SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. – In February, Dr. Pablo Loza was making plans to relocate from Argentina to Scottsbluff to assume his duties as the new feedlot management and nutrition specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Panhandle Research Feedlot on May 1.
Five months later, he remains grounded from traveling by the COVID-19 pandemic, as are so many others. But Loza is stuck farther from his workplace than most. In his apartment in Cordoba, Argentina, he awaits the lifting of restrictions on work visas in the United States.
Meanwhile he is remotely launching research and extension activities in western Nebraska: conducting a research study, hunting for funding, and meeting virtually with colleagues and with cattle feeders in western Nebraska using the online meeting platforms.
Dr. Clint Krehbiel, head of the Animal Science Department at the UNL Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said Loza was caught up in the U.S. federal government’s ban on H-1B work visas (for highly trained specialty occupations), and might not be able to move to Scottsbluff until January 2021.
“In the interim, we have hired him as an adjunct professor and he will continue to work from Argentina," Krehbiel said. "Pablo has interacted with western Nebraska producers and has an experiment underway at the Panhandle Feedlot.”
At the time of his UNL appointment, Loza was director of a research farm about 15 miles south of Cordoba, Argentina’s second largest city. He moved to the city in May, the time when he had been scheduled to begin duties in Nebraska. But he didn’t think he would be in Cordoba for three months and counting. In Argentina, movement is highly restricted and the economy has been hurting since before the pandemic.
Loza also has experience in the United States, including Nebraska. In 2008, he received a Ph.D. in ruminant nutrition from UNL, 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.
Loza has been trying to build relationships with his new clientele in western Nebraska. “We did a pretty decent zoom meeting with a group of producers from the area. We talked about things that worried them, how to serve them from a distance, things that could be related to problems they had at the time,” he said.
He also has started a research trial into how cattle behave with a sudden change in their rations due to temporary production cutbacks in ethanol plants, which reduced the availability of an ethanol coproduct, distillers grains, to feedlots.
The project is intended to begin establishing a baseline and provide information about options for replacing important feedstuffs in the event of a disruption – which also could happen in the future under different circumstances, Loza points out. “We take things for granted that things will never change sometimes.”
There are not many potential replacements for distillers grain, according to Loza. The closest would be soybean meals, but cattle feeders in the Panhandle would need to transport soy meal a long way. Another potential replacement would be sunflower meal, also not exactly an abundant product in Nebraska.
Other, more local replacements such as field peas or other peas could be researched, but Loza said their volume would be limited and their protein content and quality variable. “There are probably other sources of vegetable proteins, but might not be as economical, and not in that volume.”
During the pandemic, Loza also has been meeting with colleagues in Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, searching for programs, opportunities, and funding, as well as potential channels for getting information and advice to producers.
He is eager to be able to meet in person with his clientele, the feedlot operators. Online meetings are the best option available but are not the same as in-person visits to feedlots, especially early in a working relationship. “You can’t jump out of your screen and talk to them for a half hour,” he said. “You want to go visit their operation, see what they’re doing, what they need, to get a feeling.”
Loza is working on having an invitational meeting for producers that would include a presentation on a technical topic and then a period of questions, answers and general discussion – “how they are doing, sharing information on how they are coping with the challenges of their operations.”
In the meantime, Loza said fellow faculty member Dr. Karla Wilke, Cow-Calf Systems and Stocker Management Specialist at the Panhandle Center in Scottsbluff, has been helpful in seeing that activities are carried out at the Panhandle Research Feedlot, as have research technicians Nabor Guzman and Doug Pieper.
He also has regular virtual meetings with the research technicians, as well as graduate students and Animal Science faculty. “Everybody’s trying to do what they can. But I’m ready to be there in person.”
After the pandemic, Loza also hopes to conduct research into alternative local rations such as small grains or sugarbeet pulp. His ideal research program would address two types of issues: those that are local to the Panhandle, and those that are applicable to the high plains region.