Mentorship program helps new livestock faculty

LRIC initiative helps new Guelph researchers deepen their understanding of livestock agriculture

Mike Swidersky, sheep and beef farmer in Amaranth, right, answers questions from mentees on a farm visit last fall.

Agricultural research is increasingly tackling topics that are multi-faceted and complex - think regenerative agriculture, greenhouse gas emissions or One Health - and more often that not, finding solutions requires a broad spectrum of expertise. 

That means faculty from disciplines outside of animal or plant science can be working on agricultural research, but even within those departments, many may have little familiarity with the sector.

Why it matters: Science can be more effective at solving industry problems if researchers have a good understanding of issues facing the sector and good working relationships with key players in each commodity.

That gap between farm and faculty is what led to an “ah-ha” moment about 18 months ago for Mike McMorris, chief executive officer of Livestock Research Innovation Corporation (LRIC), and ultimately resulted in a mentorship pilot program to connect early-stage faculty at the University of Guelph with the Ontario livestock industry.

“Innovation requires many things, including sound research rooted in industry needs, strong working relationships between university faculty and industry, and effective technology transfer involving many organizations,” says McMorris. “This pilot project gives early-stage faculty a chance to gain some of those insights and connections in our industry that will hopefully help them in their work.” 

The first cohort of nine participants from the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC), Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), and College of Engineering and Physical Sciences (CEPS) wrapped up this past spring. COVID-19 impacted both the program’s length and delivery format, but overall, it was deemed a success. 

The program is a welcome addition for OAC Dean Rene Van Acker, who sees value in ensuring faculty understand the goals and aspirations of industry organizations and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), both of which are significant funders of livestock research in the province. 

“We appreciate what LRIC has been doing in terms of providing leadership for newer faculty and building as much alignment as possible between industry partners, OMAFRA and faculty to understand what the possibilities for research and partnerships could be,” he notes. 

OVC Dean Jeff Wichtel, who didn’t grow up with a connection to agriculture, also sees value in the program and its ability to generate new research collaborations between faculty from different departments. 

“I think back to how much easier it would have been to have this when I started; it has proven to be valuable,” he says. “Collaboration is organic as people get to know each other and institutional attempts to generate collaboration aren’t as successful, it requires a human touch. We hope to keep this academy of mentees connected moving forward.”

With most of the programming delivered virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions, in-person farm tours and meetings were largely not held, taking away valuable learning and networking opportunities. 

Still, LRIC was able to facilitate connections between faculty and producers that are already showing tangible results. OVC associate professor Heather Murphy, for example, changed the approach of one of her research proposals to include on-farm water quality work after getting feedback from producers. 

Environmental engineer professor Rafael Santos was able to secure an OMAFRA Highly Qualified Personnel scholarship for a student because it was addressing a real problem in the livestock sector - based on what Santos learned from people in the industry. 

Dave Renaud, a veterinary epidemiologist at OVC, already has a fairly extensive agricultural background. For him, the most valuable aspects of the program were discussions around how commodity boards make research funding decisions, and how to structure a funding proposal. 

“When taking funding proposals to the board level, it’s important to focus on why the research is important to the industry and what’s in it for producers,” he notes. 

LRIC commissioned Steven Roche of ACER Consulting to conduct in-depth interviews with the mentees and prepare a report of recommendations for LRIC to consider when planning for the next cohort. 

Overall, the program’s strengths included the small group size, content that provided a broad overview of the livestock industry and the different commodities, insights into how research is funded, and the opportunity to engage both with farmers and the LRIC team. 

“The program has helped mentees think about how their research programs can fit in the livestock sector. It has resulted in a newly funded project about how to improve knowledge transfer and several other proposals have now been submitted for funding that were stimulated out of this program,” Roche says. “That’s a positive outcome already.” 

Recommendations for enhancement included more emphasis on knowledge transfer and grant writing, more opportunities for facilitated discussions with presenters, the ability to receive feedback on draft grant proposals, and expanding eligibility to other colleges at the university to encourage more cross-collaboration between disciplines.

LRIC is already developing a more formal guide for the voluntary program to give new mentees a better idea of what they are committing themselves to and what they can expect in return. The next program will have a stronger focus on networking with presenters as well as opportunities for the mentees to get to know each other, and a return of the farm visit program, McMorris noted. 

“We also had exceptional industry participation,” he adds. “The key advice for researchers was around the importance of building a relationship with industry and a need for much improved technology transfer.” 

This article is provided by Livestock Research Innovation Corporation as part of its ongoing efforts to drive innovation in the livestock sector. 

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