Collaborating to tackle the big issues facing livestock farmers
By Lilian Schaer for Livestock Research Innovation Corporation
Many issues facing livestock farmers are complex and multi-faceted - and sometimes, solutions require a broad spectrum of expertise that extends beyond the individual species.
That’s where the concept of a cross-sectoral approach to research comes into play and why Livestock Research Innovation Corporation (LRIC), commodity organizations like Beef Farmers of Ontario and the research community are increasingly turning to broader research partnerships.
“It’s great when something very specific can be dealt with, but more typically problems are complicated and can’t be solved simply,” says Dr. Rene Van Acker, Dean of the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph. “That means you need a team to work on different aspects of the issue - and that’s where the value is in that type of work: you start to be able to bring solutions to more complicated problems.”
Cross-sectoral collaboration can mean including processors and retailers alongside farmers and researchers or creating collaborations within or across multiple research disciplines to work on issues like antimicrobial resistance or gut health. Not only does this reduce research duplication, but it also encourages new thinking about possible solutions.
While more challenging to bring together, these partnerships have proven to be very effective, says Dr. Jeffrey Wichtel, Dean of the Ontario Veterinary College. A leading example is the University of Guelph’s new One Health Institute, where Wichtel chairs the advisory board. The institute works across disciplines to address health challenges like antimicrobial resistance that impact human, animal and environmental life.
“Antimicrobial resistance is an excellent example because of the urgency of the issue and the potential long-term public health concern. No sector can do that on its own, and you have to collaborate with human health and public health,” Wichtel says.
Several successful initiatives already in place at Guelph like the Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses, the Campbell Centre for Animal Welfare, and the Centre for the Genetic Improvement of Livestock, demonstrate the value of working together, but more can be done to harness the true benefit of cross-sectoral research.
Academic research projects and programs are traditionally set up along departmental lines within colleges, which doesn’t encourage broader collaborations.
“It’s important to be talking about how we can change those structures, incentives, and processes to encourage more collaboration,” says Wichtel. “Where things work well is where there are incentives for people to work together.”
That’s where Van Acker believes LRIC and livestock organizations can harness their government relationships to seek support for agricultural research and innovation needs.
That includes continued funding for research programs and infrastructure, like the new beef research facility in Elora, but also to encourage change in how those research programs are structured and including incentives for collaboration, which will result in society-wide benefits.
“I don’t think we see ourselves enough in the reality of what our sector is really all about,” says Van Acker. “Research and innovation that helps Canadian farmers results in the protection and improvement of the health of Canadians and of our shared environment, and economic growth - and that’s what we all want.”
Soil health could benefit from a collaborative approach because of its crucial role in sustaining farm productivity and direct links to the carbon cycle, greenhouse gases and climate change. And as society’s view of animals continues to change, there is tremendous benefit from a collaborative, cross-sectoral approach to welfare.
Van Acker and Wichtel are both members of the Deans’ Council - Agriculture, Food & Veterinary Medicine, which has started working more closely with the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, Food and Beverage Canada, and other national organizations to encourage cross-sectoral solutions.
LRIC leads the development of an annual list of cross-sectoral research priorities for the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance (previously the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs-University of Guelph Partnership) Research Program.
The organization has also introduced a mentorship program for new University of Guelph faculty to connect with and learn about the livestock sector, and recently launched a Horizon Series of white papers and webinars on leading issues.
“Every livestock sector, large or small, values research and innovation. I hear from them, academia and government that we want more cross-sector research initiatives,” says LRIC CEO Mike McMorris. “Our Horizon Series highlights the top areas with potential for cross-sectoral research and will hopefully stimulate some follow-up action.”
Beef Farmers of Ontario is already taking steps in this direction, with the organization currently jointly supporting two projects with Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO).
Prof. Erica Pensini of the Department of Engineering is developing bale and silage wrap from inexpensive yet robust biomaterials, and Prof. Ron Johnson from the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the Ontario Veterinary College is examining withdrawal times for dexamethasone in dairy and beef cattle.
This article was published in Ontario Beef Farmer, May 2021.