University of Saskatchewan reviewing research projects

Animal care is considered critical at the university, but COVID-19 is likely to delay results from some beef and forage research projects.

As uncertainty around COVID-19 grows, the University of Saskatchewan expects to put some of its beef and forage research projects on hold.

The university has asked faculty to “dial back” research activities as much as possible so that students, staff and faculty can observe stay-at-home and social distancing protocols, says Dr. Mary Buhr, dean of agriculture and bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan. From there, they’re determining which research projects and activities are critical — the type of activities that “if you stop now, it’s going to be absolutely devastating.”

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All animal care is critical, Buhr adds. Calving, for example, is underway at the Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence.

“So all the staff who look after animals are regarded as essential staff and are continuing to work. But we’ve put in place all kinds of regulations and procedures to make sure that they are as safe as they possibly can be.”

The Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence is closed to the public. Only essential workers are at the centre, and they’re only to be on-site while completing their work, Buhr explains. Once they’ve finished their tasks, they’re to head home.

As for other projects, researchers are preparing as if the projects will go ahead, especially when it comes to forage trials. But those projects will be re-assessed in mid-April.

“Our expectation is that the world will change,” says Buhr. “We’re not going to authorize a project to go ahead now when we might then have to stop it.”

Researchers are also evaluating their projects and submitting those that they think are critical. For example, there is forage development work underway that could see the loss of new varieties if it’s interrupted at the wrong time.

Buhr reviews the submissions, along with the department head and associate dean of research. The trio then forwards the projects they think should go ahead to the vice president of research, who has the final say.

Researchers will also have to focus on the most critical measurements for the project and list safety precautions they’ll take. For example, if a team has to take measurements from a small area of replicate pastures seeded to different forage varieties, they will have to take separate vehicles. They will also have to have separate equipment and sanitize everything. For those working with livestock, livestock handling equipment must be sanitized, which Buhr acknowledges is an “enormous task,” but is something that must be done.

COVID-19 has affected every aspect of how the university operates. For example, the university has set up elaborate protocols to deliver breeder seed to licensed breeders. Breeders send in orders, which university staff prepare. A university employee then puts the order on one side of a gate and moves away. The breeder then picks it up. Those working in labs disinfect surfaces as soon as they enter the room, while working and again before leaving. People are also working staggered hours.

The long-term implications for the university’s research will vary depending on the project. There will be some “slow-down in achievement of end goals,” says Buhr, adding that most funding agencies have been “extremely understanding” about the expected delays in results or in extending funding. Staff salaries are being paid out of these grants, Buhr says, and the university wants to continue to pay its people. But even with the extension in funding, the university isn’t getting more money for that extra year, she adds.

“We make decisions on a daily basis with these things.”

As for field days slated for this summer, the university will announce a decision early next week.

“We’re very concerned about our grad students and enabling them to get through the program without too much delay,” Buhr adds.

Buhr also expresses an “enormous thank-you” to people at the university and Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence, who have been looking after each other while doing their best and getting things done.

“It’s heart-warming to watch that kind of community pull together.”

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Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is the editor of Canadian Cattlemen. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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