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Professor Jos Houdijk

Head of Monogastric Science Research Centre

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What project/s are you currently working on?
In addition to Animal Nutrition teaching at various undergraduate and post graduate levels at SRUC, University of Edinburgh and University of Glasgow, I am working on a number of research projects:

  • Home grown protein sources for monogastric livestock to reduce reliance on soya bean meal, with an emphasis on faba beans;
  • Nanoparticles with antimicrobial activity for broilers and weaner pigs, to reduce reliance on antibiotics and supra-nutritional zinc, respectively;
  • Amino acid supplementation and resilience to litter-borne enteric infection in broilers, with the aim to assess suitability of ideal protein concept under sub-clinical enteric challenge;
  • Litter microbiome and broiler performance, to better understand the link between litter composition and broiler production efficiency;
  • Dynamic modelling of monogastric gut microbiota, to develop insight in the link between microbiota composition and metabolite production ultimately as influenced by nutritional intervention strategies;
  • Commercial contracts on novel feed additives and ingredients with, and for, the wider poultry and pig production industries.

What capability are you drawing on to deliver the research?
The research is delivered through the multi-disciplinary activities of SRUC’s Monogastric Science Research Centre, which I have led for the last six-and-a-half years, in partnership with other research teams as and when required, both within and outwith SRUC.

My team manages the Allermuir Avian Innovation and Skills Centre, a joint SRUC-CIEL development, that delivers scientifically robust, hypothesis driven poultry trials from small-scale through to near commercial conditions to meet industrial and academic poultry research requirements. At capacity, we can house nearly 10,000 birds. The facility includes 64 large enriched colony units for layer hen work housing up to 1344 birds, and a flexible 144-floor pen brooder house for up to 5760 birds.

We also have access to other research capabilities within SRUC, including the 100 sow farrow-to-finish pig herd at the Easter Howgate Pig Unit that also recently benefited from SRUC-CIEL collaborative developments to enlarge its unique free farrowing research and demonstration capability and flexible flooring for fattening pigs.

What would be your ideal research project, assuming no barriers!
I would choose to establish personalised animal nutrition strategies on the basis of non-invasive biomarkers for the benefit of optimal resource efficiency of individual animals and/or groups of animals.

Whilst there is an increasing application of this concept in human nutrition, especially in relationship to health, this has yet to materialise for animal nutrition and feeding strategies. However, an increasing amount and type of data is now collectable from (individual) animals through a wide range of sensor technologies. Integrating such data with bio-marker read-outs of multi-(omic-)assayed non-invasive samples, e.g. saliva, faecal, urine (excreta), milk or, (thinking outside the box), perhaps even breath samples, that show sensitivity to host nutrition, health and the interaction between those two in a series of targeted research projects, could result in nutritional strategies that optimise feed efficiency with minimal environmental footprint.

Although this might be considered science-fiction, with a multi-disciplinary approach this ‘man-on-the-moon’ goal might very well be within our reach!.

How did you arrive at doing what you do now?
Born and raised on a farm in the wee Dutch village Ter Aar, I grew up always looking after animals. My task was to feed the pigs. I always wanted to become a farmer. However, studying Animal Sciences at Wageningen University got me hooked to research (parasitology, parasite-immunology, animal nutrition).

After graduating, a Wageningen PhD followed in Animal Nutrition on prebiotics in young pigs. I then started as a post-doc at the former Scottish Agricultural College (SAC), Edinburgh, in 1998. I promised myself initially staying for two years and not a day longer! I remain in Edinburgh to this day at what is now known as SRUC. Here I progressed from post-doc, via researcher and senior researcher, to Head of Monogastric Science Research Centre / Professor of Animal Nutrition and Health.

My research and teaching interests have always been connected to nutrition, and may be summarised as nutritional sensitivity of animal production, health, and environmental footprint. I have been fortunate to undertake strategic and applied studies, in poultry, pigs and sheep, but also in laboratory rodents, and in partnership with academics and industry alike. Discipline-based concepts across animal species have been the basis of my academic career, and is also a main driver for our Centre.

You have been working on alternative proteins for pig and poultry for a while now. Which alternative protein(s) do you think will be the most useful and why?
No easy answer for this; no single solution. I still see great possibilities for our home-grown legumes (beans, peas, lupines), provided arable farmers get the right incentive for sufficient sustained production. However, there are many other protein-rich sources already being used as animal feeds, if the price is right, e.g. DDGS, rapeseed meal, sunflower meal etc., and newer commodities at different stages of development, including the much-discussed insect proteins and single cell proteins. I am also expecting a careful reintroduction of processed animal proteins to livestock feeding.

As our ability improves to extract protein from any natural resource, there is the possibility of protein-rich sources that may currently not have been considered. This, together with a strategic use of protease enzymes, would allow for greater resource efficiency, especially from protein sources that are difficult to ingest, digest and utilised by monogastric livestock. In that respect, if we recognise that Mother Nature can breakdown any protein found in organic sources over time, then harnessing the enzymes involved in those processes and turning them to work for us, a priori may provide great future opportunities for novel protein sources.

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Jos Houdijk | CIEL