Carver Intern Studies Feed Efficiency in Pigs

La'Joya Wilburn is shown in the lab where she conducted
research about feed efficiency in pigs.


Last summer, La’Joya Wilburn took part in an internship with the Environmental Protection Agency that had nothing to do with animals. But this summer, this animal science major participated in an internship that’s a little more fitting: researching pigs.

Wilburn, a junior from Prairie View A&M University in Texas, conducted research as a part of the George Washington Carver Internship program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. She worked with mentors Jack Dekkers, professor in animal science, and Nick Gabler, assistant professor in animal science.

Wilburn studied the residual feed intake (RFI) in pigs. RFI is a unique way to measure feed efficiency by finding the difference between observed and predicted feed intakes. Pigs that eat less feed for the same rate of predicted growth have a low RFI and are classified as more efficient. Therefore, a pig selectively bred for low RFI will eat less and do more with the energy obtained from its feed compared to control pigs.

The purpose is to develop a greater understanding of the metabolic differences between the pigs selected for low RFI versus the control pigs.

“We believe that the glycogen level in the RFI pigs and control pigs are utilized differently,” Wilburn said. “We also believe that selection based on low RFI can alter metabolism, with RFI pigs utilizing the glycogen immediately.”

“The pigs selected for reduced RFI are consuming less feed for the same rate of growth and are expected to utilize carbohydrates immediately, rather than storing them in the form of glycogen, compared to the control line that stores more glycogen,” said Wilburn.

Wilburn looked at the glycogen, glucose and proglycogen levels in the liver and muscle samples to determine their contribution to RFI. Carbohydrate metabolism is just one of the many factors important in determining residual feed intake. The long-term goal of the ISU research group is to find which of these factors is most important.

“This research is important because if we can find the factors that most affect RFI, then there can be increased feed efficiency that will help farmers in the selection and production cost for these animals,” Wilburn said. “With more efficiency, there would be an economic gain.”

Besides the focus on research, the Carver interns participated in many weekend trips. Of these trips, Wilburn says her favorite has been visiting the Living History Farms in Des Moines. “I knew how people lived in the 1700s and 1800s, but actually seeing how they lived was amazing to experience,” she said.

“The GWC Program was a wonderful program to take part it. The administrative staff was great and the program allows you to pick areas of research, which allows students to do research that pertains to their major,” said Wilburn.

“Being at another college was out of my comfort zone, but experiencing the diverse atmosphere has changed my perspective for the better. I am really going to miss the other interns in the program and the people I worked with.”

“The best part of the program was having the opportunity to do research as an undergraduate and obtaining hands-on experience. It has helped many of the interns determine if they still want to pursue that field of study or decide if that is an area to pursue,” Wilburn said.

The George Washington Carver Internship Program is for undergraduate and high school students who will enhance diversity at Iowa State University and are interested in research in agriculture-related fields. Interns conduct research and participate in various events and seminars. Over the past 16 years, there have been more than 300 students to visit Iowa State as a part of the program, which is funded by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and other sources. Approximately 20% of these students have enrolled at ISU for undergraduate or graduate studies. For more information, visit: