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Published: 15 Jul 2022

PhD candidate Sandra Ospina Rios is hoping to see several positives from her research, including dairy heifers' improved productivity.

This study will rear dairy heifers in contact with her dam, following heifers from birth to 12 months of age.
"We hypothesise that there will be short and long-term effects of dam rearing on the development of calf stress resilience, cognition and social behaviour, leading to dairy heifers' improved productivity," Sandra said.

PhD Title: Assessing the viability and implications of a cow-calf rearing system for pasture-based dairy production.

Please describe your research project:

Under typical commercial conditions, calves are removed from the dam within 24 hours to ensure their colostrum consumption, weight gain, health, and to avoid separation distress. Previous studies in cow-calf suckling systems have been mostly conducted indoors. They have suggested a possible positive effect of heifer and dam interactions on calves' social and cognitive development, stress resilience and positive emotional states such as play by environmental enrichment. All together, dam rearing might be an alternative route to improving heifers' productivity by facilitating the establishment and development of dairy heifers' social behaviour and stress resilience. My research is the first step in providing an innovative approach to traditional heifer rearing pasture-based practices. The results of this investigation will extend scientific knowledge of early rearing environments in pasture-based dairy systems.

My research aims to examine the viability of cow-calf rearing systems in pasture-based dairies and the long-term effects on cognitive and social development, stress resilience, welfare and productivity of dairy heifers.

How is the project funded?

Australian Sustainable Agriculture Scholarship program (a joint UTAS-CSIRO program) - Hugh Wirth Humane Animal Production Scholarship (RSPCA).

How would you like to see your research used? I would like my research to be used to develop best practice protocols for cow-calf rearing systems in pasture-based dairies and as an alternative route to improving animal productivity that recognises the gregariousness of production animals by facilitating appropriate development and expression of dairy cattle social behaviour.

What do you enjoy about studying/researching at TIA? I enjoy my days out in the field and working with cattle while studying/researching at TIA. The TDRF at Elliot has a beautiful landscape with blue sky, green hills and dairy cattle. I consider it a privilege to study agricultural science in Tasmania and have an immersive agricultural experience. 

Can you share a "best moment" in your research so far? The best moment has been the calves' rearing. Although the research was run during a rainy and windy winter, I loved seeing my trial heifers grow happy and healthy with their dams, enjoying themselves and interacting as a little herd. I also watched the calves learn how to interact with other cows from their dams; it was highly rewarding.

A word of advice or favourite quote? My word of advice regarding studying life might be - to be kind to yourself. As a PhD student, you have a lot on your plate. You have to juggle academic and personal life while keeping your physical/mental well-being healthy. Try to find a middle point that enables you to enjoy the journey across your research project and be honest with yourself if you need to take a break from work.