Careers & Education

Robert Hunt The geneticist

The geneticist

AINSWORTH MORRIS Career & Education writer

Sunday, March 30, 2014    

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BEING one of the men who orders which herd of swine is suitable for slaughtering at Copperwood Farms Limited, leading to the processing into luscious hams, bacon and sausages, is something Robert Hunt relishes.

Six years into the job, 35-year-old Hunt, a geneticist, says he enjoys every aspect of his work.

He joined the CB Group in October 2004, with responsibility for the swine artificial insemination laboratory, and was promoted in April 2008 to the position of manager for Newport Genetics.

He told Career & Education that he was led to become a scientist based on his love for science and agriculture as a child growing up in Manchester, watching herds of goats, cattle and pigs being groomed before being slaughtered in his backyard.

This week, Hunt, a graduate of Ardenne High and the University of the West Indies, shares an insight into his career field.

How did you start in this career?

In 2004, I saw an advertisement in the newspaper for a new pig project to improve the competitiveness of the pig industry of Jamaica. I applied. This was at a time when many university graduates were migrating to first world countries, as limited opportunities existed on the island. My level of patriotism was high and I did not want to be counted as part of the 'brain drain' phenomenon. I understood at that time that the growing of pigs and any livestock, for that matter, is both a science and an art. Although I was already academically inclined to science, I had to learn the art of pig rearing. The CB Group invested in me and I underwent a number of training programmes both locally and in Canada and the USA to facilitate the learning process. We also had consultants from overseas who worked with us during the formative years of Newport Genetics.

Who is a geneticist?

As a geneticist, I am responsible for the pig operation of the CB Group of Companies inclusive of the Nucleus, Multiplier & Integrated Commercial Sow farms and Integrated Grow-Out (Finishing) operations to ensure that proper standards are maintained and that continuous improvement in the quality of breeding stock and market hogs is achieved to accomplish the company's objectives and targets. A geneticist is a professional in the science of heredity who tests the resemblances and differences of related organisms resulting from interaction of their genes in an environment.

What are your job responsibilities?

These include investigating and developing novel breeding and selection technologies for the operations. This is done through intensive collaboration with our Canadian genetics supplier which has been partnering with the University of Guelph, Ontario, and the Canadian Centre for Swine Improvement. The goal is to identify the best genetics and breed the best to the best. As a result, we achieve genetic improvement in the progenies with development in economically important traits. We evaluate and improve the efficiency of reproduction in our breeding stock (litter size, farrowing interval and longevity), efficiency of production in our nursery and finishing pigs such as growth rate, feed efficiency and physical soundness, thereby producing a high-quality product (lean yield, excellent carcass and high meat quality). Record keeping is paramount to the success of our breeding programme. We use commercial pig genetic software to track our pedigrees and also for breeding value estimation procedures.

What is the value of the work that you do?

The impact of the work that I do is tremendous. Not only are we providing the highest quality pig breeding stock for the company's pig operations, but we also provide genetics (be it F1 gilts or semen for artificial insemination) to the Jamaican pig industry and the wider Caribbean. My work ensures that our processing plant gets the best quality pigs that will be slaughtered to produce healthy and nutritious pork and further process items like hams, bacon and sausages that are not only consumed by the Jamaican population but the many tourists that come to our shores and the other Caribbean islands to which we export our pork products. We provide safe food from farm to fork and we maintain a rigorous quality assurance programme cemented by our ISO9001:2008-HACCP-GMP international certification.

What do you enjoy the most about your career?

I am a results-oriented person and so I enjoy research and development. I am pleased to see the improvements made in the pig industry as an outcome of the changes we make from data and trend analyses. In 2004, prior to the start of Newport Genetics, the island had to import a significant portion of the pork consumed locally as the quality of pigs on the island was poor due to the high rate of in-breeding (a consequence of inadequate record keeping). Over the years we have made tremendous strides in improving the genetic stock and in the last three years the country did not have to import any fresh legs for the making of hams for Christmas and except for the bellies that we do not produce enough of to make bacon and pig tails, the country does not import any other pork products.

What are the educational qualifications and skills required for your job?

A Bachelors degree in general agriculture (specialising in livestock) or similar qualifications in a related field. Post-graduate training in business administration is an asset. At least three years' progressive experience in a similar management role.

Some of the skill sets include a thorough understanding of swine production practices and corresponding economics in various system designs, including housing systems, ventilation schemes and feeding systems, physical and demonstrated experience in the care and handling of pigs, analytical capabilities to link production data with interventions needed to improve system performance, genetic outcomes and profitability, capacity to develop relevant recommendations and train the appropriate audiences. Should be computer literate with specific experience in Microsoft Office and Windows programmes and knowledge of contemporary pig record keeping software systems. Also, strong interpersonal, customer service and troubleshooting skills along with time management, organisation, planning and supervisory management skills.

What are some of the challenges faced on the job?

As we are dealing with livestock, there is always the challenge of keeping mortality in check. Another challenge is to get the farming public to buy into the new concept of artificial insemination. It is continuous education, training and re-training.

What advice do you have for others who wish to enter the field?

Becoming a geneticist is a great and rewarding career. One, however, must first determine if this is a good fit for him or her. You will have to be strong in academics and work well under pressure, as some aspects of the work of geneticists can be time-consuming, with projects taking a long time to be completed. One also must be interested in biology and genetics, have an aptitude for mathematics and feel comfortable working in a laboratory setting. Manual dexterity is required as you may need to utilise specialised equipment and conduct trials and experiments. One must also be able to communicate well.

Hunt interacts with some of the pigs being groomed for slaughter.

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