Mike and Mary Beth caught the horse bug early. Mike was 13 years old when he got his first job exercising polo ponies. Mary Beth lived every 12-year-old girl's dream—a pony for Christmas. From there, it was destiny. Their love of all things equine led them to our premier animal nutrition research facility—the Purina Animal Nutrition Center.
Mary Beth Gordon, Ph.D., tells people she "researches horse feed for a living." She's been figuring out how to feed horses better, as a part of our team since 2005, and is currently the director of research for the Equine Unit.
Mike Jerina, the Equine Unit manager, "plays with horses all day." He joined the team in 1997 and worked his way up from stall cleaner to unit manager, gaining his MBA along the way. Of course, "playing" really means managing unit operations—from operationalizing research studies to hosting thousands of visitors each year.
An innovation approach to horse nutrition
The team at Purina Animal Nutrition LLC, a subsidiary of Land O’Lakes, Inc., always strives to do what’s best for animals. That’s why we’ve conducted more than 20,000 research studies and have evaluated tens of thousands of ingredient and nutrient combinations.
"We're on the cutting edge," says Mary Beth. "I spent my morning with people who develop extremely sensitive instruments for measuring physiologic response in an animal. We are using their technology in a new way to measure aspects in horses that no one else has."
The horse research team, led by Mary Beth, reviews and develops ideas like the ones that led to SuperSport™, which is basically a high-tech protein supplement for high-performance horses.
"The research team drafts a protocol that we need a certain number of horses and the test parameters," says Mike. "Then, it's my job to figure out how we run the test, what horses to use, how to get the feed onsite, gathering the data and then shipping the data back to the team for analysis."
Trials that have success in the center's controlled environment are taken to field trials. This is when we ask industry representatives to try the product for a set period of time and provide feedback on real-world performance before we take it to the market. What people might not realize is most new products take 3-5 years of work.
"It might be many studies, with thousands of data points," says Mike. "Most people can't appreciate the volume and scope."
While the teams encounter bumps and setbacks along the road, they do a good job keeping things in perspective.
"It's about impacting the well-being of these animals," says Mary Beth. "Sometimes, ideas don't pan out. That's research. It happens. We all work so hard because we want to improve the health of these animals."
A good day for Mike is having a hand in helping create the product that's performing for the customer. It doesn't hurt when the customer is a Budweiser Clydesdale.
"I've been seeing them once a month for the last two years," says Mike. "We're helping them feed their horses. When you can work on research projects here and then see how it performs in the real world–that's pretty cool. It is very rewarding."
For Mary Beth, a good day is about pushing the envelope and making a difference.
"We're the ones figuring this out and we get to do this research—that's really exciting to me," says Mary Beth. "Hundreds of thousands of horses are eating Purina feed every day. Where else can I get that kind of influence on the animal I care about?"