Advancing Poultry Science

Groundbreaking research, planned facilities, improved student recruitment strengthen UGA's Department of Poultry Science

The selection process is underway for a firm to create the architectural design for a new poultry science building estimated to break ground in 2022 on the University of Georgia’s South Campus.

The $60 million project will expand research capabilities and opportunities for researchers in UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences to collaborate with partners including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Poultry Research Center in Athens, as well as UGA’s Poultry Diagnostic and Research Center. In addition to public funding, CAES is seeking to raise $27 million in the first phase of private funding for the project.

“Private support for this new facility will help ensure that our faculty remain leaders in their fields,” said Mary Ann Parsons, senior director of development for CAES. “This support creates an incentive for trail-blazing students to study poultry science at UGA, helps deliver transformative research to the world and paves the way for new research partnerships that support the industry, create new businesses and generate new jobs.”

Groundbreaking research

Assistant Professor Laura Ellestad

Laura Ellestad recently received a $475,000 grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to identify the biological mechanisms in broiler chickens that regulate bird growth and metabolism.

The prospect of a new facility within the next four years is an exciting one for Laura Ellestad, assistant professor in the Department of Poultry Science and a member of the steering committee for the new building.

Ellestad recently received a $475,000 grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to identify the biological mechanisms in broiler chickens that regulate bird growth and metabolism. The research is critical to the poultry industry due to regulatory changes and shifts in consumer preference that have led to an increase in antibiotic-free agricultural production, including that of broiler chickens.

“For the past 50 years, producers have been using various antibiotics at subtherapeutic levels in all of animal agriculture to help increase meat and milk production. However, even when the tools became available, little work was done to see how or why using these antibiotics was working,” Ellestad said.

Without the use of antibiotics, growth rates in broiler chickens can be inconsistent and less efficient, causing potential production losses.

“We don’t know whether they are preventing pathogens from taking hold in broilers or how they improve growth efficiency. With antibiotics, birds were growing bigger and more efficiently for the same amount of feed given to them. Now there are inconsistencies, with some birds growing bigger, with more meat, than other birds on the same amount of feed,” Ellestad said. “Now that much of the industry has stopped using these products, production efficiency is suffering.”

A physiologist and endocrinologist, Ellestad is interested in why some birds thrive and others do not have the expected growth under the same conditions.

“All commercial broilers are highly genetically selected for the best traits and producers grow them in very similar situations and environments, yet you end up with extremes. Some birds are very efficient in their growth and some are not,” Ellestad said. “My interest is in what is causing that. What are the metabolic differences between these highly efficient birds and the ones that don’t grow as efficiently?”

Because hormones naturally present in the birds are major regulators of growth and metabolism, Ellestad will study how both high-performing birds and low- performing birds metabolize their feed at the molecular level by examining levels of these hormones and their receptors to see whether they contribute to bird-to-bird differences.

“The differences in those processes can suggest how efficiently birds use the dietary nutrients they are consuming,” she said.

In addition to metabolic processes, Ellestad will delve into how the gut microbiome of the birds might contribute to growth and metabolic efficiency by sequencing the microbial populations present and seeing how the metabolism of the microorganisms themselves might influence intestinal amino, organic, and fatty acids levels.

Ellestad, who joined CAES in 2017, said she is excited to serve on the steering committee for the new poultry science building, which will incorporate research, teaching, office and student spaces.

“Science has evolved a lot since this (existing) building was constructed. Research is much more collaborative and this new facility will give us the opportunity to have bigger, more open research spaces and allow the faculty to have more collaborative opportunities,” she said. “From a practical point of view, it not only helps having updated facilities and equipment, but the expertise of your colleagues. When you start talking to people about the things they are doing and working on, it can spark ideas you can incorporate into your own research and vice versa.”

“This new facility will give us the opportunity to have bigger, more open research spaces and allow the faculty to have more collaborative opportunities.”

Recruiting the best

A new facility will also help attract new students and faculty to UGA, said Todd Applegate, professor and head of the Department of Poultry Science.

Poultry Science Department Head Todd Applegate in a lab

Poultry Science Department Head Todd Applegate in a lab at UGA’s Poultry Science building, which opened in 1959 as the Livestock and Poultry Building. Groundbreaking for a new building is slated for spring 2022.

“In this part of campus, there are not that many spaces, besides the Science Library, for students to come and hang out between classes,” he said. “This building will be well positioned to attract students to use the space and will be designed with more student-centered spaces. One of the dreams is to have the space to host things such as undergraduate research poster projects and recruitment events for students.”

Under a new transfer agreement with the University of North Georgia (UNG) — with its main campus situated in Gainesville, Georgia — UNG students interested in careers in the poultry industry will now have access to more poultry science-based resources and a streamlined path to pursue an undergraduate degree at UGA.

The agreement builds on an existing partnership between the two universities and gives transfer students assurance that courses will transfer seamlessly.

“Students still have to qualify for admission to UGA as a transfer student, so it doesn’t circumvent that, but it does expedite the pathway. It’s a win-win to get the associate degree at UNG and bachelor’s at UGA,” Applegate said. “What distinguishes our program is the focus on the whole animal — it’s much more tangible to talk through the science of that. Our program touches on so many different disciplines beyond what biology may cover, such as health and disease, preventative medicine, engineering concepts and animal behavior.”

In order to reach students before college, UGA’s Department of Poultry Science has also designed a new high school introductory course into poultry science and avian biology as part of the Georgia Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources Pathways. The purpose is to establish an in-depth understanding and appreciation of Georgia’s top agricultural industry among high school students.

Approximately 168,000 Georgian jobs are connected directly or indirectly to the poultry industry, and producers in 101 counties generate more than $1 million worth of poultry at the farm level according to UGA research.

The high school presentations and activities introduce students to terminology and basic knowledge of modern poultry science and the commercial poultry sector, including anatomy and physiology, reproduction, genetics, nutrition, conventional and alternative housing/production methods, poultry varieties, avian health, processing, marketing and more.

“There are so many applications of STEM in the poultry industry, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence. For students looking for real-world applications, I think they need those real-world applications much earlier to think about their careers. As we go into technology applications, this next generation is ready for that,” said Applegate.

To support the new poultry science facility at CAES, contact Mary Ann Parsons at parsonsm@uga.edu or by calling 706-542-3390.