Undergraduate Student Experiential Learning Program

Student holds clipboard and poses with a flock of sheep in a research station

The Undergraduate Student Experiential Learning (USEL) Program supports agri-food knowledge mobilization and helps develop the next generation of agri-food innovators.

USEL gives senior University of Guelph undergraduate students the opportunity to gain work experience and hone their knowledge translation and transfer skills through a summer work placement.

USEL students are selected via a competitive hiring process. Successful students are mentored by OMAFRA specialists and U of G research faculty.   

Current Opportunities 

The USEL program is currently recruiting for Summer 2020! Expand each position below to learn more. Visit Recruit Guelph to apply.

OMAFRA Mentors: Christoph Wand and Tom Wright

University of Guelph Faculty Mentor: Renee Bergeron (Department of Animal Biosciences)

Preferred Location: University of Guelph, Animal Biosciences

Project Description:

As per its strategic plan, the OMAFRA Dairy Team has been evaluating and promoting housing system alternatives to tie stalls for dairy cows, similar to the Bergeron lab due to the development towards a new Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle.  The mentor's interests have aligned in the emerging use of Composting Bedded Packs (CBP) as an ideal housing system for dairy farmers to meet these needs for exceptional animal care and welfare.

Significant questions remain concerning best management practices (BMPs) for such facilities, including the need for benchmarking cow and pack management practices, and to ensure success for farmers and their cows when transitioning into these new barns.

This USEL project would utilize the student’s ability to collect and analyse farm data and translate this data into useful/implementable information for producers. Work would be done in partnership with the academic and KTT expertise of the combined mentor team to provide just-in-time analysis and support to transitioning farms, and to build the benchmark data set for these farm's practices for the Ontario dairy sector.

KTT Opportunities: 

  • Design and delivery of Community of Practice events for dairy farmers currently using composting bedded packs.

  • On-farm data collection and trouble-shooting or providing project updates to producer collaborators during weekly or bi-weekly visits.

  • Participation in formal research results communication (one of poster, paper or seminar) with Dr. Bergeron’s lab.

  • Written articles for ‘June is Dairy Month’ publication, Winchester Press.

  • Co-author a Ruminations column for the Milk Producer magazine.

  • Updating existing OMAFRA Dairy Team Factsheets with current knowledge on composting bedding packs to be consistent with current and previous practices condoned in those documents.

  • Opportunity, at the student’s option, for transitioning their summer work into a 4th year special project research course in Animal Biosciences.

  • USEL student presentation/seminars.

OMAFRA Mentors: Marlene Paibomesai and John Van de Vegte 

University of Guelph Faculty Mentors: Niel Karrow (Department of Animal Biosciences) and Cathy Bowman (Population Medicine) 

Preferred Location: Elora or Guelph

Project Description:

As our understanding of risk factors that impact goat kid survival on goat farms increases, there is need to continue to have this information transferred to the Ontario dairy goat industry. Key findings from the Goat Kid Mortality Project, funded by Ontario Agri-food Innovation Alliance, indicate that septicemia and pneumonia are the leading cause of mortality in pre-weaned goat kids. Disease and mortality in young animals is a multifactorial issue including both animal and environmental factors. In cattle it has been shown that early life challenges can impact later life productivity and survival. Two key areas of interest in reducing morbidity and mortality is colostrum and environment management.

Ruminants (cattle, sheep and goats) have no transfer of immune factors from dam to fetus in utero. Therefore, goat kids lack immunocompetency when they are born and require adequate colostrum within 24 hours of birth for protection in the first months of life. This is known as passive transfer of immunity. Failure of passive transfer means that the immune factors and bioactive molecules in colostrum are not taken up by the goat kid at a sufficient concentration to infer protective immunity. Source of colostrum, quality of the colostrum, feeding time and amount, and cleanliness all play a role in successful passive transfer and goat kid survival. Preliminary data shows that some goat farms can experience 70% failure of passive transfer which is associated with high mortality.      

In addition to colostrum management, barn environment plays a major role in the successful rearing of goat kids. Areas with high bacterial contamination and disease challenge are at risk of high goat kid mortality and morbidity. Adequate ventilation that meets the requirements for the time of year (summer, spring, fall or winter) is a key part to improving goat kid mortality and morbidity. Poor air quality is an accumulation of barn gases, high relative humidity and particulate matter (dust). Poor air quality can be localized to specific areas in the barn which mainly occurs in the pen with the animals. Preliminary data and anecdotal information indicate that air quality is a concern in many goat kid barns.          

