Bringing research faculty, livestock industry together
LRIC’s mentorship program helps Guelph researchers deepen understanding of livestock agriculture
By Lilian Schaer for Livestock Research Innovation Corporation
Most livestock research used to be handled primarily by livestock or agriculture-related university faculties and departments. Today, that picture is changing as many leading agricultural research topics are multi-faceted and complex - think regenerative agriculture, greenhouse gas emissions or One Health - and finding solutions requires expertise beyond traditional animal or plant science.
Faculty from disciplines as diverse as engineering, computer science and even human health can now be working on agricultural research, and many may have little familiarity with the sector, how it works, or the challenges and opportunities it faces.
That gap between farm and faculty is what led to an ah-ha moment about 18 months ago for Mike McMorris, CEO of Livestock Research Innovation Corporation (LRIC). The organization has created a mentorship program to connect early-stage faculty at the University of Guelph with the Ontario livestock industry and, after a successful pilot that wrapped up earlier this year, is launching its second cohort this fall.
“Innovation requires many things, including sound research rooted in industry needs, strong working relationships between university faculty and industry, and effective technology transfer involving many organizations,” says McMorris. “This initiative gives early-stage faculty a chance to gain some of those insights and connections in our industry that will hopefully help them in their work.”
The first nine participants were from Ontario Agricultural College (OAC), Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), and College of Engineering and Physical Sciences (CEPS). And although COVID-19 impacted both the program’s length and delivery format, it was deemed a success overall.
OAC Dean Rene Van Acker thinks it is important for faculty to understand the goals and aspirations of industry organizations and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), both of whom are significant funders of Ontario livestock research.
“We appreciate what LRIC has been doing in terms of providing leadership for newer faculty and building as much alignment as possible between industry partners, OMAFRA and faculty to understand what the possibilities for research and partnerships could be,” he notes.
OVC Dean Jeff Wichtel also sees value in the program and its ability to generate new research collaborations between faculty from different departments.
“Collaboration is organic as people get to know each other and institutional attempts to generate collaboration aren’t as successful, it requires a human touch. We hope to keep this academy of mentees connected moving forward,” he says.
Despite pandemic restrictions moving most program activities online, LRIC was able to facilitate connections between faculty and producers that are already showing tangible results. OVC associate professor Heather Murphy, for example, changed the approach of one of her research proposals to include on-farm water quality work after getting feedback from producers.
Environmental engineer professor Rafael Santos secured an OMAFRA Highly Qualified Personnel scholarship for a student because it was addressing a real problem in the livestock sector, thanks to what Santos learned from people in the industry.
Dave Renaud, a veterinary epidemiologist at OVC, is already familiar with livestock farming, but found the discussions around how commodity boards make research funding decisions, and how to structure a funding proposal extremely valuable.
“When taking funding proposals to the board level, it’s important to focus on why the research is important to the industry and what’s in it for producers,” he notes.
LRIC commissioned Steven Roche of ACER Consulting to conduct in-depth interviews with the mentees and prepare a report of recommendations to help with planning for the next cohort.
Overall, the program’s strengths included the small group size, content that provided a broad overview of the livestock industry and the different commodities, insights into how research is funded, and the opportunity to engage both with farmers and the LRIC team.
“The program has helped mentees think about how their research programs can fit in the livestock sector – it has resulted in a newly funded project about how to improve knowledge transfer and several other proposals have now been submitted for funding that were stimulated out of this program,” Roche says. “That’s a positive outcome already.”
Recommendations for enhancement included more emphasis on knowledge transfer and grant writing, more opportunities for facilitated discussions with presenters, the ability to receive feedback on draft grant proposals, and expanding eligibility to other colleges at the University to encourage more cross-collaboration between disciplines.
LRIC has now developed a formal guide for the voluntary program to give mentees a better idea of what they are committing themselves to and what they can expect in return. The next program will have a stronger focus on networking with presenters as well as opportunities for the mentees to get to know each other, and a return of the farm visits, McMorris noted.
“We also had exceptional industry participation,” he adds. “The key advice for researchers was around the importance of building a relationship with industry and a need for much improved technology transfer.”
This article is provided by Livestock Research Innovation Corporation as part of its ongoing efforts to drive innovation in the livestock sector. It was published in the September 2021 edition of Milk Producer.