After a holiday weekend, we should all be feeling de-stressed!
Managing stress is a challenge in our fast-paced world.
But stress is also a reality in the animal kingdom, and an Alberta-based group is offering new science for those who work with livestock to manage stress in animals, to maximize their performance.
DeStress Nutritional Technology was launched to horse owners at Red Deer’s Mane Event.
I was drawn to the story because I recognized the name of one of the proponents — Dr. Al Schaefer.
As an Agriculture Canada scientist at the Lacombe Research Centre, he’d always been a favorite interview subject for my TV program This Business of Farming.
He was studying animal behavior and stress long before it became the “in” field it is today.
He headed up some ground-breaking work on measuring stress in animals and tackling its impact.
Back then, the focus was primarily on cattle pre-slaughter.
Fast forward a few years, and now Dr. Schaefer is in the private sector, applying similar knowledge to performance horses.
It’s quite a change from the academic scientific circles he had a long and successful career in, but it’s enabling him to see his findings actually benefit animals and those who work with them.
As Schaefer tells it, the roots of the breakthrough go back to his early research days working with sheep in New Zealand.
“We noticed certain amino acids could double the rate of protein synthesis in muscle. We thought, ‘Man that’s interesting. Don’t know what we’d use it for, but it’s very interesting,’” he chuckled.
It didn’t take long to find a use for the information when Schaefer came to Lacombe.
Meat scientists were wondering why transporting cattle to packing plants led to weight and muscle loss, and carcass issues like dark cutters.
Years of work led to development of a formula which could be given to animals prior to transporting, to greatly reduce such problems.
It was all about helping them deal with the stress. There was a lot of interest in the Lacombe project and its success.
“I was even contacted by a camel racer in United Arab Emirates asking, ‘Can we use this?’” smiled Schaefer.
“I had to tell him this was not a performance enhancer. It’s a stress reducer, a stress management tool. As much as I’d like to see your camels run faster, this will just help them recover from the race. So you have to differentiate.”
Schaefer and his team also found they needed a holistic approach in the formulation.
“Stress is a complex phenomenon. You have to treat all the aberrations. There’s no point fixing a broken arm and letting them go out with a broken leg still.
“That’s one thing we’ve always had — you need the entire mix of ingredients.”
The combination developed did prove effective for cattle, so the next hurdle became turning the science into a useful, economical product for the industry.
“You get something, do a trial and it works, do another trial and it works again, you do dozens of them, and start to become a believer. But commercializing inside a federal institution is not without its challenges. It just wasn’t happening.”
Eventually, Agriculture Canada did introduce a product called Nutri Charge, but it wasn’t overly successful, and has virtually disappeared.Schaefer still believed in the science.
When a federal research realignment took out his primary fields of study, he retired.
Contacts he’d worked with at Canadian Bio Systems, a Calgary-based specialty feed and enzymes company, jumped at the chance to collaborate with Schaefer.
They understood the potential for treating stress in animals, and looked to the researcher for help in building such a product, under the umbrella of DeStress Nutritional Technology.
The feed manufacturing is done at the Wetaskiwin Co-op.
The ride to the horse world began with the Co-op’s own nutritionist, Chance Butterfield, a professional steer-wrestler from Ponoka.
He told Schaefer how his steer-wrestling horses lose condition over the summer as they compete and travel to more than 40 rodeos.
So they started some trials with Butterfield’s horses and a DeStress feed product.
The study is measuring salivary cortisol produced by the horses.
Cortisol is one of the primary stress hormones an animal will exhibit when they’re stressed, and it functions to break down tissues.
No matter how calm the animal seems, Schaefer explained, it’s just the way the brain works.
To balance that physiological affect, they can provide the nutrition to make the animal produce more of its own serotonin, a natural calming effect.
“We’re midstream in these trials,” said Schaefer.
“But the results to date are showing about a 30 per cent reduction in cortisol in treated horses 24 hours post-trailering, and about a 143 per cent increase in cortisol in the controls.”
As well, feeding DeStress after competition is designed to help with muscle recovery.
So the bottom line is going to be better overall performance from the horses.
Butterfield is excited about it, tweeting the research findings, and saying, “Twenty years of research put to use.”
It is research that has potential for all species of animals. Although the formulations vary, the same principles of treating stress apply .Trials are underway with DeStress Nutritional Technology now in cat and swine, with poultry coming soon. It can also work for bison and elk.
For Schaefer, it has been both fulfilling and fun to work with a “can do’’ bunch of people, to see the science turned into valuable technology. Two very different worlds have converged. Seeing the innards of both, he knows the challenge of bringing them together.
“The difficulty has been, you can do the science, so then what? You publish onto a dusty shelf and abandon? On the other hand, you’ve got the commercial side, and they want the transfer of knowledge, and products, but there’s no interface. There’s no ability to transfer knowledge.
“Our academic institutions are not that good at it. I say that as an adjunct of two universities, and having worked for a federal lab, they just don’t have the mindset, the ability to transfer.”
And sometimes companies are so anxious to get a product to market, they don’t want to take the time for objective research.
Dr. Schaefer has bridged the gap personally, but he also sees the big picture.
The research and commercializing entities need each other, and they need to learn to speak each other’s language and work together.
It’s the only way to turn good science into good stuff.
Dianne Finstad is a veteran broadcaster and reporter who has covered agricultural news in Central Alberta for more than 30 years. From the Field appears monthly in the Advocate.