Pablo Loza’s arrival in Scottsbluff in late February to assume his new position as feedlot management and nutrition specialist at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Panhandle Research Feedlot marked the beginning of his career in the Nebraska Panhandle and the end of an epic journey.
Loza’s trip from his home country of Argentina required 29 hours and four flights. It followed a 10-month work-from-home arrangement 5,635 miles removed from an office he hadn’t had a chance to occupy, since he was new on the job.
Loza was appointed to the feedlot position in February 2020, scheduled to join the faculty of the Panhandle Research, Extension and Education Center on May 1, 2020. But before he could relocate to the United States from his home near the city of Cordoba, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down international travel, public gatherings, face-to-face business and many other facets of life.
Travel has been gradually opening up. But Loza was prohibited from entering the United States by restrictions on work visas imposed last year by the federal government. Specifically, Loza was affected by a ban on H-1B work visas for highly trained specialty occupations.
He and university officials looked for opportunities to obtain an exception to the visa ban. He was granted an interview at the American Embassy in September, postponed to December, then to early January, then to late January, when he was granted a national-interest exception because his research involved the disruption to the food supply caused by the loss of some feed rations consumed by cattle in feedlots.
Working from an apartment in Cordoba, Loza has been busy since last May laying the foundation of his research and extension program in Scottsbluff. Using email and Zoom, he has been able to build relationships with his research crew already on the ground and faculty colleagues at the Panhandle center. He has conversed on the computer screen with local feedlot operators, colleagues in Scottsbluff, fellow faculty in the Department of Animal Science and others, such as potential funding sources in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And he has conducted a research trial.
Last June, Loza met online with Panhandle feedlot operators, as well as retired Husker beef specialist Ivan Rush and now-retired Panhandle Research and Extension Director Jack Whittier. The purpose of the meeting was to find out what the feedlot operators’ needs were and to initiate research projects. An immediate, obvious research need was to track how the performance of feedlot cattle was affected by the disruption in distillers grains, a corn byproduct from ethanol plants, which is an important part of cattle rations.
The disruption was expected to be brief – several weeks – but ethanol production remained curtailed as the pandemic surged, then surged again. Loza completed the research trial and credits the work of the feedlot’s technical crew, including Nabor Guzman and Josh Buttle, and the help of two faculty colleagues, Karla Wilke, cow-calf and range management specialist at the Panhandle center, and Galen Erickson, beef feedlot extension specialist in Lincoln.
The trial was finished in late November and will be published in Nebraska Extension’s next annual Beef Report.
Leading a research project from thousands of miles away “was a really interesting time,” Loza said. “It was the first time I conducted research over the phone and so far away.”
There were other adjustments. Loza has studied and worked in the United States — he received a doctoral degree in ruminant nutrition from Nebraska in 2008, a master’s degree in ruminant nutrition from Colorado State University, in addition to his degree in agricultural engineering from the National University of Cordoba. He has conducted research in Nebraska, Colorado and Louisiana.
But he had been working in Argentina for about a decade prior to his Nebrska appointment. That meant using the metric system and speaking in Spanish full-time. “That’s an adjustment that was interesting.”
He had to adjust to opposite seasons of weather, as well. In Nebraska, winter is nearly over. But in the southern hemisphere, in Argentina, it’s still summer. Through the past four seasons, Loza has needed to constantly remember that the research feedlot was in the opposite season from the one outside his apartment window.
“We all learned quite a lot doing things that way. Hopefully we’re going to go to a more normal way to operate.” he said. “We are much better off than a year ago.”
As a potential return to normal life appears on the horizon, Loza is able to look forward to what’s next for his program. He plans to stress the extension side in coming months. That will mean moving from virtual programming, as has been the norm for months, to more face-to-face encounters, slowly and safely.
Loza is proposing to establish an advisory group of local feedlot owners and begin meeting. And by this fall, he hopes to have a feedlot field day at the Panhandle Research Feedlot. The feedlot and related facilities have undergone several improvement projects over the past decade or so, and Loza said it’s important to invite the public to the research facility to let them see how the money was spent. Ideally, field days would become a regular event once or twice a year.
Loza also hopes to establish an ongoing research program to explore how to replace parts of feedlot cows’ diets that might be lost due to disruptions such as the pandemic.
“Looking forward, and I hope I’m wrong, but I expect we will see more disruptions. It seems like things are changing and when they change, they don’t change in an easy way, the changes are disruptive,” he said. “We have a lot more variability in climate, we have a lot more variability in markets, so if we build this toolbox for feed yards to work through those times, they might have in their minds, ‘what if this disappears or happens,’ then what are the responses we can we have?”
His research priorities are to identify potential replacements for corn and distillers grains, the two staples in feedlot diets, and to quantify energy costs of operating feedlots and their water consumption. Energy and water use are among the concerns that have emerged in the public discussion, and Loza said it’s important that the cattle feeding sector be clear how it uses resources. The industry has a story to tell, he said.
“The feedlot industry doesn’t have a very positive image for a large part of the public, and I think that’s wrong, based on a lack of knowledge or bad information,” Loza said. “But the feedlot sector uses a lot of products that people cannot digest, waste from industries, to produce a good product with a lot of nutritional value.”
The Panhandle Research Feedlot is well-positioned to answer some of these questions. For example, it has the capacity to measure water delivered to individual pens.
Loza said the cattle feeding industry also needs to actively inform the public, and help feedlots implement protocols, to address other issues such as animal welfare and the use of feed additives and antibiotics. “A lot of our medium- and long-term work will be around those issues.”
Another of Loza’s priorities will be to continue improving the Panhandle Research Feedlot facilities. “For the most part, they are outstanding,” he said, but some areas, such as the feed mill, are aging. Machinery needs to be replaced and technology updated to have the capacity to carry out the research that the clientele demands.
“But for the main part it’s great, and for pen research work, it’s as great as can be,” he said.