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Answering big questions: A day in the life of a dairy researcher

Olivia Genther-Schroeder for Progressive Dairyman Published on 06 November 2018

Everything starts with a question. How do feed transitions impact rumen development? What protein and fat levels do calves need to reach their full potential?

How can we set heifers up to grow into high-producing cows?

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My job as a dairy cattle nutrition researcher revolves around asking questions, then finding a way to get an answer. I’m driven by analyzing data. Through my research, I hope to move the dairy industry forward by developing feeds that help calves and heifers meet their full potential.

I work with the more-than-700 dairy animals at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center, a fully operational dairy farm and research lab located outside of St. Louis, Missouri.

Days start early on a dairy farm – earlier than I do. If there’s a pressing issue with the calves, I’ve probably received an email about it before I wake at 6 a.m. I check my email for anything urgent and make sure my dogs, Atlas and Molly, are set for the day before heading out the door. It’s a quick 20-minute drive to the “office.”

Once I arrive, I head to the administration building, coffee in hand, and fire up my computer. I check my schedule and see what’s in store for the day. We’re in the middle of a rumen development trial that requires a hands-on approach. While many research positions are more hands-off, I love getting my hands dirty whenever I get a chance.

Most days I bounce back and forth among the barn, the lab and the office. My first stop today is the heifer barn, where I help collect rumen samples. I work with the barn team, veterinarians and scientists to ensure samples are collected and stored correctly, and photos are taken to document observations.

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The whole process takes nearly four hours, but I enjoy every minute working with our team to collect data – something I never expected to love.

My journey to becoming a dairy researcher wasn’t typical. I didn’t grow up on a farm, or anywhere near agriculture for that matter. My dogs were the closest thing I had to livestock. I didn’t find my passion for dairy until college, when my adviser at Michigan State University encouraged me to work in the air quality chambers taking care of the cows. I fell in love.

I check my watch, and it’s about 11 a.m. Time to head to the research lab. Today I’m analyzing rumen samples, looking at tissue weights and rumen morphology. I’m hoping to understand what the cell layers of the rumen look like, how they develop and if there are any differences based on feeding rations or treatments. If we can better understand the rumen, we can tailor our feeds to meet their exact needs.

After a quick lunch, I make my way back to the heifer barn. It’s my favorite place on the farm. I enjoy walking up and down the rows and watching the curious heifers come running over. I know I’m seeing our future herd growing in front of my eyes.

It’s 1 p.m., and I’m back at my desk for some office time. My focus is drafting protocols for a new trial starting in a few weeks. These protocols will help the barn team know precisely what the trial entails, what kind of samples are needed and when to take samples. I order the feed required for the trial and schedule a meeting with the barn team to review the protocols.

We have multiple trials happening simultaneously, so part of my job is being a master organizer. We’re fortunate to have an amazing barn team that does the majority of the day-to-day work, feeding, animal care and collecting animal measurements. We’ve completed 16 feed trials so far this year, just for calves and heifers. These experiments add to the more than 24,000 trials completed at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center since it first opened.

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My last task of the day is putting the finishing touches on a presentation. Once a week, all of the researchers at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center meet to share project results and updates. It’s a great way to get input from team members outside of the dairy team.

The Purina Animal Nutrition Center is home to 3,000 animals, including beef, swine, equine, poultry and more. I might receive input from a rabbit researcher, an equine researcher or even a honeybee researcher to help move my own dairy research forward.

This week, it’s my turn to present the results of a recently completed program feeding experiment. These results are a long time coming. We evaluated each animal for 168 days through the pre-weaning, post-weaning and growing period.

There’s nothing as satisfying as seeing an experiment through to completion, getting my hands on the results and figuring out what we’re going to do next. In my line of work, answering one question inevitably uncovers 10 more questions that need answers.

I head home for the day, my brain still whirling with data and questions. To decompress, my husband, Colin, and I take our dogs hiking. I check my emails one more time (because I just can’t stay away) and settle in for the night. I’m looking forward to another day and another question answered.  end mark

PHOTO: Oliva Schroeder, Ph.D., senior research scientist with Purina Animal Nutrition. Courtesy photo.

Olivia Genther-Schroeder is a senior research scientist at Purina Animal Nutrition. Email Olivia Genther-Schroeder.

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