If there’s any question about the University of Guelph’s commitment to the country’s $6-billion dairy sector, just check the inscription on the institution’s new, specialized logo unveiled last week. It leaves little doubt: Guelph has branded itself “Canada’s dairy university.”
The university decisively, ceremoniously and logically planted its flag on Canadian dairy at a teaching and research symposium at the Delta Hotel and Conference Centre across from the main campus, where a collective initiative called Dairy at Guelph was announced.
Prof. David Kelton, one of Canada’s leading dairy researchers, told the 200 symposium attendees that Dairy at Guelph is meant to tighten linkages among the University of Guelph’s cadre of dairy specialists. They comprise 65 faculty, plus staff, graduate and undergraduate students and post-doctoral researchers, across 12 departments and five colleges. That makes them one of the world’s largest such research and teaching groups.
“We really are the centre of the dairy universe,” says Kelton.
That’s big. And while you might normally call such claims bravado, the Guelph researchers have the pedigree and the partners to back it up.
Their track record dates back to the 1800s and the university’s founding colleges. Giants in agricultural and veterinary research and teaching established themselves there, serving Ontario’s farm and food interests, and forming highly influential research groups. Like other ag and food researchers, they collaborated with government and industry to work on the problems and opportunities of the day, including food safety.
As time went on, specialized dairy research chairs were established in health, nutrition, microbiology and genomics. Research groups and initiatives took on such names as the Centre for the Genetic Improvement of Livestock, the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare, the Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses, the University of Guelph Food Institute, and now, most lately, Dairy at Guelph.
Rich Moccia, Guelph’s associate vice-president of research in charge of strategic partnerships, says collaborating has been key to the dairy experts’ success. They’ve worked hand-in-hand with farmers, represented by what is now Dairy Farmers of Ontario, and industry leaders such as Elanco, Semex and Saputo. They tackled huge issues and made significant progress on them, including disease prevention, nutrition, protein production and milk composition, cow and calf performance, feed contamination, immunity and animal welfare.
Their efforts were continually buoyed by support from the federal and provincial government, particularly through the unique partnership with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Most lately, their joint efforts with the ministry and industry culminated in the creation of the $25-million Livestock Research Innovation Centre – Dairy Facility at the Elora Research Station.
“It’s a research facility that is undoubtedly one of the best — if not the best — dairy cattle research facility anywhere,” says Moccia.
The university has a service capacity as well when it comes to dairy. Its agriculture and food laboratory processes nearly 900,000 raw milk samples annual for composition and quality analysis. As well, veterinarians across the province and beyond access the university’s animal health laboratory, where 1.3 million animal health tests — including tests for dairy animals — are conducted every year.
This dairy expertise has existed for decades. In some cases, it goes back a century. So why now is it being given a handle everyone can identify with?
Researcher Kelton cites a couple of reasons. First, technology has created opportunities for scientists to work together like never before. And dairy touches so many areas — animal health and nutrition, genomics, consumer behaviour, human health, product development and economic policy, among them. For example, one of Guelph’s greatest product achievements, Dairy Oh! milk, involved a collaboration among animal nutritionists, human nutritionists, business development specialists and consumer behaviourists.
Second, the beverage market is highly competitive, and dairy is constantly being challenged to find new ways to gain market share. Health attributes are a big reason people choose dairy; tweaks with additional nutrients such as selenium, underway now in Guelph’s animal biosciences department, could make it even more attractive. Such creative approaches to human health are seen as positive externally, and can be helpful attracting new graduate students and research funding.
And finally, overall, the University of Guelph is making it clear it wants to be Canada’s leading agri-food institution, and is showing support for initiatives such as Dairy at Guelph that underline that leadership message. Guelph self-identifies lately as “Canada’s Food University.” And given dairy is an essential food group and a huge part of Guelph’s stake in food, “Canada’s dairy university” is a good fit.