Two hours east of Edmonton, just outside the small town of Kinsella, is the Roy Berg Kinsella Research Ranch and its herd of 2,000 cattle.
The Research Ranch is one of the University of Alberta’s eight agricultural research facilities. The land, 5,000 hectares in size, is characterized by rolling grassland and the occasional wetland. The herd is primarily beef cows, but they have recently started raising some dairy cows as well. Here, researchers, professors, and students are able to make new discoveries about cattle farming.
Lauren Engelking is one of those students. The fourth-year animal health science student spent her reading week doing an internship on the ranch.
“Cow temperaments are pretty similar to dogs. I go and feed them in the morning and I honestly feel like i’m getting cow therapy the same way people get dog therapy,” she said. “They come up to you, they’ll nudge you. There’s certain spots they want head rubs. It’s nice, you form a bond.”
For her internship, Engelking assisted in bovine nutrition and efficiency research, which has become a major focus of the ranch and the beef industry in general. Researchers are trying to breed cattle to be more efficient in their conversion of feed to body mass, rather than excreting it as waste or methane emissions.
To do this, both bulls and heifers are outfitted with tags that are scanned whenever the animals go to eat. The weight of the food is recorded before and after the cows eat, and these measurements are compared to the cows’ weights.
The ranch is also examining what diets result in the least amount of methane emissions. Cows are notoriously gassy and methane is 30 to 36 times as potent of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Cattle account for 65 per cent of global livestock greenhouse gas emissions (beef being 35 per cent and dairy 65 per cent), which is the highest out of poultry, sheep, goat, and pig farming.
The ranch is studying how grass fed cows tend to release more methane and ammonia than cows fed other diets, such as pellets high in carbohydrates, and silages, which are fermented vegetation-based feeds.
They are also currently studying how cattle efficiency may be affected by something called fetal programming. Findings show that if a mother cow has been through a phase of lower food intake, she will be more efficient in allocating nutrients to vital life processes, rather than depositing fat. They found that this trait was passed on to the cow’s offspring.
“It’s a new area where they see that it’s the mother’s experience affecting the calf in this case, not so much the mother’s genetics,” said Engelking.
Fetal programming may be a newer area of study in cows, but has been studied in humans since the 1980s.
Some of this research has more practical applications in agriculture than others, according to Engelking. But the implications of reducing methane emissions, and reducing the amount cows need to consume, could have a major impact on the cattle industry.
“(Efficiency) cuts down on costs for farmers so they aren’t spending so much extra on feed,” said Lauren. “So hopefully they can put that money towards animal welfare or different things in their production line.”
Lauren intends to continue work in livestock research.
“I’m actually going to the Netherlands this summer,” she said, “Wageningen University is leading in animal agriculture in the world. If I can look more at that interaction between nutrition, behavior, animal welfare, that’s the dream.”