wall. And in the middle there’s a long lunchroom table covered with papers, coffee cups, salt and pepper shakers. And a big skull.  

Which once belonged to one of the center’s wild boars but which  now serves as a centerpiece.

“Well, we had to have some kind of decoration or other,” Isaksen says.

“Yeah, yeah. It’s kind of bling-bling,” Andersen adds.

And although Andersen can’t remember precisely how the skull ended up on the table, he’s certain that it wasn’t the result of a wild Christmas lunch:

“It wasn’t a bet, either. We just did it. We do stuff like that all the time. It was probably just a Monday morning.”

He seems to remember that it was a couple of years ago.

“I was probably the one who cut off the head,” he admits, and adds:  

“We just did it because we can. It was time to put it down, so we injected it, cut off the head and boiled the skull. And one thing’s for sure: It stinks when you boil it.”

Neither of them considers that feat anything special. And Andersen emphasises that this is not the only skull they have adorning the office.

 

Sometimes pigs are cloned in Foulum for research, and there are pigs with Alzheimer’s, heart disease and schizophrenia.

Stopped research on ALS

The guys put a lid on their jokes and teasing when the researchers are present.

“Then there’s complete focus, because it’s their experiment. They’re the ones who’ve thought about what’s going to happen, and we can give them input about what can actually be done in reality,” Isaksen says in a more serious tone. 

Their input can be related to how finely milled the feed should be, or the best way to stable the animals to ensure their welfare. And even though the division of labor is clear, the experimental assistants feel that their input is valued:

“You do what you’re told,” says Andersen.

Isaksen adds:

“They have the last word. And if they insist on things being done a particular way, then that’s how it’ll be.”

Do you sometimes feel bad about how the animals are treated?

“No, because our job is to make sure the animals are doing well. And if they’re not, then we pull the plug on the research,” Andersen says.

Have you ever broken off an experiment?

“Yes, once a few years ago we did that will a pig that had been given a gene for ALS. It was having severe physical symptoms and couldn’t get up. And in that case we said ‘That won’t do’, and it was put down.”

 

Pretty theoretical but generally nice

Working with scientists is a completely different ballgame than being an independent pig farmer or feed producer. As both of them know.

“The researchers are pretty theoretical – even when they come down here,” Isaksen explains.

“But generally nice. We’ve met some of the best in their field – top of the heap –and they can’t drive a screw without destroying something. But you can rag them about it,” Andersen smiles.

He remembers one time he was working together with an extremely focused researcher:

“He asked me for the number of the operating room in Aarhus. So I said 1-1-2 (the emergency telephone number in Denmark, ed.) And he keyed it into his phone. That was not so good. But I think he thought it was pretty funny anyway,” says Andersen. Isaksen agrees with a laugh: 

“When they’re standing there, you can make them believe anything whatsoever.”

“They probably drew straws”

But the experimental assistants keep the jokes to a minimum while they’re measuring out feed and working the experiments. As Isaksen puts it:

“Precision. Precision. Precision. If you do some random thing or other, you screw up the whole experiment. So we let loose afterwards.” 

“That’s where we’re professional. We’re actually incredibly good at that,” says Andersen. Isaksen chimes in to complete the sentence: 

“And we’re actually fairly well-known at the different universities. We just got that feed home from France, you know. Because they picked us,” he says. Andersen interrupts:

“Nope, I think it’s accidental. They probably drew straws. No. I don’t know anything about it,” he laughs.

Isaksen shushes him, and then they turn to face each other to continue their bantering discussion of how the feed from France ended up on their list of jobs, and which scientists are responsible, until Andersen looks at me and concludes:

“In any case, we feel that we’re really good at this. We don’t make many mistakes.”

 

Always willing, but strapped for time

Whether they’ve been in Foulum for ten years or two months, they’re both proud:

What we do is real basic research. It’s the beginning of something that can develop into something big. That makes it exciting,” Andersen says.

“Yes, a scientist thinks up a new thought, and we’re the first people who get a chance to mess with it. That’s really cool to be part of,” Isaksen agrees.

Do you keep up with the research results?

“Yes, if we have the time and inclination, we do,” says Andersen a bit hesitantly.

Isaksen gives his partner a reproving look and says emphatically:

“Time. Time. Time. We always want to. But we rarely have time.” 

Some of the pigs are the same kind of ordinary domestic swine you also find on conventional farms, but there are also quite a few wild pigs from the Yucatan in Mexico.  

Some animals at Foulum are managed using conventional agricultural practices, and others are managed organically (as in the photo). This is because the department performs research on solutions, diseases, feed and much more that has to be applicable to both farming methods.

Every conceivable kind of feed is produced, with sea lettuce, soy, vitamins and sugar. The two experimental assistants always use a recipe that must be followed very precisely.

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Revised 12.12.2018