The main goal of this project is to develop educational materials that are focused on colostrum management and environmental conditions. Objectives: 1) Collect field data (quality, cleanliness, and successful passive transfer) as it relates to colostrum management of either of fresh doe colostrum, stored doe colostrum, or replacement colostrum product; 2) Conduct environmental monitoring with on-farm tools to determine barn environmental conditions at animal level; 3) measure average daily gain in goat kids in different conditions; and 4) develop materials that promote proper colostrum management and the use of environmental monitoring tools.

KTT Opportunities: 

  • Tools/Resources: The student will have the opportunity to develop and test new tools/resources to be used for producer out reach such as a chart that indicates proper colostrum management (volume, delivery time, quality) and kid vitality. The student will use test farms to see the impact of the chart on goat kid rearing.  
  • Case Study: The student will take the information that is collected as a part of the Dairy Goat Mortality project, additional colostrum studies and previous field work to design a case study that could help with producer learning and out reach.
  • Webinar: One goal of the project is to determine the out reach of web-based learning. The student will work on planning and helping to produce content on goat kid management in the pre-weaning period. This will include the creation of a pre-survey and post-survey evaluation to determine the effectiveness of web-based learning.
  • Articles: The student will write two articles for the Dairy Goat Digest, published by OMAFRA and distributed to 260 registered producers in the province. One article will be focused on colostrum management and the other will be focused on environmental monitoring in barn.
  • Blog: The student will then take the information from colostrum management field work and write a post for the Sheep and Goat Blog and evaluate Google analytics for performance of goat related blog posts.
  • Plan: Plan a “short course” with course materials focused on delivering information to dairy goat farm advisors (nutritionists, veterinarians) that is focused on successful goat kid rearing. This will include information on field work from a previous year USEL project which was focused on colostrum management, current nutritional recommendations and environmental monitoring that has been done throughout the year by the mentors.

OMAFRA Mentor: Chevonne Dayboll

University of Guelph Faculty Mentor: Thomas Graham (School of Environmental Sciences)

Preferred Location: Guelph with occasional travel to Niagara

Project Description:

Greenhouses are heavy users of energy. In floriculture greenhouses, lighting is used to control plant growth and to time flowering for market.  As greenhouses move to become more energy efficient, the adoption of LED lighting presents an opportunity for energy savings, and a challenge for growers who are accustomed to growing with HPS lighting.

A substantial amount of research has been completed to see how common ornamental plants respond to being produced under various spectrums and intensities of LED lighting. Growers now need to trial lights in their own greenhouses to learn how to produce market quality crops with this new technology. Previous research and grower experience have indicated that plants may transpire more under different types of lighting. This means that growers will need to adapt their production practises, including climate control and irrigation, to ensure plant health and quality.

The student will be responsible for collecting and analyzing leaf samples to determine if there is a change in the amount and size of stomata (a marker for transpiration rates) in plants grown under various lighting treatments, in growth chambers and commercial greenhouses.  These results will be combined with results from other projects, including on-going lighting studies being conducted in the faculty mentor’s lab, to inform growers about some things to watch for when they trial LED lights at their own operations.  The student will have the opportunity to work with (help collect data; learn about analytical systems, etc.) M.Sc. and Ph.D. graduate students currently working on light quality studies aimed at improving crop production efficiency.

KTT Opportunities: 

The student will have the opportunity to compile and contribute to various KTT resources from their project. These will include at minimum:

  • Two tools to help growers conduct their own on-farm trials (e.g. videos, checklists, mapping tools, infographics).
  • One post on the ONFloriculture Blog post.
  • A poster to be displayed at the Canadian Greenhouse Conference in October 2020.

In addition, the student may also have the opportunity to contribute to one or more of the following:

  • Scientific articles and/or an article for Greenhouse Canada magazine in partnership with the researchers.
  • Post project updates and other relevant information, and/or maintain a ‘Project Blog’ under the Faculty’s program website.

OMAFRA Mentors: Travis Cranmer and Dennis Van Dyk 

University of Guelph Faculty Mentor: Mary Ruth McDonald (Department of Plant Agriculture)

Preferred Location: Guelph

Project Description:

This project addresses plant health priorities with the branch and ministry. The student will utilize weather data alongside existing models to aid in the forecasting of vegetable pest and pathogen for growers of vegetable crops in multiple counties across Southwestern, Eastern and Northern Ontario. The student will be focusing on key Ontario pests including but not limited to early blight of potatoes, downy mildew of onions, carrot rust fly, cabbage maggot in brassica crops, leek moth in garlic as well as downy mildew in lettuce. The University of Guelph and more specifically the collaboration with Dr. Mary Ruth McDonald at the Muck Crops Research Station will provide the support necessary for forecasting models to be implemented properly and can provide recommendations for tweaking new or existing models.

