Dairy Researcher Values On-Farm, Hands-On Experience – for Aug. 2, 2010

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alberta farmer |edmonton

Dr. Masahito Oba credits watching movies in his home country of Japan for his career in dairy research. Growing up as a city boy in Osaka, the associate professor in dairy nutrition at the University of Alberta loved watching movies about the countryside and romanticized about life in the country and working with horses.

Instead, Oba ended up working on a dairy farm on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, followed with time on dairy farms in Syria and New Zealand. However, his wife didn’t want to work on a dairy farm and Oba didn’t have the money to buy one, so he decided to find ways where he could learn about dairy cattle without being a farmer.

Oba earned his bachelor’s degree in dairy science at Iowa State University, followed with a masters and PhD at Michigan State University and a post-doctoral research position at the University of Maryland. He joined the faculty at the University of Alberta in 2004.

Oba currently teaches undergraduate courses in dairy animal management and ruminant nutrition and has taught metabolic physiology of domestic animals. He is also currently co-teaching feed science and technology, and advanced animal metabolism.

Rumen acidosis

However, research is still a major passion, with a two-pronged focus – feed utilization and milk production, and rumen acidosis, a persistent problem in the dairy industry.

“We need to manage the rumen acidosis problem rather than avoid that problem,” Oba says. The problem can easily be avoided by feeding hay without any grain supplement, but this is not always cost effective. “We need to maximize productivity so we feed more grain, but we still need to minimize acidosis,” he says.

Oba has recently studied the use of dried distillers grains as a feed option for dairy cattle. He is also trying to determine optimal processing methods for feed barley, since improper processing can lead to inefficient feed utilization or acidosis in dairy cattle.

Oba found there are huge variations in individual animal response to certain diets. He hopes to test a hypothesis which will determine the genetic markers of the more tolerant animals. Finding the genetic markers will then enable scientists to develop breeding programs to make animals more acidosis tolerant. Oba says it’s a high-risk, high-reward project which could take 10 or 20 years.

Local feed sources

Oba believes universities should research locally available feed sources in order to find the best information for their own location. His research is also affected by local circumstances, such as how last year’s drought impacted the feed situation and what can be done if feed rations are changed in response to external stimuli.

Oba has also worked with a barley breeder at the Alberta Agriculture Lacombe research station to identify the best barley variety to feed as silage.

Oba says researching feeds available to local producers helps make them more aware of their options, and to make good management decisions. “I value my interactions with the industry,” says Oba. He has organized Open House events at the Dairy Research Farm at the University of Alberta south campus and about 120 producers attended the event this year.

Oba believes his experience working on dairy farms has given him a unique view into the world of research. “I try to take opportunities to bring my graduate students to dairy farms as much as possible,” he says. He believes many researchers do not have a lot of hands-on experience, and may not know the realities of life on dairy farms.

Oba has also been recognized for his efforts in teaching and research. In 2009, he won the Cargill Animal Nutrition Young Scientist award, an award from the American Dairy Science Association. One of his most cherished awards is the teaching award he was awarded from the students in the Agriculture Club at the University of Alberta.

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“We need to maximize productivity so we feed more grain, but we still need to minimize acidosis.”

MASAHITO OBA

U OF A

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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