During winter break, while many were dusting snow from their front porches and contending with the latest cold front, 15 Virginia Tech faculty members and a future hire got a taste of summer when they traveled across the equator to Pirassununga, Brazil, a municipality in the state of São Paulo.

The cohort attended a joint symposium designed to explore the existing gaps in scientific knowledge that must be addressed before agriculture can produce enough to feed a global population of 9 billion people by 2050. In partnership with the University of São Paulo, the symposium brought together faculty from both universities to discuss how they might address some of these issues through joint collaborations.

“This was a huge opportunity for both Virginia Tech and the University of São Paulo,” said David Gerrard, head of the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech. “We face many of the same hurdles as our Brazilian colleagues and are mutually impassioned to build greater capacity to feed a burgeoning global population. As a global land-grant university, we have a responsibility to the citizenry of the commonwealth and the world to develop and transfer technologies to better equip the planet and its inhabitants to produce adequate food in a sustainable manner. How do we do this? What are key issues holding us back? These were the kinds of questions we explored.”

Funded in part by the college’s Global Programs Office and by the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station, the conference drew close to 100 people, including 60 graduate students and 40 faculty.

Bain Wilson, assistant professor and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences and an expert in applied beef cattle nutrition and management, attended the symposium and enjoyed the opportunity to meet with faculty who share his area of expertise.

“One of the greatest lessons I learned from meeting with the faculty and students at USP is how similar many of the research questions we are trying to answer are,” said Wilson. “Although the types of cattle, forages, and environmental conditions are very different in Brazil, beef cattle producers in both countries face many of the same challenges. We discussed how producers in both countries struggle with knowing how they should manage the nutrition of their beef herds when forage quality is low during the winter or dry season.”

Wilson and Gabe Pent, a Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist focused on ruminant livestock systems at the college’s Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Extension Center, met with a USP faculty member who is interested in alleviating heat stress experienced by cattle in pasture situations.

“We discussed developing a study that investigates how a novel feed additive can improve the growth performance and fertility of replacement beef heifers. Decreasing the effects of heat stress is extremely important in both Brazil and the U.S.,” said Wilson. “Our plan is to design a study that can be conducted at Virginia Tech and possibly replicated in Brazil.”

“The USP faculty showed us incredible hospitality. Adroaldo José Zanella, a professor of animal welfare, took us animal-watching around the campus, which is like a farm tucked into the jungle,” said Feuerbacher (right). “We saw capybaras, toucans, and wild parrots. Although we didn’t see them, the campus is also home to jaguars and maned wolves.”

“The USP faculty showed us incredible hospitality. Adroaldo José Zanella, a professor of animal welfare, took us animal-watching around the campus, which is like a farm tucked into the jungle,” said Feuerbacher (right). “We saw capybaras, toucans, and wild parrots. Although we didn’t see them, the campus is also home to jaguars and maned wolves.”
“The USP faculty showed us incredible hospitality. Adroaldo José Zanella, a professor of animal welfare, took us animal-watching around the campus, which is like a farm tucked into the jungle,” said Feuerbacher (right). “We saw capybaras, toucans, and wild parrots. Although we didn’t see them, the campus is also home to jaguars and maned wolves.”

The trip was also rewarding for Erica Feuerbacher, assistant professor of animal and poultry sciences.

“A few weeks before the conference, a colleague and I received an email from researchers at USP welcoming us and telling us about their research interests and how they aligned with ours. This was really exciting,” she said.

During the symposium, Feuerbacher delivered a talk on using short-term fostering to increase shelter dog welfare.

“They have similar issues to the U.S.: over-filled shelters and a growing stray dog problem. It would be great to put our minds together to explore novel solutions for these problems in both countries,” said Feuerbacher, who was excited by ideas for collaboration that she picked up.

As a result of the symposium, one USP faculty member will visit Virginia Tech for a year-long research sabbatical next year. In addition, between three and six Brazilian graduate students will study topics that include nutrition, heat stress, animal well-being, microbiology, immunology, genetics, and genomics at Virginia Tech.

“The goal is to co-advise these students with a faculty member at USP. By co-advising you create a long-term relationship and greater cohesiveness,” said Gerrard.

Virginia Tech students will also have the opportunity to study in Brazil. Next year, a new, two-week undergraduate wintermester course will bring 20-30 Hokies to Mato Grosso, a state in Brazil steeped in production agriculture.

“This may have been the best and most productive trip I have ever been a part of in terms of watching people begin to think about what they can do together,” said Gerrard.

- Written by Amy Painter