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3 Ph.D. graduates discuss how their research can lead to improvements in dairy welfare

Progressive Dairy Editor Emma Ohirko Published on 30 April 2021

Before you are able to implement new management practices on your dairy, or before your nutritionist or vet can recommend a new practice, you and they must – or at least should – consult what has been proven through research.

Having science, studies and research to back up a management practice takes away much of the risk of implementing it.

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Graduate students and their research often play a pivotal role in the research used to draw conclusions about various practices in any field, including the dairy industry. Often, graduate students are responsible for producing the bulk of published material that comes out of their academic institutions.

To understand some of the contributions made in the field of dairy cattle welfare, Progressive Dairy spoke with three recent Ph.D. graduates from the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Animal Welfare Program. Anne-Marieke Smid, Katie Mills and Thomas Ede have all defended their Ph.D. theses within the past two years and now hold roles as post-doctoral fellows – meaning that since the completion of their doctoral studies, they now conduct research professionally.

Here they provide insight into their Ph.D. experience and how they are continuing their research on dairy cattle welfare.

Anne-Marieke SmidAnne-Marieke Smid
Post-doctoral fellow
University of Calgary

In 2019, Anne-Marieke Smid completed her Ph.D. on dairy cow preferences for different types of outdoor access. Her research looked at how dairy cows divide their time, when given a free choice, between being in a freestall barn compared with pasture or alternative types of outdoor areas, such as an outdoor open sand or wood chip pack.

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In one of her studies, the animals were split into multiple groups and housed in a freestall barn and given outdoor access at night between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., as previous studies showed cow motivation to access pasture during the summertime is generally highest at night. The results of Smid’s research showed that given the choice between the freestall barn and both pasture and outdoor sand pack, cows chose to spend 90% of the night on pasture, 1% on the outdoor sand pack and the remaining 9% in the barn. However, when only given a choice between the cows’ less-preferred option (in this case, the outdoor sand pack) and the freestall barn, the cows chose to spend roughly half their night outside on the sand pack. “They do like the outdoors, and it seems there’s something special about pasture over alternatives,” Smid says.

Smid notes the goal of her research was not to determine what factors influence cows’ preference for the outdoors or to persuade farmers to begin giving cows access to pasture. “We understand that pasture access is not feasible on some, or many, farms. We wanted to understand the preference of dairy cows for alternative types of outdoor access than pasture,” she says. “We are trying to understand the cows’ perspective on different outdoor environments than pasture that may be easier to implement on farms.”

During her Ph.D. program, Smid lived and worked on the UBC dairy farm for three years, and although she enjoyed this, she says it was sometimes difficult to find a balance between her personal life and her school life. “You can get consumed by [the work], and I think that’s also good to know because I think that’s what a lot of farmers are experiencing,” she says.

Since completing her Ph.D., Smid has taken a position as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Calgary where she continues her research into outdoor access for dairy cows. Presently, she is preparing to study the effects of different types of outdoor access on transition health for dry cows.

Working closely with farmers across western Canada and throughout the country, Smid says, “The work that we’re doing is for the farmers.” She says, because there is some controversy surrounding outdoor access for dairy cows, lots of collaboration with industry stakeholders is needed.

“It is not our goal to have [outdoor access] legislated,” she says. Smid says this issue of outdoor access is often farm specific, as farms will vary in their ability to offer it to their herds. However, she notes, from an animal-welfare perspective, it is important to understand the effects of outdoor access. “I strongly believe that we have a responsibility to provide [animals used for food production] with a good life,” Smid says.

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katie MillsKatie Mills
Post-doctoral fellow
University of British Columbia

While completing her bachelor’s degree in applied animal science from UBC in 2011, Katie Mills, who is a British Columbia native, took a research methods class taught by UBC professors Marina von Keyserlingk and Daniel Weary.

This piqued Mills’ interest in animal welfare, which led her to complete her undergraduate thesis in the department and later to join the animal welfare lab as a research assistant. Mills eventually joined the department as a Ph.D. student under von Keyserlingk’s and Weary’s supervision.

“My research was really about how we can understand dairy farmer decision making, how that incorporates different issues of animal welfare, and by understanding decision making, how we can improve animal welfare,” Mills says. This involved working with dairy producers and veterinarians to understand how different advisers can work to improve animal welfare on dairy farms.

Mills, who is considering teaching and working with university students in the future, found her work with farmers to be the most rewarding part of her Ph.D. Her research involved a lot of input from and collaboration with farmers, including one study involving producers that sought to understand how they developed and used standard operating procedures (SOPs) related to calf management. “I was really interested in understanding the human dimension of animal welfare,” Mills says.

Through her research and Ph.D. process, Mills found that many farmers were seeking resources and extension support in order to implement some of the welfare tactics Mills was studying. Without the help of Mills and the others involved in her research, Mills says many producers informed her they would not otherwise know how to develop the SOPs used in the study. “As I was working with farmers, a conversation that kept coming up over and over again was, ‘Well where do we get resources on that? How do we learn how to do this?’” she says.

0521ca ohirko calf housing 45Thomas Ede
Post-doctoral fellow
University of British Columbia

After completing an internship at the UBC dairy farm in 2015, Thomas Ede returned to France to complete his studies in agronomy before joining UBC’s Animal Welfare Program as a master’s student. Two years into his master’s, Ede did a “roll-over,” converting his studies into the start of a Ph.D., which he went on to defend in November.

“The big focus of my Ph.D. was on pain in dairy calves. One of the welfare objectives, as it relates to animals in general, was negative emotions,” Ede says. “The objective was to develop a way to ask how the dairy calves felt about certain procedures and whether we could help in refining those procedures and making them less painful.”

To do this, Ede studied calves’ pain tolerance for intramuscular, intranasal and subcutaneous injections, finding subcutaneous injections to be the least painful. To determine how calves felt about each type of injection, they were given the choice to give up milk in exchange for not receiving an injection.

From here, Ede moved on to hot iron disbudding in calves. The approach of that study was to see how calves remembered the procedure. “We made them associate the procedure with a certain space,” he explains. “We see whether they avoid the space, which tells us how they feel about what they received in that pen,” he says. Ede refers to this as “place aversion,” which he relates to people avoiding a restaurant if they previously had food poisoning from eating there. The results of the study showed that disbudding could be less painful if calves were provided a local anesthetic and anti-inflammatory drugs after the procedure.

Ede found his work with calves to be very rewarding and says knowing his research findings will be applied adds meaning to the work he does. He says the most challenging part of completing his Ph.D. was staying motivated despite some failures. “With research, you are going to be exposed to a lot of failures, so trying not to take them to heart and learn from them and keep going and just realizing it’s a big part of the process, [was challenging at first],” he says.

In his current role as a post-doctoral fellow, Ede is continuing with the research he began under his Ph.D. and is looking to understand how calves process painful events. He is also looking into topics he says are emerging interests in cattle welfare, such as dairy bull welfare and castration.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Anne-Marieke Smid lived and worked on the UBC dairy farm while she studied dairy cow preferences for pasture and alternative outdoor access as part of her Ph.D. program. Photo provided by Anne-Marieke Smid.

PHOTO 2: Katie Mills’ Ph.D. research was driven by her desire to understand farmer decision making and its role in animal welfare. Photo provided by Katie Mills.

ILLUSTRATION: Thomas Ede’s research involved an experimental apparatus that housed calves while they were disbudded. Shapes on the walls of the apparatus created a link between the calves’ experience and the pen; if a calf then avoided the pen, their memory of the procedure was deemed negative. Courtesy image.

Emma Ohirko
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