Q&A with a swine nutritionist
Donald Skinner is a swine nutritionist with Molesworth Farm Supply and has been in that role since January 2013. He’s a member of the OAC Alumni Association board of directors and sat down with us recently to chat about his role, his love for the industry and highlights from his time on campus.
Tell us about your job.
To put it simply, I develop feeding programs for pigs. That includes least-cost formulating diets, researching and evaluating new feeding programs or strategies, and ensuring the feed is the quality needed to maximize animal performance and producer profitability. This involves a variety of things, such as ingredient testing to stay on top of nutrient changes that occur in ingredients throughout the year and from one crop year to the next. Another aspect is product evaluation; there are a large number of feed additives out there, in ranging degree of quality, and part of my job is evaluating them to identify products that provide opportunities for cost-saving or improved animal performance that our customers can benefit from.
Because I am the only nutritionist at Molesworth, I’ve got a fairly diverse schedule and spend about 60-70 percent of my time in office with the rest split between farm visits and industry events like seminars and conferences.
At times I feel like the term nutritionist is an overly simplified name, because animal production is rarely about one specific thing. There is a large interaction between animal health, husbandry, nutrition and genetics. When you work in one of those areas you need to stay connected to people in other areas so we can all respond to challenges and improve as a collective.
Tell us about Molesworth.
Molesworth Farm Supply is a family company that was started by Ron Coghlin in 1977, and his son Andrew is the president now. There are about 65 employees that are split roughly into thirds between office and sales staff, production and trucking. Molesworth is a multi-species retail mill that makes feed for a variety of farm types across Southern Ontario, though swine feed is a large percentage of what we manufacture. It’s a little over 80 percent of our volume. One of the things I love about working for Molesworth is that they keep the producer at the fore of what we do on a daily basis. If our customers are doing well, it is better for us all.
How do you keep up-to-date on nutritional information that is constantly changing?
One of the first things is staying in touch with my network. I’ve developed relationships with producers and other nutritionists in the industry and rely on communication with them throughout the year. We also have some great industry seminars and conferences that help me stay up-to-date. I also stay in touch with a former classmate of mine who now works at the University as a swine nutrition professor, Lee-Anne Huber. Academic resources like that help me see what’s coming down the research pipeline.
We also have a number of suppliers who bring research to the table. Often it is research that is supportive of the product that they are trying to sell, but it’s still an important part of information transfer in the industry.
Does your university experience help you decipher what’s high quality research versus marketing?
Hugely. I took a course called Poultry Nutrition with Prof. Jim Atkinson when I was in fourth year and, while I couldn’t tell you many of the fine-detailed nutritional needs of a chicken, he hammered home lessons about critical thinking and how to evaluate information. I think doing a master’s degree is also as much about developing those critical thinking skills as it is about the specific topic you are researching. There is so much information and data we have to weed through and being able to figure out what’s “foo foo dust” and what’s useful is a pretty important skill.
Why were you drawn to study agriculture in university?
I grew up outside of Listowel where my family has a hog operation and I chose U of G because I wanted a connection with agriculture in my degree. I didn’t really have much of a plan beyond that. My family has a long “agrarian history” and I felt a strong connection to that history and the industry.
I thought I wanted to be a high school teacher after university and that plan stayed in place until, with a month left in school, I bumped into Prof. Kees de Lange. I was ready to accept an offer to teacher’s college but, having taken his swine nutrition course in fourth year, I asked him about the possibility of doing my master’s after I finished my B.Ed. His response was, “Why don’t you do the master’s first?” And here we are.
As I was getting near the end of university, I had that same draw to maintain a connection with agriculture and with the pig industry.
Tell us about your time on campus; what were some of the highlights?
Earlier in my undergrad I played varsity soccer and was playing six days a week, so I didn’t think about a lot beyond school, soccer and having a bit of fun. Towards the end of my undergrad I got more involved within OAC and other activities on campus. I also started taking more animal nutrition courses and I think that is when my love of what I do now hit me. The undergrad swine nutrition class I took taught by Prof. Kees de Lange and my time working with him as a master’s student was a highlight.
I was part of the Canadian Agri-Marketing Association (CAMA) team in third and fourth years, and co-president in fourth year. Coming from a science background, CAMA gave me exposure to the “business side of thinking” and I think that has helped me professionally. CAMA helped expand my thinking beyond the sciences.
Tell me more about Kees and why he was so important to the industry.
Having the crossover of amazing technical ability and an understanding of the needs of the industry stands out. In my mind, the reason the industry was so quick and willing to support the Kees de Lange Scholarship in Swine Nutrition stems from the impact Kees had on the industry. He had a very unique ability to apply research and to design trials that would become relevant to the industry, and consistently provided value to the industry. I think that is why Molesworth felt compelled to contribute to this scholarship.
The unique thing about Kees was not just that he did industry extension, but how consistently he did it and how impactful the research was. Pretty hard (and would take a lot of time) to detail everything he did, but his research had global impact.
He was also just a great person. He would always take time with people and had an impressive ability to relay technical information at a level people could understand and use. Whether at a meeting with other researchers or at producer events, he could present things in a way that resonated with his audience. I think that’s a large part of why he had a special place in the minds of the industry.
What industry trends are you keeping your eye on?
A big thing for us is reducing or getting rid of use of antibiotics. It’s not just nutrition but animal husbandry changes that will go into reducing our reliance on antibiotics. Another is the change to group housing for gestating sows as part of the new pig code. Everyone will eventually switch over to group housing and that will take some different management styles and potentially some adjusted feeding strategies as well.