About 40 miles southwest of Saint Louis down Interstate 44, the Purina Animal Nutrition Center is a 1,200-acre research farm in Gray Summit, Missouri, that is home to almost 3,000 animals. For more than 50 years at the facility affectionately known as “The Farm,” the equine research group has bred, raised, cared for and researched horses to help develop the innovative range of horse feeds, supplements and services Purina Animal Nutrition offers.
The Farm is currently home to a herd of 80 horses, all of whom are valuable members of our research team. They are utilized in various research projects to help develop new research backed products.
Dr. Robert Jacobs, equine innovation manager, has loved horses all his life. He’s been at Gray Summit for around eight years since earning both his master’s and doctoral degrees in animal sciences. He and his team are dedicated to making sure each of the 80 horses is well-cared for and that the research they are performing goes towards improving the health, performance, and overall lives of every Purina fed horse in the country.
"The research that we do here is the cornerstone for everything we do and everything that sets us apart as a company,” Robert says. “My research philosophy is that I want to do something that's going to make a horse's life better, whatever that means."
This passion for animals and commitment to identifying the next innovation in animal nutrition is seen across species and throughout Land O’Lakes’ Animal Nutrition business – from horses, cows and pigs to chickens, fish and rabbits, all the way to zebras and crocodiles. And everything in between.
Each day on the farm starts and ends with caring for the horses. Robert’s team consists of six full-time employees who all work to make sure each animal is well-fed, clean and healthy. All six are on call 24/7 in case an emergency should arise.
At the start of each day, the crew feeds every horse and ensures that all are healthy and happy. During this important time, all horses are checked to make sure there are no signs of injury or illness. Once the morning routine is completed, the research begins. This may consist of a palatability trial, a serial blood collection, or the crowd favorite, an exercise trial on the high-speed equine treadmill.
Each horse on the farm may complete multiple research trials per year. Depending on their age, and the research needs of the program, Robert will work with his team to assign horses to projects.
Margaret Engel, a research technician, works primarily in the mare and foal barn helping newborn foals get acclimated to their new day-to-day environment. She has worked at Gray Summit for 20 years and lives full-time on the farm, which allows her to be there for the horses – especially the foals – whenever she is needed. That level of care allows any horse that is born on the farm the opportunity to develop its own personality and explore its new home, which Margaret says is one of the most fulfilling parts of the job.
“I love working with them. It's fun watching them learn things and observe things,” she says. “It's labor-intensive, but it's a lot of fun watching them process ‘oh, I shouldn't have done that’ or ‘oh, let's do that again.’”
As the horses grow and mature, their jobs on the farm change to meet the needs of the research program. Some may become exercise horses, while others may become palatability horses or even become part of the breeding herd to produce foals of their own. Equine Unit Manager Andrea Brueggemann has worked on the farm for 19 years and has known each of the horses in their herd since their birth. As the horses grow up, each develops its own personality and relationship with the staff, which she says makes caring for them a joy.
“They're like my little children,” Andrea says. “Seeing them grow and watching them do cool things, and seeing the ones that leave the farm go off and have careers elsewhere is really rewarding."
Although the high level of care that is provided for the animals is an industry standard, Robert says excellent accommodations for each horse at Gray Summit is “table stakes” and that there is no room for anything less.
The facility’s ability to maintain such a high standard of living for its horses while producing the vast amounts of quality research it does is what Robert says sets them apart from everyone else in the business.
"Horses live in a strange world where we manage them like livestock, but they're companion animals. Because of that, the interaction between a horse owner and their horse is very emotional. I take that as a great responsibility when I'm developing products," he says. “Each one of our 80 horses is a valuable member of our research team. When we conduct a research trial, their health, care and comfort is of the utmost importance.”
Gray Summit is a bit of an anomaly in the horse breeding and raising scene. While many horse farms across the country are used to train horses for riding and other recreational purposes, Gray Summit strictly uses the horses to help with in-depth research into nutrition.
Robert is in charge of the research projects that are completed at the equine unit. He and his team conduct anywhere between 25 and 30 research projects every year that can vary greatly in type and duration, but they all have the same overarching purpose – to help produce the best research-backed nutritional solutions for horses.
Some projects investigate the palatability of feed and can last for a couple of weeks to a month. Exercise trials using the farm’s high-speed equine treadmill and other equipment can involve up to 20 horses and can last upward of 16 weeks or longer. Growth trials, in which broodmares and foals are evaluated can last even longer, in some cases lasting for years. Robert says that the average horse that lives on the farm for its entire life could feasibly be involved in 50-100 research trials.
“This farm, just the fact that we have this place, is unique,” Robert says. “We are given permission to ask the hard questions and to find the answers to help us truly understand and unlock the greatness in every animal.”
And the research that is done at Gray Summit has a very tangible impact. Hundreds of thousands of horses are fed with some kind of Purina feed or supplement every day. The projects that the equine research team works on every day will affect every single one of those horses.
Robert says that without his team, the research program wouldn’t be possible.
“When our team makes the decision to update a feed or when we change a formula, instantly we’re impacting the lives of hundreds of thousands of horses across the country. And in doing so, we’re impacting the lives of their owners, of their people,” Robert says. “That's what's so incredibly important. Because of our reach, because of the number of horses we have the privilege of feeding every day around the country, we can really impact their lives in a great way.”
Robert says he and his team have a deep appreciation of the privilege of working with these horses every day and the responsibility that comes with that. Everything that the equine research team does is done to improve the lives of their horses and their customers.
“Across the board, our customers care about their animals. They love their animals, and they have a passion for what they do. They wouldn't manage or own those animals if they didn't,” Robert says. “Having this farm not only allows us to conduct important research, but it shows those customers, those horse owners, that we're horse people too. We care about and love horses.”