For more than 125 years, the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has been home to leading researchers studying everything from animal nutrition to translational animal sciences. The college has been the destination for gaining hands-on experience with production and companion animals and is the source of Virginia Cooperative Extension and outreach programs that sustain and grow the animal industries in the commonwealth, including developing new leaders through extensive youth programming efforts.
Today, the departments of Dairy Science and Animal and Poultry Sciences – which include the former departments of Poultry Science and Animal Science – are being combined into a new School of Animal Sciences, which strengthens their impact on Virginia, the nation, and the world.
“The synergies created when combining these two extremely talented groups into one academic unit is going to allow us to harness our strengths and create a formidable force in the animal sciences discipline across the globe,” said David Gerrard, director of the school, which is housed in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
The new school, with nearly 700 students and over 40 faculty members, is currently ranked fourth and sixth nationally in the number of grants and total grant dollars, respectively, secured for such programming.
Formation of the school also allows the college to boast one of the largest dairy-centric faculties assembled in the U.S. Programs in dairy sciences include but are not limited to production efficiency, reproductive performance, One Health, and climate change. The benefit of such programming breadth better prepares students for careers in dairy science and those industries tasked with supporting the sector.
“The scope and vastness of the research programming in this new academic unit will have wide-ranging impacts, and we are excited to see how it continues to grow,” said Alan Grant, dean of the college.
With an annual economic impact of $70 billion annually, agriculture is by far the largest private industry in Virginia, and products from the animal industry represent five of the top commodities produced. Faculty in this new school will help the animal industry in Virginia thrive and grow by creating a pipeline for new talent to lead these efforts and will function to disseminate new technology to the industry through applied research programming, much of which is a direct result of a highly engaged set of specialists from Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Students enrolled in this school, as well as those from across campus, will have access to a larger array of classes and hands-on learning experiences with animals that were more difficult to maintain through smaller departmental structures. Further, undergraduate research opportunities that foster closer working relationships with professors are hallmark of both programs and these strengths are expected to continue and even expand with the new school, Gerrard said.
While the school will continue to lead efforts to help increase agriculture outputs that are required to feed a global population of nearly 10 billion by 2050, the school will continue to push the envelope of animal sciences discovery by leveraging animals for betterment of human health and well-being.
Many of the scientists studying animal productivity also use animals to model and study those factors that impact the human condition. From this vantage point alone, studying animal sciences is a popular choice for many high school students because graduates can go directly into the animal industry or veterinary medicine without eliminating the option of becoming a doctor, pharmacist, or biomedical researcher. Areas of discovery with this type of duality in purpose include anorexia nervosa, infertility, infant nutrition, learning, fitness, obesity, and more.
Many in the school also are leading the way with new SmartFarm Innovation Network technologies, such as Robin White who is using robotic sensors inside cattle to monitor health; Fernando Biase who uses data analytics to examine infertility issues in cattle; and Sally Johnson, the Paul Mellon Distinguish Chair of Agriculture, who uses computer learning to create appropriate diets for horses. These scientists are part of the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture.
As the School of Animal Sciences, the unit is expanding its scope to include companion animal research and outreach programming that started in the last few years. As part of this programming effort, researchers such as Erica Feuerbacher are studying the behavior of dogs in animal shelters and the procedures necessary to adopt these individuals throughout the community.
All of these changes are coinciding with the creation of some of the most modern and up to-date-facilities of any animal science program in the U.S.
On Plantation Road, a new equine facility is being built to support a highly visible equestrian program. A few miles down the road at Kentland Farm, there is a state-of-the-art cattle-feeding facility equipped with the latest electronic feed monitoring system and a 60-sow, farrow to finishing facility that provides pigs for several highly productive biomedical researchers.
Furthermore, there are two new, technology-driven buildings nearing completion on Glade Road to support the poultry industry and the annual $1 billion in gate receipts. Additional support structures also are being built that are part of Phase I livestock building initiative support by Virginia through Agency 229. This is on the heels of the new Large Animal Metabolic Research Laboratory at Kentland Farm and the William M. Etgen Large Animal Learning Center on Plantation Road dedicated last fall.
“The new school builds on a strong history of excellence across both departments and creates a massive tailwind that allows us to be leaders in animal sciences for years to come,” Gerrard said.