College pioneers first livestock research student-managed farm

Managing a research herd is a different ball of wax, and students and instructors say it teaches many new skills

Sixteen students are getting a taste of applied research as part of Lakeland College’s first student-managed farm livestock research team.

The second-year students, all enrolled in animal science technology, are managing a herd of 50 cattle involved in research trials.

“They have to manage the herd for profitability, but we also have a commercial (cattle) student-managed farm that does that only,” said Geoff Brown, an instructor and program head in Animal Science Technology at Lakeland College.

“We thought it would be a good idea to manage the herd and co-ordinate applied research projects that are happening at the same time.”

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The operation simulates real-life farming and eventually, livestock research students will be able to work with other student-managed farms to conduct trials on cattle, sheep, and dairy cattle.

“It does open up another stream, because there are jobs (in this area),” said Brown. “It shows the students that there are other job opportunities.”

Each student has different functions within the team. While one student may manage the herd’s nutrition, another will keep track of the production records.

“We’re basically behind the scenes of the research trials,” said Kebbi Rhyner, a student from Dryden, Ont. “The researchers do the labour and we’re behind the scenes doing the technical work with our heifers, because it does cost us money. This is really a team effort and I think that’s really important. We can all work together and figure out what we’re doing.”

The student team is partnered with beef research scientist Susan Markus from Alberta Agriculture’s livestock research station in Stettler. One of the projects was testing for feed efficiency using Grow Safe bunks in March and April last year.

Even though they’ve only been on the team since September, the students have already learned from their experience, liaised with industry, and toured research stations such as the Western Beef Development Centre.

They also took five heifers from their project to the Livestock Innovation showcase at Farmfair. Some of the heifers in the sample were feed efficient, while others weren’t, and the students had to explain the technology and scientific findings to the general public and producers.

The program is also invaluable in teaching critical thinking and making tough calls.

“There’s a risk involved in research,” said Markus. “Some things won’t work. Some things we’ll look at and think we’re going to get an answer and then we’ll find it doesn’t work out the way we thought. We have to change direction and be flexible, and I think those skills are going to be found by working on projects like this.”

The students have to follow the scientific method and maintain controlled variables, but they’re encouraged to question things and come up with solutions.

“We’re finding out ways to make farmers more efficient,” said Ashlyn Burtnack, a student from Arran, Sask. “I joined (this stream) because I like finding out new things. How can I go home and make my farm more efficient?

“I think we have to question things a lot more than the other teams do.”

Her view was echoed by Casey Finstad, a student from Manyberries.

“For us, being a part of the next generation and coming into the industry, the research team is a great way to get our feet into the door to help improve the industry — that’s one of the reasons I wanted to join this team,” said Finstad. “I’m interested in seeing and looking at different ways we can improve the industry and how farmers reach success in raising their animals, be it beef, dairy or sheep.”

In the future, companies may propose research trials, and the students will get the opportunity to decide if they want to do that trial.

About the author

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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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