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Spring 2020

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Rekia Salter stands, notebook in hand, in front of a row of Holstein calf hutches. Salter says her research is teaching her technical skills that will be invaluable when she goes to work as a consultant in the industry.
Rekia Salter says her research is teaching her technical skills that will be invaluable when she goes to work as a consultant in the industry. Photo by Michael P. King

When it comes to generating useful ideas and solutions for the dairy industry, graduate student researchers are the unsung heroes.

“Most of the research that gets done on campus is carried out by grad students,” says Kent Weigel MS’92, PhD’92, chair of the Department of Dairy Science. “They’re the boots on the ground.”

While faculty researchers provide guidance and advice, it’s the students who comb through literature, work out the experimental design, and collect and analyze the data, notes Weigel, a professor and extension specialist.

“This benefits the industry in two ways,” he says. “Students conduct research that leads to new products and protocols and technologies. And they graduate as highly trained potential employees.”

Looking to bring in more grad students to conduct industry-related research, UW dairy scientists introduced a new initiative in 2018 to encourage dairy-related businesses to fund the roughly $50,000-per-year cost of educating a grad student. Called Dairy Farming Research Partners, the program is supporting four students who are conducting research related to nutrition, animal behavior, and reproduction. Individual firms are funding two of them, and the other two are being supported from a pool of contributions from several companies, organizations, and individuals.

One of those students is Rekia Salter, who is researching the effects of housing calves in pairs rather than individually. Paired housing has been shown to improve calves’ cognitive skills, social development, and solid feed intake and growth.

“Hutches are the most prevalent calf management system; my goal is to create a successful way to use pair housing in a hutch system,” says Salter, who is working with assistant professor and extension specialist Jennifer Van Os. “This would improve calf welfare while allowing producers to gain the benefits of social housing without having to change their management system.”

Another industry-funded graduate student is Megan Lauber, who is working in the lab of reproductive physiologist Paul Fricke, a professor of dairy science and extension specialist. Lauber is looking at strategies to improve fertility when using sexed semen to impregnate cows and heifers.

Lauber says her research is building her technical expertise and sharpening her analytical skills. “My research is teaching me how to think in a completely different way,” says Lauber, who wants to work as a reproductive specialist. “I have to go out and find the knowledge I need by searching through literature and other sources and then think about how I’m going to apply what I’ve learned. This will allow me to analyze data and farm management more effectively as a consultant.”

Fricke says the industry funding is essential for this “translational” research — work that distills scientific knowledge to develop solutions that can be used directly by farmers and veterinarians.

“The type of project Megan is doing wouldn’t be funded by a granting agency geared toward basic science,” he says. “She’s looking at a way to better use an existing technology. The better we can get that technology to perform in the field for dairy farmers, the more likely they are to use it.”

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