Oftentimes, when we think about science and research in agriculture, we imagine things like biotechnology, soil health, and nutrition. In other words, crops. But science is also a crucial component for animal agriculture. There is obviously a heavy focus on veterinary care, such as living conditions, animal health, and nutrition. But for researchers like Bo Harstine, the important research comes before an animal is even conceived! Bo is a scientist working for Select Sires, Inc., which provides semen for artificial insemination. Bo shared a glimpse into his work with me.
You do research for animal agriculture. For someone that isn’t familiar with that, can you explain what it is you do and how it benefits animals and farmers?
Many companies have Research and Development (R&D) teams whose job is to improve the company’s products or improve the manufacturing of products. In theory, enhancements made to a product or to its production can translate to more profit for the company, as well as happier consumers. In simple terms, I conduct research that makes cattle reproduction more efficient, and both farmers and consumers benefit. The main customers of my company are farmers who utilize artificial insemination (AI) to breed their cows. Producers/farmers who purchase semen from our bulls trust that they’re buying a fertile and genetically-superior product. It is my job to be sure any collections from bulls that do not meet our strict quality requirements are not sold.
Additionally, my job as a Researcher for Select Sires takes on many other aspects. For example, I work with the bulls we own to be sure they’re healthy and producing semen of the best quality. The company owns over 2000 bulls, so my coworkers and I are always working to be sure the “supply” of the most popular bulls meets “demand.” As the dairy industry utilizes genomic evaluations more and more often, the bulls we choose to market are becoming younger and younger. I work with our young sires, which we often receive when they’re still drinking milk, to be sure that they grow and develop properly so that they can begin producing semen for the market as soon as possible. Also, I often work with bulls on a case-by- case basis when they are suboptimal in their production. We pride ourselves in our ability to supply the best, most up-to- date genetics. Our Research, Veterinary, Genetics, and Processing teams work closely together to be sure the correct bulls are producing semen at the right time.
I also circulate through our Processing and Quality Control Laboratories to assist in processing and freezing the semen prior to being sold. There are many different production procedures that need to be optimized and monitored on a daily basis to be sure that we preserve the fertility of the samples. Lastly, I serve as a liaison for our company to the scientific community. I attend scientific conferences to present data from our in-house experiments, keep track of the latest research from the dairy and beef industries, and mingle with scientists from both private industry and from universities. When we choose to collaborate with researchers from other areas, I coordinate and plan experiments and assist in interpreting the findings.
Overall, I spread my time among many different areas related to cattle reproduction. By ensuring farmers have access to elite cattle genetics, consumers who buy dairy and beef products see the trickle-down benefits that result from better producing and more efficient cattle.
You grew up on a dairy farm. I grew up on a fruit/vegetable/row crop farm. Sometimes they can seem like worlds apart. What was your favorite thing about growing up there?
Growing up on a dairy farm instilled a love for the people who work in agriculture and food production. I contemplated careers that weren’t agriculture-related while attending college, but I quickly realized that a career that didn’t involve working with farmers and producers wasn’t an option. The attitudes and culture of folks in the agricultural community are contagious. In my opinion, farmers are some of the most robust, entertaining, intelligent, and compassionate people I know.
As I become older, I am increasingly appreciative growing up on a farm. As I watch my peers (other millennials) go into the workforce, I am sometimes disappointed in their work ethic, ingenuity, and their ability to make educated decisions. I’m confident that growing up on farm, participating in 4-H, and being financially responsible from a young age have contributed greatly to my early career accomplishments and in my personal life.
One of the more obvious hobbies I’ve taken from growing up on a dairy farm is showing and owning cattle. While many of the animals I owned were dispersed while I was in grad school (you gotta pay the bills, right?!), I’ve started owning cattle again in partnerships with friends and family. I love observing and helping out at purebred dairy cattle shows, and I look forward to increasing my participation in the future.
How did you go from the dairy farm to your current work? What kind of education was required and how did you know this is what you wanted to do?
I’ve always enjoyed scientific subjects in school. I also knew from a young age that I wouldn’t take over any ownership responsibilities of my family’s dairy farm. I was very interested in veterinary or human medicine, so I chose to attend Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA where I received a bachelor’s degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology. I entered college fully intending to apply to and go on to medical school, but my interest in pursuing medicine began to diminish once I realized that I probably wouldn’t be able to stay involved in the dairy industry.
