What Iowa can teach the world about pork production, research and innovation

July 21, 2022

This sponsored article has been published in partnership with America’s Cultivation Corridor.

Iowa’s top ranking spot and leadership in research, development and innovation are moving the global pork industry forward.

“Iowa is our nation’s leading producer of pigs. We lead in animal science and we lead in delivering innovation into the industry,” said Mike Roof, Iowa State University’s chief technology officer for vaccines and immunotherapeutic research and innovation platform. “We strive to create ecosystems that bring universities and private and public businesses together to benefit that ecosystem.”

Iowa’s combination of world-class research and diagnostic facilities, high concentration of animal science professionals, growing startup ecosystem, and robust producer education and outreach programs offer a unique advantage as the best place in the world to bring new ideas and innovations for pork production.

Research and diagnostics

The Iowa Pork Industry Center at Iowa State University represents 60 faculty and staff programs across departments and colleges at the university to serve the educational and informational needs of the pork industry, including veterinary medicine, animal sciences, economics and ag-engineering, according to Jason Ross, director of the Iowa Pork Industry Center and Lloyd Anderson Endowed Professor in physiology.  Swine extension field specialists and engineering field specialists throughout the state work with producers to answer questions and create research-based resources.

“The pace of decisions gets faster and faster every day,” said Ross, highlighting the need for a strong connection between pork producers, industry and the university so that faculty and staff do research that is relevant to new discoveries that will create opportunities.

The Center is leading a research project involving 18 faculty members from Iowa State, Kansas State University and Purdue University, which focuses on improving pig livability and increasing pork producer sustainability. The five-year project is funded by the National Pork Board and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and includes an interdisciplinary team of nutritionists, physiologists, veterinarians, well-being and behavior experts, geneticists, toxicologists, extension specialists and economists.

The Iowa State Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, part of the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine, is a national leader in protecting animal and human health, with full-service laboratories that process more than one million tests each year.

“The Veterinary Diagnostic Lab serves over 80% of the diagnostic submissions in our country,” said Roof. “They lead in disease detection, disease surveillance, and they protect our food supply.”

Currently under construction is the first phase of a new Veterinary Diagnostic Lab facility, which will ensure the most updated technology and facilities for disease detection and surveillance. The project is slated to be completed in 2023, with plans already underway for Phase II of the project.

Ames, Iowa, where Iowa State is based, is also home to the USDA National Centers for Animal Health, which has one of the largest concentrations of animal health professionals in the world. The facility includes the National Animal Disease Center, which conducts basic and applied research on selected diseases of economic importance to the U.S. livestock and poultry industries, as well as the National Veterinary Services Laboratory, and the Center for Veterinary Biologics.

Startup innovations

Iowa’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem is an ideal fit for a number of startup companies bringing new solutions to the pork industry, including Mazen Animal Health. Ames-based Mazen is developing novel oral vaccines that are produced through recombinant protein production in corn.

“We’ve figured out through plant biology and animal immunology how to put protective antigens in the germ cell of corn, then grow and grind the corn and feed it to pigs,” said Rick Sibbel, Mazen’s technology and strategy lead.

The company’s first vaccine will protect against porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, or PEDV. The company is 18 months into a 30 month review and approval process with the US Food and Drug Administration.

“Iowa State has been a huge partner,” said Sibbel. “Everyone from ag-engineering, virology, the diagnostic lab and student interns have been a part of this journey, and we rely on them heavily.”

In May 2022, Mazen announced the closing of its Series A round of more than $11 million. Mazen has been a member of the Ag Startup Engine program since March 2021 and has partnered with Iowa-based Kent Corporation for distribution and marketing of its PEDV vaccine. [Disclosure: AgFunder, AFN’s parent company, is an investor in Mazen].

“Iowa is home to a thriving startup ecosystem where we’re seeing a lot of exciting things happening. Folks can come here and get connected in a way that builds networks and good things can happen,” said Mike Naig, Iowa’s state secretary of agriculture.

“And, we can get you on a farm with some of the most productive and progressive farmers in the world in pretty short order, usually in a couple of minutes,” he added. “There are few places in the world where you can say those things happen as well as they do, and in such close proximity. I’m excited to see what comes from that as we are always looking for innovation.”

Collaboration is critical

Iowa’s thriving ecosystem combines science with infrastructure and is driven by partnerships built on trust, said Kevin Rasmussen, a pork producer from Goldfield, Iowa, and president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association.  Partnerships are key, for example, for the pork industry to achieve sustainability goals that are now expected from consumers while enabling producers to raise animals that are healthier, more comfortable, and more productive than ever before.

“Iowa is known for how much we produce – we’re number one in pork, eggs and corn, number two in soybeans – we talk a lot about how much we produce, but that is just part of the story.  It’s also how we produce it, said Naig. “The hallmark of the pork industry and Iowa agriculture is that we’re always trying to do it better.  Every crop year, every new herd, every day, innovating in ways to do it better.”


Leaders of the state’s pork and agriculture industry, along with researchers and startups, shared developments that will benefit pork producers in Iowa and around the world during the annual World Pork Expo at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. Watch the recording of the special “Bacon and Innovation” session of the Insights to Innovation series from America’s Cultivation Corridor here.

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