The commodities monitored in this project contribute greatly to Ontario’s economy, including potatoes – $101 million, Brassica crops (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, rutabaga, turnip) – $88 million, carrots – $41 million, onions – $33 million, and Garlic – $30 million for a total farm gate value of $293 million. These commodities must be protected by improving production practices and improving pest and disease management. With the advancement of IPM strategies, increased crop yields and a more efficient use of inputs, these sectors could grow to contribute well over 300 million dollars annually.

This project aligns with OMAFRA’s Plant Health strategy to improve plant health and encourage the use of sustainable crop protection practices across the agri-food sector in Ontario. Pest management issues are an annual and significant threat to these crops and one of the hurdles preventing these commodities from further growth. With the loss of key pest management products due to regulatory decisions as well as challenges with resistance, there is a significant need across the vegetable sector for disease and insect forecasting systems.

The student will compile a weekly vegetable crop report for commercial growers that will allow these producers to have an increased awareness and preparedness for key emerging disease and insect pests. Providing timely articles and information to horticulture producers through the vegetable crop report and other mediums will allow producers identify how they can effectively implement additional integrated pest management strategies on their farm and reduce pesticide use in real time throughout the growing season.

KTT Opportunities: 

The student will be engaged in in various knowledge transfer activities and planning activities such as:

  • Developing the Vegetable communication plan, building their organization and communication skillsets;
  • Summarizing data and creating a weekly vegetable crop report;
  • Developing articles for the ONVegetables blog;
  • Collaborating with University of Guelph faculty and students, OMAFRA staff and the vegetable industry to collect data and develop forecasting models;
  • Interacting with vegetable growers and industry representatives by participating in various vegetable extension events;
  • Develop and further strengthen their mathematical skillset by developing models to describe relationships between environment, host and pests/ pathogens;
  • Develop a poster for use at the Ontario Pest Management Conference or the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention;
  • Further their technical knowledge and experience by receiving hands-on experience scouting and identifying crop pests and pathogens;
  • Gain direct experience in the dissemination of research evidence, contributing to the development of new tools to support vegetable crop production.

OMAFRA Mentor: Joanna Follings

University of Guelph Faculty Mentor: Istvan Rajcan (Department of Plant Agriculture)

Preferred Location: Guelph

Project Description:

This project addresses plant health and stewardship priorities within the branch and ministry. The student will be focusing on phenotyping methods used in wheat breeding. Collaboration with the University of Guelph, Dr. Istvan Rajcan and the Wheat Breeding team and the OMAFRA Cereal Specialists will provide the student with support necessary for the student to gain new exposure and crop breeding knowledge that will be used to create KTT products to share with Ontario wheat producers. The student will gain experience on how to communicate nutrient trial design and results to the cereal sector, as well as field experience in soil sampling and using small agricultural equipment. Furthermore, the student will have the opportunity to study the commercial lines within the population that are commonly grown in Ontario and examine their performance under phosphorus stress.

This project aligns with OMAFRA’s Plant Health and Stewardship strategies to improve plant health and encourage sustainable crop protection practices used in the agri-food sector in Ontario. Breeding for Phosphorus Use Efficiency in wheat is a research focus for the University of Guelph’s Wheat Breeding program. There is currently a project that involves assessing 200 lines of Canadian winter wheat germplasm for phosphorus stress response, with the aim of investigating the genetic basis for phosphorus use efficiency. In the 2020 growing season, this panel will be grown under differential phosphorus conditions and evaluated for traits impacted by phosphorus stress. Additionally, key lines will be grown ex situ to assess the role of root system architecture and morphology in relation to the phosphorus use efficiency of these lines. 

KTT Opportunities: 

  • Collaborate with University of Guelph faculty, students and OMAFRA staff to identify career opportunities in the agriculture sector.
  • The University of Guelph Wheat Breeding Program holds annual field days in June of every year. The student will be participating in the field day, preparing a scientific poster and giving a short presentation summarizing the project they are working on to growers, agronomists and other researchers.  The student will also be interacting with wheat stakeholders attending the field day.
  • Will attend breakfast meetings throughout May and June in Exeter and other locations when possible to share results with agronomists as they come available.
  • Will attend Ontario Cereals Crop Committee (OCCC) plot inspection tours in June and July (south, central and eastern Ontario).  Will prepare a presentation on the research project for the OCCC meeting held in August.  This meeting is attended by researchers, agronomists, seed companies, millers and grower organizations (i.e. Grain Farmers of Ontario and Ontario Soil Crop Improvement Association).
  • The student will present results at different crop field days as part of broader wheat presentations (potential events include FarmSmart Expo – July, Southwest Crop Diagnostic Days – July, and Eastern Crop Diagnostic Day – July).
  • Will prepare one article on the project at the end of the summer to be posted on Field Crop News.  If possible, this article will also be shared in the Grain Farmers of Ontario magazine with a reach of 28,000 producers.
  • Will prepare a presentation on the proposed research project that will be shared with OMAFRA staff, students and U of G faculty at the end of the summer.

