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alevin truite. © inra

Research themes in PHASE division

Updated on 02/13/2018
Published on 01/28/2013

 Three core tasks guide the research conducted by the Animal Physiology and Livestock Systems (PHASE) Division: 

  • Developing livestock techniques, practices and systems which combine economic, social and environmental performance and animal health and welfare;
  • Understanding and controlling mechanisms used in the development of phenotypes, behaviour and products in mammals, birds and fish;
  • Establishing animal selection criteria to meet the challenges of ensuring global food security and production systems which are efficient and respectful of the environment, natural resources and animal welfare.

The general objective of our research is to generate the knowledge needed to transition livestock systems towards a multi-performance model by simultaneously mobilising agroecological principles (the stimulation of natural processes, for example) and predictive biology approaches (guidance tools and models).

In the next 5 to 10 years, our most important goals address major challenges for sustainability in livestock farming:

  • economic challenges related to global food security, competitiveness, farming revenues, and regional development, which can be met by increasing the efficiency and robustness of animals and systems to supply valuable products and maximise the number of services provided by livestock farms,
  • environmental and climate challenges, which require prioritising the use of local resources for which there is otherwise low demand; limiting waste at the source and re-using whatever can be;
  • public health challenges, which require reducing the use of undesirable substances (e.g. antibiotics, hormones);
  • societal challenges, which require livestock farming conditions which are respectful of animal welfare and health.

 Research is organised into 4 subject areas (SA) which structure the division’s activities and contribute to the #objectives of the orientation document #INRA2025.

Feed resources (SA F)

Effective use of feed resources remains a major research priority for the division due to the impact this has on the sustainability of livestock farming (economic, environmental, and in terms of animal health and product quality). Scientific priorities focus onnew animal feed resources, locally produced if possible (e.g. derived from the agrifood industry, bioenergy, yeast, bacteria, insects, microalgae...) andnew feed systems which reduce waste and emissions – of nitrogen and methane in particular. Our aim is to make animal production a part of the circular economy more than it has been in the past, by finding new uses for resources and by-products which are of little or no value in human nutrition, and for livestock farming waste, as a way of creating added value and reducing pollution.

The aim of research in this subject area is the development of efficient feed rations and strategies for different species and livestock systems.

15% of the division’s scientific staff is working on SA F. The core scientific discipline involved is “animal feed and nutrition”, along with endocrinology-metabolism, zootechnics and modelling.

Animals (SA A)

Here the aim is to achieve multi-performance for each animal (efficiency, robustness and welfare) based on rearing conditions and on variations (in terms of resources, climate, pests, and technical and decision-making factors).

Here the aim is to maximise the performance of the animal, in terms of efficiency, robustness and welfare, when faced with variations of resources, climate, pests, and technical and decision making factors. To achieve this, we strive towards thecoadaptation of animals and rearing environments, which requires greater knowledge both of underlying mechanisms in behavioural development and of different functions, from conception to phenotype expression in adult animals and the identification of environmental factors which cause variation and condition adaptive responses.  Our goal is to increase individually-centred approaches (rather than the 'average animal’ model) todevelop precision livestock farming.

Scientific priorities focus on:

  • the conditions in which animal welfare is expressed in conjunction with environment – the role of perinatal experiences on behavioural neurobiology, the influence of epigenetic mechanisms and digestive microbiota on behavioural expression, individual variability of responses;
  • efficient reproduction practices in a context of decreased use of hormonal treatments by stimulating natural processes and creating biomarkers instead;
  • compromise between productive and non-productive functions with regard to reserves which determine the robustness of an animal;
  • resistance to disease in a context where antibiotics are no longer used;
  • adaptive responses to climate change.

Major methodological challenges must be met to characterise phenotypes and adaptive responses, to identify and validate relevant biomarkers, and to adapt measurement to high throughput for individual animal monitoring aimed at implementing precision livestock farming, which allows individual variability in animals to be followed.

45% of the division’s scientific staff is working on SA A. Its main disciplines are “reproduction and development biology” and “neuroscience and behavioural science”, along with small teams of physiologists, zootechnicians, engineers specialised in modelling and scientific computing, and specialists in imaging and bioinformatics. SA A research involves close cooperation with the Animal Genetics and Animal Health Divisions, in particular for the GISA and SelGen metaprogrammes.

Animal Products (SA AP)

The challenge here is to understand and predict the consequences of livestock farming on food production and yields (milk, meat, eggs, foie gras, etc.) as well as the sensory, nutritional, technological and health qualities. The goal is to find compromises and obtain high-value products made in conditions which meet system-level multi-performance goals, based on the assumption that the production method itself will become one of the determining factors in product quality.

Scientific priorities focus on:

  • an analysis of the mechanisms involved in the development and function of productive tissue and organs (muscle, udder, avian oviduct, liver in palmipeds) in response to variations in the environment (including early-stage);
  • modelling of organ function, which requires an understanding of how different levels of regulation interact;
  • the development of forecasting tools for product quality in relation to livestock farming practices and the identification of the most robust biomarkers in various contexts;

The aim of researchis topropose tools and methods to predict product quantity and quality based on production methods for healthy and sustainable food systems. Within the limits of our fields of expertise, our research will also focus on developing other animal products (leathers, for example) in addition to edibles  with the aim of optimising overall efficiency in production .

20% of the division’s scientific staff is working on SA AP. The core scientific discipline involved is “endocrinology-metabolism” and researchers in the field of nutrition and developmental biology also contribute significantly.

Livestock systems (SA L)

Here the aim is to develop combined solutions in terms of resources, animals and livestock farming practices for specific environments in order to generate economic and environmental performance and optimise animal welfare and health in different environments. A systemic approach to meeting the challenges faced by livestock farming calls for a shift in research practices. The goal is not to prove a hypothesis but to combine different elements to reach a goal by iteratively associating experimentation and modelling, and assessing combined solutions using criteria that are relevant to goals.

In recent years, several agroecology-inspired systems which break with conventional models have been tested or planned in response to a) specific issues affecting a given sector: environmental challenges (water-efficient aquaculture, ruminant farming which uses fewer natural resources), livestock farming challenges (foie gras made without force feeding), or b) general issues affecting livestock farming (milk production and crop-livestock farming in a context of climate change , integrated health management of monogastric livestock without medication ,  and pig production which combines organic specifications and precision livestock farming. Parallel to this, a meta-model of livestock system function has been developed. The task now is to apply the different disciplines needed for the removal of identified problems and obstacles. One important shift will be a multicriteria assessment of these systems with the aim of identifying economic and social criteria  and the services rendered in conjunction with the environmental impact assessment .

Within the division, priority thematic areas are:

  • the implementation of generic models of livestock system function, to assess the consequences of multiple technical choices and subsequently identify and prioritise specific research themes to examine in the SA F, SA A and SA AP;
  • the creation of indicators of robustness, resilience and efficiency in animal groups and systems;
  • an analysis of interaction between system components to assess synergies and antagonisms in relation to multi-performance expectations;
  • the development of methods to identify and aggregate relevant indicators for economic, social and environmental aspects, including services rendered.

Key-words: food, feedstock, nutrition, livestock system, sustainability, environment, economic results, animal products, production, quality, behavior,  reproduction, embryo development, animal welfare