Taking the classroom into the barn

Hands-on practice helps student learning stick

The Ruminant Digestion, Metabolism and Nutrition course at UAlberta benefits from hands-on industry participation

ANSC461/AFNS561 is a “must-have” course for any student wanting to improve their knowledge and understand the principles of ruminant nutrition, digestive physiology and metabolism—and apply this knowledge in commercial dairy and beef operations.

“Industry contribution provides great opportunities for students to better understand the industry and put their skills in practice,” said course co-teacher and Gentec researcher, Dr Ghader Manafiazar.

One beef farm Blindman Beef and Bison Farm (check out the incredible photography) and one dairy farm Tuxedo Farm Ltd kindly volunteered to host the students and provide the required information for them to complete their project.

Blindman Beef and Bison Farm sits beside the Blindman River in the south-central region of Alberta, with about 300 Angus and Beefbooster cow-calf pairs. The farm backgrounds its own calves as a better marketing practice. Assar Grinde, the owner, is highly concerned about and focused on the animals’ welfare, practising antimicrobial stewardship and environmentally sustainability, and having third-party verification for the farm’s practices. Assar shared his pasture management, bale grazing, weaning, and grain processing practices in addition to feed and water analysis with the students.

Tuxedo farms Ltd. is a family owned and operated farm located northeast of Westlock, in North-Central Alberta. Diversification is a major goal. The farm feeds high-quality, home-grown corn, barley and hay to its dairy (337 cows, of which 285 milking cows) and beef herds. Management added 120 free-stalls in 2018, and will add more in coming years. The farm is equipped with advanced technologies, such as Herd Navigator and a body-condition scoring camera. Herd Navigator detects sick animals for treatment and those producing less than 10 L/day to go dry. Nelson Jespersen, the manager, asked his nutritionist, Jamie McAlister, and herd manager, Francis Kavanagh, to participate in our two visits, allowing the students to discuss many aspects of the dairy farm business and management in smaller groups with them.

At the end of the semester, teams of students presented their recommendations to Ghader and the farmers, with an opportunity for discussion and feedback.

“It’s one thing to learn theory in class,” says Ghader. “Learning by doing sticks better. Overall, the students appreciated the opportunity to act as a consultant and put their knowledge into practice.”

Ghader also invited Barry Robinson (a private consultant), Kris Wierenga (regional manager with Shur-Gain feed mills), Myrddin Jespersen (farm owner) and John Stephen (Senior Sales Professional with Elanco) to present on the opportunities and challenges in different segments of the industry. Barry talked about his experience as a nutritionist; Myrddin discussed the opportunities and challenges of owning and managing a dairy, beef and grain farm; John shared his insight about the pharmaceutical industry; and Kris talked about the commercial feed industry. This session encouraged students to look for the opportunities in these sectors and expand their networks.

“It’s important for industry to be part of this course,” says Ghader. “Their contribution allows students to see where they can fit their skills and what other skills they need before entering the workforce.”


One woman’s search for a research home

From the Middle East to Europe and North America, Marzieh Heidaritabar talks to Gentec about the meaning behind international science.

Already, as a thirty-something, Marzieh Heidaritabar has lived in six countries as part of her studies and career. Such is the life of a scientist, these days.

“I always knew I wanted to go abroad for my advanced degrees,” she says. “The level of achievement at European and North American universities is higher than at home.”

Building on a Bachelor’s in her native country, Iran, Marzieh won a European Master of science in Animal Breeding and Genetics (EMABG) scholarship. She spent the first year at the renowned SLU (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala) and the second at the Norwegian University of Life Science (NMBU) in Sá.

Wageningen University & Research (WUR) (in the Netherlands, where Marzieh completed her PhD in 2016 on genomic selection in egg-laying chickens) is my second home,” she says. “It’s a small—but highly social and connected—society of students. I was never bored.” Then, over to Aarhus University Foulum for a post-doc, where she already knew several researchers from collaborations with Wageningen.

“I was right about the European universities,” she says. “All of these are in small towns where students are the majority of the population. The facilities, computer labs and digital libraries are excellent, so are the teaching and technical support.

As a testament to the connectivity of the European science community, Marzieh didn’t have to learn any languages. With international reputations and a large international student body, almost all MSc courses are taught in English and the townsfolk are keen to practise their own language skills.”

During her PhD, she also spent several months at Iowa State University (ISU) in Ames, USA. “The ISU group is one of the best in quantitative genetics,” she says. “I learned a lot from my supervisors (Jack Dekkers is a long-time Gentec collaborator). People are hard workers and the group is so dynamic. I also met some faculty members and geneticists from other USA universities and companies.”

Then on to Canada. During Marzieh’s PhD, the Dutch company (Hendrix Genetics) that supplied her data also worked with Gentec CEO, Graham Plastow. Throw in some reminders about Gentec over the years through workshops, colleagues, some reading and fellow Iranians, and Marzieh decided to reach out.

Marzieh has been in Canada since late summer 2018. These days, she is working on swine data for the first time (data provided by Hendrix). She is exploring the potential benefits of whole-genome sequence (WGS) data to improve meat and carcass quality traits in genomic selection programs of purebred and crossbred pigs. Incorporating the biological information from WGS into genomic prediction models will lead to a better understanding of the genomic architecture underlying carcass and meat quality in swine.

Of course, there are pros and cons to moving around so much. Marzieh has learned about different research styles, communication styles, PhD content (North Americans expect PhD students to teach and take subject matter courses: not so in Europe), new cultures and lifestyles—an openness that hasn’t been available to her friends who chose to stay home.

“The disadvantage is that I always feel I’m not settled yet,” she says. “There’s a cost to physically moving your life from place to place. And there’s definitely an anxiety at the beginning about not being familiar with new towns, colleagues, culture and research. Special thanks to Dr. Plastow and other people from Gentec who welcomed me warmly so that I felt at home. I am very glad to be a member of Gentec.”

For someone who was raised to be quiet, it’s been a positive learning experience.

“I was shy,” she says. “Too shy to ask my supervisor for help. The student culture in Wageningen helped change that. You either get help or you don’t, but you have to ask! If I hadn’t left Iran, I wouldn’t be the person I am now.”