Out of the Classroom and Into the Field

Posted on Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Written by Alanna Pot

In 2010, Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) dean Rob Gordon met with Aileen MacNeil, director of the Agriculture Development Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) regarding the challenges the branch was facing with finding qualified employees. While scribbling ideas on a napkin at a restaurant, the two agreed on a partnership where OAC students could learn new skills under the mentorship of both OMAFRA staff and University of Guelph (UofG) professors.

From this meeting, the Undergraduate Student Experiential Learning (USEL) program was created. The USEL program provides third year OAC students with an opportunity to learn more about the agricultural industry through hands-on research and technology transfer projects. Five students are chosen for the program and are mentored by OMAFRA specialists and UofG professors. The assigned projects deal directly with key issues within the Ontario agricultural sector.

“The USEL program provides students with opportunities to explore their own interests within their project – they have ownership of what they are doing and guidance from ministry specialists and university professors. This provides them with strong learning and gives them hands on practical experience that will prepare them for future employment in industry,” explains Joanne Handley, manager of sustainable production at OMAFRA.

On October 3rd, the five students who participated in the program last summer presented what they accomplished and explained their roles in the following research projects:

  • Building scenarios for sheep herd expansion in Ontario
  • Evaluating methods of total mixed ration (TMR) analysis
  • Development of best management practices for greenhouse water and fertilizer use
  • Strawberry aphid monitoring and management in Ontario strawberries
  • Development of technology transfer materials in the Ontario hops industry

Tanya Wilson, a fourth year animal biology student minoring in nutraceutical sciences, researched the methods of TMR analysis. This project evaluated procedures of feed storage, preparation and delivery of TMR to ensure the highest quality.

A common practice used during a TMR audit requires a sodium analysis from an outside party. Tanya’s project hoped to determine an easy, efficient, accurate and economical method of analysis that producers could use themselves.

Student Tanya Wilson poses outside infront of green trees
Tanya Wilson

Working for OMAFRA dairy nutritionist Tom Wright and Professor Vern Osborne of the Animal and Poultry Science Department at the University of Guelph, Tanya took samples of TMR mixes at various Ontario dairy farms using white beans as a tracer.

Beans were added to the mix, and then fed in front of the livestock as usual.  A sample was taken and the beans were counted to check for consistency in the mix. To determine whether it was over mixed or under mixed, each sample was also shaken out in a particle separator.

“Accuracy in running the mixer ensures that the feed is not over or under mixed, both of which can cause problems. Over mixing of feed by mixing for too long, or having a smaller load can grind or pulverize the feed and cause a greater amount of variation in the feed,” explains Tanya. “The consequences of under mixing the feed are less severe; it may result in a less effective utilization of the feed, which could increase costs in the long run.”

Tanya visited thirteen farms and completed sixteen TMR audits. The project allowed her to make many connections in the industry, which she stated as being one of the biggest highlights of the program.

“It was such a good experience. Before starting this I was interested in dairy nutrition but did not know what it was all about or what exactly they did. This program was a great firsthand experience of the industry.”

Erica Pate, a student in the honours agricultural major of the Bachelor of Science in Agriculture degree, participated in a project on strawberry aphid monitoring and management in Ontario. Under the mentorship of OMAFRA berry crop specialist Pam Fisher and Rebecca Hallet from the School of Environmental Sciences, Erica travelled to various strawberry farms across the province to conduct her research.

Strawberry aphids were only recently identified as a problem for Ontario strawberry farmers so there was limited information on their life cycle, overwintering methods, population build-up and dispersal. Erica’s research worked toward filling in these information gaps and presenting her findings to farmers and industry professionals.

Erica improved her project management skills as she was given a lot of independence throughout the summer, which gave her a real sense of ownership and pride over the project. 

Erica also utilized the program’s focus on knowledge translation and transfer (KTT) as an opportunity to improve her communication skills. One of the key roles of the students is to share research findings by designing electronic materials such as online newsletters and website content, and making presentations to producer groups and other stakeholders.

“This experience has shown me how another side of the industry, the extension side, works and the job opportunities within the ministry. It really helped me to narrow my focus on a future career,” shares Erica.

It’s obvious through this year’s cohort of students that the USEL program is meeting its goal of nurturing the up and coming generation of agri-food leaders. The students have built up their resume, knowledge and confidence as well as exposed them to different aspects of the agricultural sector.

Funding for the program is provided by Agri-Food and Rural Link, the hub for knowledge translation and transfer (KTT) at the University of Guelph, through the OMAFRA-U of G Partnership.

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