Driving on Highway 24 into Wamego, you might drive right past MS Biotec’s nondescript metal buildings behind the Pizza Hut. Inside however, is an impressive, world-class facility with mixing, sterilizing, and packaging systems custom-fabricated by Director of Production Operations Justin Harpe and a research and quality assurance laboratory under the supervision of Dr. Celine Aperce. Since launching Lactipro advance®, a liquid solution of Megasphaera elsdenii in April 2015, Dr. Aperce’s team has been in pursuit of a next generation product that many in the industry call “the holy grail of Megasphaera probiotics.” The world’s largest biotechnology and agricultural science companies are competing for this holy grail, but Aaron Hund, MS Biotec’s director of marketing, believes that his team is the one that’s “poised to grow.”
MS Biotec produces and researches direct-fed microbials, commonly referred to as probiotics. Megasphaera probiotics are valuable in the dairy and beef cattle industries because they consume lactic acid. When lactic acid accumulates in a cow’s rumen, it limits feed efficiency and increases the transition time from forage-based diets to higher energy feeds. From a feedlot or dairy manager’s point of view, lactic acid decreases profitability and causes the herd gastric distress, and in severe cases, death. Megasphaera bacteria are also oxygen sensitive, meaning that they’re difficult to produce, distribute, and administer under normal conditions. This is one of the main reasons why larger companies haven’t been able to produce a solution to-date and why MS Biotec distributes Lactipro advance® in liquid form with a 14-day shelf life.
The probiotic strain that MS Biotec distributes was first developed and commercialized in the early 2000s by the South African company, Megastarter Biotech. At the time, Leander van der Walt, MS Biotec’s CEO, was Megastarter Biotech’s managing director. When Megastarter Biotech was acquired by Kemira Phosphates, a global distributor of animal feed phosphates, van der Walt served as its general manager from 2002 until 2009 when the company decided to divest from Megasphaera research and development. At that time, a Kansas State University graduate student introduced van der Walt to Dr. Jim Drouillard, who serves as the director of the Beef Cattle Research Center at K-State. Dr. Drouillard immediately recognized that van der Walt’s probiotic technology could play a big role in combating ruminal acidosis if approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Ruminal acidosis is one of the most common and costly challenges faced by beef and dairy producers.
After a thorough FDA review, the cattle industry agreed with Dr. Drouillard. Thanks to the work of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, which was disbanded in 2016, van der Walt was able to connect to industry experts, investors from the cattle industry, and public university researchers such as Dr. Drouillard and his team. “The Kansas Bioscience Authority was active in supporting research at public universities with revenue from bio-based industries, resulting in a number of industries being brought [to Manhattan] at a pivotal time,” Drouillard explains. This research foundation remains present in all aspects of MS Biotec, from quality assurance to sales and marketing.
As a third-generation rancher, Cale Wiehe recognized the potential benefits of a probiotic solution from the moment he started as MS Biotec’s first sales professional. “What we’re offering is a tide change in the feedlot time-frame. With Lactipro advance®, we cut a 21 day transition period to 7 days, which ultimately increases the profitability of the feedlot and reduces potential stress on animals.” When he worked as a one-man sales department, Cale traveled to feedlots throughout the Great Plains to present Dr. Drouillard’s and Dr. Aperce’s research to feedlot managers and owners, and nutritionists. At first, most were skeptical, and many still are, but Wiehe sees that as an advantage as he trains his growing sales team.
“A climate of risk has been to our advantage because it forces us to prove that our solution is worth the investment. At first, a feedlot manager could write me off, but I kept coming back and they realized this guy and MS Biotec aren’t going away. They recognize we have solid research, and it warrants having their nutritionist take a look at it. That’s why our sales team must present research that can convince a Ph.D. that our product is not a risk.”
While Cale’s sales force often speaks of Dr. Aperce’s work in the research and quality assurance labs, it’s Dr. Aperce’s counterpart, Justin Harpe, who is the company’s secret weapon. An electrician by training, Harpe designed and built MS Biotec’s primary production line by hand seven years ago and now serves as the company’s director of production operations. When describing the start of production, Dr. Drouillard commented, “There wasn’t a book or a guide telling you how to do this. Everything they have Justin built from the ground up. If you asked 100 people, 99 would have told you it wasn’t possible.”
The coordinated work of Dr. Aperce and Harpe, who the team calls their dynamic duo, will be necessary as MS Biotec closes in on an in-feed solution with extended shelf life—the holy grail. With the recent purchase of additional production space adjacent to the existing production line, many expect that big news could soon come from the company. While Dr. Drouillard doesn’t speculate on future developments, he emphasizes the need for alternatives to existing feedlot technologies, such as antibiotics. He stated, “there’s only one business that I know of that does anaerobic fermentation and it’s in Wamego, Kansas. This world-class production facility in Wamego can make extended shelf life a reality.” If so, this growing team with deep Kansas ranching roots will achieve something that the world’s largest corporations could not.
Josh Brewer is the agency marketing director at 502, a strategic marketing agency in Manhattan, Kansas.