OMAFRA Mentor: James Dyck

University of Guelph Faculty Mentor: Erica Pensini (School of Engineering)

Preferred Location: Guelph with ability to travel to field offices

Project Description:

Waste plastics are a growing problem in all aspects of agriculture (e.g. horticulture, crop production, livestock) where many plastics are used but are not readily recyclable (e.g. bale wrap, irrigation drip lines, greenhouse film, pallet wrap, etc.). In addition, research into the replacement of single-use plastics with alternate materials or methods will help the agricultural sector adjust to increased focus on plastic waste reduction (e.g. the federal government has plans to place a ban on single use plastics by 2021). 

This project will investigate the extent of plastics use on farms and in rural agricultural processing facilities, examine alternatives to plastic use and identify opportunities for farmers to develop/adopt these alternatives.  The student will be engaged in characterization of plastic use (e.g. how much, what types, variance between types of commodity groups), identification of challenges with recycling (e.g. “dirty” plastic, mud/manure contamination, different recycling streams needed) and research on opportunities and/or technologies to reduce or reuse plastics (e.g. alternatives to plastic, behaviour change, incentive program, etc.).  Working with OMAFRA specialists, the student will connect with commodity organisations (e.g. Grape Growers of Ontario, Ontario Tender Fruit, Grain Farmers of Ontario, Beef Farmers of Ontario, Chicken Farmers on Ontario, Egg Farmers of Ontario, etc.) to characterize plastic use in each sector, as well as with existing initiatives to identify and collect on-farm plastics (e.g. Cleanfarms, SwitchEnergy, U-Pac Agri Services), to gather data about on-farm plastic use and investigate opportunities for alternatives.  As well, the student will be involved in numerous opportunities to connect directly with stakeholders and provide knowledge sharing to educate the agricultural community on plastics best practices.

This project will strengthen the sustainability of the agri-food sector through increased awareness of plastic waste and through identifying opportunities for improved plastics waste management, reduced environmental impact, alternatives and new technologies.  The 2019-2020 Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance research projects incorporate several OMAFRA research questions related to plastics on farm.  The exact scope of this project will be re-evaluated once projects under the Alliance agreement are formally approved.

KTT Opportunities: 

The student, with support from OMAFRA and University of Guelph mentors, will be involved in numerous KTT activities to increase industry awareness of plastics issues and highlight opportunities for improving how ag plastics are managed.  These opportunities may include:

  • Meetings with various sector commodity groups for information gathering and education sharing, and to identify the best KTT options would be most useful to each commodity group (e.g. print and/or digital resources, presentations, webinars, interactive tools).
  • Collaboration with OMAFRA specialists and UofG faculty members, as well as connections with faculty at other institutions (e.g. University of Waterloo).
  • Connections with programs such as Cleanfarms, SwitchEnergy and U-Pac Agri Services to identify gaps in current plastics collection programs.
  • Connections with alternative materials producers (e.g. bioplastics manufacturers) to investigate replacements for traditional plastics.
  • Development of content related to agricultural plastics which can be used for factsheets, articles, best management practice publications, etc.
  • Preparation and delivery of a presentation on agricultural plastics use and opportunities at agricultural events (e.g. FarmSmart Expo in Elora, July 2020) to farmers and agri-business personnel.
  • Preparation of a summary report outlining the extent of agricultural plastics use and opportunities for improvements/alternatives.
  • Presentation to OMAFRA policy & program staff and UofG faculty & staff at 1 Stone Road (August 2020) highlighting findings and opportunities for action.

OMAFRA Mentors: Jim Warren and Dan Saurette

University of Guelph Faculty Mentor: Adam Gillespie (School of Environmental Sciences)

Preferred Location: Guelph

Project Description:

This project addresses soil strategy priorities with the branch and ministry.

The student would research and develop a StoryMap(s) using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software that would explain the soil mapping process for our clients in the agriculture sector in a user-friendly, visual format.

Updating soil maps and information is identified as a key theme and action under the Ministry’s Soil Strategy, supports soil health and water stewardship efforts under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP), the Agri-environmental plan and Great Lakes action plans.

