“We live in a changing world,” said Professor Dan Weary. “The general public is increasingly interested in where their food comes from and in giving animals a reasonable life. Our job as animal welfare researchers is to find ways to keep dairy cows healthy and functioning well, while meeting the concerns of dairy farmers and the public.”
For more than fifteen years, Weary and Professor Marina (Nina) von Keyserlingk have worked closely with the Canadian Dairy Industry to identify some of the critical issues dairy farmers are facing, such as cow lameness and disease.
“We’re focused on finding practical solutions that farmers can incorporate that won’t have a negative effect on their livelihood and that the public can accept,” said von Keyserlingk. “These aren’t issues we’re just facing in BC, these are global issues. What we’re discovering here can be applied on dairy farms all over the world.”
Weary and von Keyserlingk’s research is frequently published in leading industry journals and often makes international headlines. Last year, their study on pair housing, which showed that dairy calves who are reared according to conventional practice (i.e. housed by themselves for the first 6 to 8 weeks of life) have a harder time learning compared to calves who are socially housed, led to media coverage in Scientific American, The LA Times and The Economist. They have also received many award for their work; Weary received the Killam Research Prize in 2015, von Keyserlingk received the American Dairy Science Association Award for Excellence in Dairy Science in 013 (sponsored by Elanco), and they were jointly awarded the Ruminant Well-Being Award earlier this year (see sidebar).
Part of what makes their research partnership so successful —and highly productive — is a mutual respect and their different but complementary research strengths. “We can do more together than we could ever do individually,” von Keyserlingk said, adding that their weekly two-and-a-half hour commute from UBC’s Vancouver campus to the UBC Dairy Education and Research Centre in Agassiz affords them regular time to problem solve and brainstorm ideas.
While much of their research is conducted at the UBC Dairy Education and Research Centre, a world-class facility supporting the development and adaptation of new technologies for the dairy industry, Weary and von Keyserlingk also do research on commercial farms in BC and elsewhere in North America. The results of this on-farm research is also helpful for the farmers who participate in the work, as they are able to benchmark their performance against that of their peers, and use the data to develop tailored solutions for their own dairy farms.
As busy as their research keeps them, it’s only part of the job. They are also in heavy demand as lecturers for professional and academic audiences around the world; last year alone the pair gave more than 30 invited lectures in over a dozen countries. Weary and von Keyserlingk are also enthusiastic and popular teachers in the Faculty, and supervise more than a dozen graduate students. Both have received the Killam Teaching Prize for outstanding teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
“It’s always an adventure when a new graduate student comes along,” said Weary, who received the Killam Teaching Prize in 2014 for outstanding teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels. “The dynamics of working with that student and hearing their ideas, figuring out how to manage those ideas into a workable project — it’s like mixing a recipe.”
Their students, in fact, are what they are the most proud of and what they consider their greatest contribution.
“It’s the research that gets the limelight, but we wouldn’t have any of that without the students,” said von Keyserlingk. “They’re incredibly passionate, and they are going to create positive change for animal welfare in the future.”