Kevin Shingfield on Understanding the Biology of Ruminant Livestock

Scientist Interview: April 2011

Kevin J. ShingfieldAccording to a recent analysis of Essential Science IndicatorsSM from Thomson Reuters, the research of Dr. Kevin Shingfield achieved the highest percent  increase in total citations in the field of Agricultural Sciences. His current record in this field includes 20 papers cited 337 times between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2010.

Shingfield is Professor of Nutritional Physiology in Animal Production Research at MTT Agrifood Research Finland. He is also a member of Feed for Health, a European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) action research network for animal nutrition and human health, and a deputy section editor for Animal, an international journal of animal bioscience.

Below, he talks with about his highly cited research in the agricultural sciences.

SW: Would you tell us a bit about your educational background and research experiences?

I received my first degree from the University of Nottingham, UK, and a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow, UK. After completing the doctorate in 1996 I spent four years as a post-doctoral research scientist at MTT Research Finland and then completed a three-year post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Reading, UK. I then returned to Finland as a Principal Research Scientist and was awarded a Research Professorship in 2009.

Virtually all of the research activities during this time have been focused on improving our understanding of the biology of ruminant livestock to improve productivity, product quality and/or decrease the release of nitrogen and methane into the environment.

SW: Many of your papers in our database appear to focus on dairy cows and diet. Would you say this is the main focus of your research?

"In the next decade I can see that research to support innovations in the ruminant livestock industries will involve more detailed studies of the basic biology of productive animals to further our understanding of responses to specific nutrients or changes in diet composition."

Most of the research has been directed towards understanding the role of diet or specific dietary ingredients on key physiological processes in lactating cows. However, research has also included experiments in growing cattle and recent collaborations have also included studies in goats and sheep.

SW: One of your most cited original papers in our database is the 2004 Journal of Dairy Science paper, "Evaluation of milk urea nitrogen as a diagnostic of protein feeding," (Nousiainen J, Shingfield KJ, Huhtanan p, 87[2]: 386-98, February 2004). Would you tell us a little about this paper—your goals and findings, and where your group has taken this research since its publication?

This paper reported the results of a meta-analysis of published data to re-examine the value of measuring concentrations of a natural metabolite in milk (urea) as a practical tool to monitor the feeding of dietary protein in lactating cows. Protein is the most expensive ingredient in the diet and therefore feeding the right amounts is essential to profitable milk production. Feeding diets containing excessive amounts of protein can also have a negative effect on cow health and fertility and results in substantial losses of nitrogen into the environment.

Our research was essentially an extension of earlier original studies examining the potential of measuring the levels of urea in milk to make informed decisions on the accuracy of protein feeding in dairy cows. Results from the meta-analysis confirmed that concentrations of urea do broadly reflect the efficiency of protein utilization in lactating cows. Concentrations of urea in milk are measured routinely on Finnish farms and this research has helped in establishing thresholds to indicate when more or less protein should be included in the diet.

Due to changes in research funding priorities much more emphasis has been placed on developing diets and feeding systems to lower enteric methane production but we are still continuing research on improving protein utilization in cattle.

SW: Last year, you had a paper in the British Journal of Nutrition, "Effect of incremental amounts of fish oil in the diet on ruminal lipid metabolism in growing steers," (Shingfield KJ et al., 104[1]: 56-66, 14 July 2010). Please tell us about this study and its findings.

There is clear clinical evidence to indicate that long-chain n-3 fatty acids have beneficial effects on the etiology of certain chronic human diseases. Meat and milk provide a significant amount of fat in most western type diets and therefore increasing the amounts of beneficial n-3 fatty acids in ruminant-derived foods offers the opportunity to improve the long-chain n-3 status of consumers.

The recent paper reported the findings from an experiment in steers examining how much of the long-chain n-3 in dietary fish oil supplements escaped hydrogenation in the rumen and was therefore available for incorporation into meat and milk. This experiment indicated that depending on the amount of fish oil in the diet less than 10% of the valuable n-3 fatty acids were available to the ruminant animal which explains why rumen-protected fish oil supplements need to be fed for this purpose.

"There is clear clinical evidence to indicate that long-chain n-3 fatty acids have beneficial effects on the etiology of certain chronic human diseases."

However, fish oil in the diet of growing cattle was shown to have profound effects on the hydrogenation of other dietary fats in the rumen and could be used to increase other fatty acids in meat and milk, cis-9, trans-11 conjugated linoleic acid, for example.

What is not clear from this research is what actually happens to the long-chain n-3 fatty acids in the rumen. Understanding the metabolic fate of fish oil fatty acids in ruminant animals and associated changes in ruminal microbial ecology is a major research priority for us at the moment.

SW: What would you say is the ultimate goal or benefit of this work?

Our research is directed towards providing a platform for science-based innovations in the ruminant livestock sector. Not all of the research has an immediate benefit but in the medium-term our research has generated the necessary knowledge base to enhance the nutritional quality of ruminant meat and milk, for example. This, along with other research activities in our group such as examining ways to increase cow longevity or lower methane production, are ultimately directed towards developing more sustainable ruminant production systems in the future.

SW: In what directions do you see your field (or key aspects thereof) going in the next decade?

In the next decade I can see that research to support innovations in the ruminant livestock industries will involve more detailed studies of the basic biology of productive animals to further our understanding of responses to specific nutrients or changes in diet composition. Undertaking this research will require a more multidisciplinary or systems-biology approach involving scientists with expertise over a wider range of biological sciences.

In the near future it will become more commonplace to see reports documenting changes in gene expression along with more traditional physiological measures in ruminant livestock. In the medium-term, I suspect that it will become feasible to perform far more ambitious investigations that utilize the most recent advances in the life sciences. For example, the use of next generation high-throughput sequencers would allow significant progress in our understanding of the role of diet and host ruminant genome on the composition and function of the rumen microbiome.

These projections do of course assume that funding bodies and the ruminant livestock industry as a whole continue to recognize the value and importance of research in the agricultural sciences and are prepared to invest in both fundamental and more applied studies.End

Kevin Shingfield
Professor of Nutritional Physiology
MTT Agrifood Research Finland
Animal Production Research
Jokioinen, Finland


Shingfield KJ, et al., "Effect of dietary fish oil on biohydrogenation of fatty acids and milk fatty acid content in cows," Anim. Sci. 77: 165-79, Part 1, August 2003 with 111 cites. Source: Essential Science Indicators from Clarivate Analytics.



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