OMAFRA staff are in the process of updating and renewing Ontario’s legacy soil maps and information utilizing new technology and processes. Map updates are being done through a new method known as predictive digital soil mapping (PDSM). As new maps are generated there is a need to communicate with users how Ontario’s legacy soil maps are being updated by OMAFRA using PDSM, why updated soil maps and information are useful for producers/farmers, and how the resultant products of the digital soil mapping process can be utilized by producers, certified crop advisors, crop advisors, land use planners and other clients.

This project aligns with OMAFRA’s Soil Health strategy actions to improve our soil mapping and information which in turn supports efforts in soil health, stewardship and encourage sustainable crop protection practices are used in the agri-food sector in Ontario.

KTT Opportunities: 

The StoryMap would be posted to and accessed through the OMAFRA website and other websites (perhaps the Ontario GeoHub (Land Information Ontario) for consumption by the public.

A series of “how to access, understand and use the maps visual panels would be incorporated into the StoryMap.

The student would be encouraged to present the StoryMap demonstration at the UofG Soil Health Interpretation Centre, Elora, soil health and management days and other events that occur during the summer months to growers, industry and the public.

The student would develop skills in communicating technical information to client groups in an understandable and user-friendly fashion.

StoryMaps are used with great effect by many organizations where they need to inform clients of programs, technical materials and information in a visual way.

OMAFRA Mentor: Jeanine Boulter-Bitzer

University of Guelph Faculty Mentor: Keith Warriner (Department of Food Science)

Preferred Location: OMAFRA, 1 Stone Road West, Guelph

Project Description:

OMAFRA has taken the lead in improving Ontario’s food safety system by designing and implementing a science-based food safety system.  Carcasses become contaminated early in the food chain, primarily at slaughter, during hide removal, washing, dressing, and handling, and during post-dressing processing such as grinding, and by cross-contamination during packaging, handling and food preparation. Ground (minced) meats pose a particular risk, because grinding results in co-mingling (spreading) and internalization of the bacteria. Baseline work conducted by OMAFRA in the recent past has indicated that the application of interventions to carcass surfaces to control pathogen presence in the abattoirs would be a beneficial step in safeguarding the food supply.  Food safety has always been a priority for OMAFRA’s Meat Inspection Program, the recent requirements mandating the use of microbial control interventions are assisting plant operators with further ensuring production of safe food.  A considerable amount of outreach and educational work has been completed to date to ensure implementation of effective microbial control interventions in abattoirs.

The impact of those interventions cannot be quantified without conducting some verification work through carcass sampling.  This project has two primary goals: (1) to evaluate and verify the effectiveness of mandatory microbial control interventions in provincial abattoirs slaughtering beef/veal, sheep, goats and pigs; and (2) to obtain data on prevalence & levels of indicator microorganisms (generic E. coli & coliforms) and pathogens (STEC and Salmonella) at provincial abattoirs slaughtering sheep, goats and pigs. Results of this study will assist with demonstrating to plant operators the positive impact of the implementation of microbial control interventions in red meat species by verifying the intervention systems in place are working properly as well as measuring the success of the mandatory antimicrobial intervention program.

The University of Guelph student will further their leadership and project management skills while working on this project as it is a multi-faceted project that although has over-arching goals of furthering food safety initiatives, there also are time-sensitive results that must be communicated in individual plants where data is gathered to assist the plant in daily operations. These results will be critical to plant performance as a business regulated by the Ministry. 

KTT Opportunities: 

This project will showcase the importance of fostering effective working relationships between industry and government. The student will learn how to balance the government’s role as a regulator with engaging industry to advance food safety.

Results of this verification work will be shared directly with meat plant operators and discussed on subsequent visits as educational tools to improve proper implementation of interventions to suit their unique operation. As many slaughter plants in the province are unfamiliar with microbial control interventions, part of the success of this project resides in the ability of the student involved in this project to further transfer skills to plant operators who will be learning through this work not only about proper use of interventions, but also about hygienic slaughter practices.

Development of communications skills will be furthered not only in working with ministry staff but also stakeholders when results are shared, particularly on aggregate basis at meetings. The student will also be responsible for compiling and analyzing aggregate data to develop a final report for ministry use in policy development and program delivery. Components of this report must also be tailored for sharing formally with plant operators and in a workshop forum in collaboration with stakeholders working in the meat sector. As well, the student will be responsible for preparing interim and final project summaries for newsletter dissemination to provincially licensed meat plants through ministry publications.

Presentations of project interim and final results will be required for upper management at OMAFRA and used as educational materials for provincially appointed inspectors at field meetings (e.g., area meetings with meat inspectors and area managers).