Fortunately, a great opportunity presented itself the summer before my senior year of college: I received grant money to perform a summer internship of my choosing. I was familiar with Select Sires, Inc. because my family had used SS genetics in our own herd, so I contacted Clif Marshall, who was Vice President of Processing and Research at SS during that time. I inquired about whether his department could utilize a Research Intern, and Clif explained that they had never actually had an intern position to offer. However, once I clarified that he wouldn’t have to pay me (I was funded through the grant I’d received), he speedily agreed that I could come! I had a great experience that summer, and it inspired me to apply to graduate programs in Animal Science departments with the intention of studying male reproductive physiology. Select Sires wanted to keep me close, so they offered to establish and fund a joint graduate associateship with a faculty member at The Ohio State University in the Department of Animal Science (the associateship is now called the SS-OSU- CE Marshall Graduate Research Associateship after Clif Marshall).
During my time in graduate school, I studied the physiology and endocrinology of bull puberty under my advisor, Mike Day. I obtained both my M.S. and Ph.D. in Reproductive Physiology from Ohio State which I just recently completed in December 2016. I was offered a job as a Research and Quality Assurance Specialist at Select Sires, which I accepted, and I began working full-time in January 2017. My advice to young people is to explore many different career options! I would have never known that I liked agricultural research if I had not “made my own” internship in this industry!
What do you think is the biggest problem facing animal agriculture right now, and what do you think the solution is?
I love discussing the public’s perception of science and agriculture. With less than 2% of the U.S. population producing the food we eat, there is a huge disconnect forming between people and their food. I probably come across as nerdy or overly passionate during some discussions, but I can’t help but to advocate for farmers when I hear people express misinformed opinions of food production.
Regarding these misconceptions about agriculture, I believe the best way to inform people about where their food comes from is to increase transparency and education. I believe too few young people are exposed to food animal agriculture. A lack of education about food production can quickly lead to incorrect assumptions in today’s age of social media. I see daily examples of memes and videos depicting absurd aspects of farming. Many times, internet content is used in a context that is incorrect or intentionally meant to misinform. Oftentimes, the phrase, “Don’t always trust what you read on the internet,” is absolutely true. Hopefully, ag-education will not diminish in the future. I encourage agricultural companies to be proactive in how they are portrayed, as well.
What question do people never ask that you wished they did ask, and what is your answer to that question?
I wish more people would ask, “Why should we trust scientists to tell us where (and how) our food is produced?”
I’ve been accused of “selling out” by working as a private-industry researcher. It’s been suggested that my opinions are biased or “bought” because my salary comes from a company that produces a proprietary product. My job is often equated to working for other privatized companies like Monsanto, for example. The marketing and research power of these companies is substantial, sure, but that doesn’t mean that the products and information they produce are lacking in safety or efficacy.
My coworkers and I, just like most other scientists, were trained by the faculty of major research universities. We know how to conduct science in an unbiased manner. I gain no monetary or career advantage in producing inaccurate or unsafe experimental results. It is actually considered unacceptable in the scientific community to manipulate or publish erroneous data. Furthermore, I pride in myself in working for a company/industry that allows me to share my research publicly regardless of whether the results are exciting, boring, you name it! We’ve got to anticipate having to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050, so we need all of the research we can from both private industry and public universities!
About Bo: Bo grew up on a dairy farm in Dundee, Ohio where his family milked around 100 Holstein and Ayrshire cattle. He was in 4-H and enjoyed showing dairy cattle at the local and state level while growing up. Bo went to Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology. Upon entering college, Bo was sure he wanted to go to medical school, but his upbringing in agriculture led him to pursue an important summer internship with Select Sires, Inc. The experience convinced him that he wanted to work with cattle as a career, so he attended graduate school at The Ohio State University on a joint associateship between OSU Department of Animal Sciences and Select Sires. After completing both his M.S. and Ph.D. at OSU in Reproductive Physiology and Endocrinology this past December, he started working for Select Sires full time as a Research Scientist.