University of Alberta researcher will focus on beef costs

As the first-ever BCRC (Beef Cattle Research Council)-Hays Chair in Beef Production Systems at the University of Alberta, Gleise Medeiros Silva will be working with prairie farmers and ranchers to help them find ways to cut the cost of raising cattle while reducing their carbon footprint. | File photo

University’s first BCRC-Hays Chair in Beef Production Systems will find ways to cut costs while reducing carbon footprint

Although she laughs as she admits she has never driven a car on snow, scientist Gleise Medeiros Silva says she is more than ready to take on the challenge of helping Canadian beef producers.

“I think I am a person who adapts well wherever they go, so I think Canada is an amazing country,” she says. “I have all my expectations really high. I am really happy. I am really excited.”

As the first-ever BCRC (Beef Cattle Research Council)-Hays Chair in Beef Production Systems at the University of Alberta, the Brazilian-born Silva will be working with prairie farmers and ranchers to help them find ways to cut the cost of raising cattle while reducing their carbon footprint.

“The vision that I have for this position is already well aligned with my experiences and background, so the main goal is to build a research program to address the most pressing needs of beef producers.”

A university statement says Silva will “explore ways to responsibly produce the best beef cattle and protect grasslands — all with the goal of advancing the economic, environmental and social sustainability of Canadian beef.”

She says the country already has one of the most efficient cattle sectors in the world. One of her challenges will be “pushing that a little bit more, considering it has already been doing a great job producing beef.”

Despite growing up in “the big city” of Recife in Brazil, a metropolitan region with a population of more than four million people, Silva “always had a feeling about animals and protecting the environment.”

The tropical South American country contains most of the Amazon rainforest, which is a biodiversity hotspot threatened by deforestation.

Silva became fascinated as a university student by beef cattle, “especially because they are ruminants and the physiology of a ruminant is really a challenge.”

Unlike humans, cattle have stomachs with four compartments, including the rumen, that host microbes that convert things such as fibre from cattle feed into usable sources of protein and energy.

There is much that scientists need to learn about issues such as how to reduce feed waste while improving beef production, she says.

“When you think about formulating a diet for ruminants anymore, you have to feed the bugs in the rumen.”

As a first-year undergraduate at the Federal Rural University of Pernambuco in Brazil, Silva earned a scholarship to conduct research in ruminant and non-ruminant nutrition.

She also studied beef cattle nutrition for six months at Texas A&M University, and was honored with an internship at the North Florida Research and Education Centre (NFREC) at the University of Florida.

She graduated in Brazil with a bachelor degree in animal science in 2015. She completed her PhD at NFREC, where she focused on evaluating strategies to reduce environmental and diet-induced stress on cattle.

Silva has never visited Alberta. However, the same long winters that have her excited about getting involved in winter sports also mean she is aware local beef producers have much less time to graze cattle on rangeland than in other parts of the world.

Part of her focus as a research chair will be finding ways to reduce the cost of feeding cattle during the late fall and winter.

One idea is to work with geneticists to select animals that are more efficient and require less feed, she says. Scientists could also help minimize amounts eaten by cattle by creating feed that is more balanced and nutritious, she adds.

Not only will costs potentially be minimized while boosting production, such actions could help reduce the carbon footprint of the beef sector, including the production of greenhouse gases, such as methane, she says.

Her position is partly funded by BCRC, a national funding agency that is directed by a committee of beef producers.

Other funding contributors include Dan and Kathy Hays. Dan is a former senator who is the son of the late Harry Hays, a former federal agriculture minister, senator and Calgary mayor.

The position, which is also being assisted by Cargill and McDonalds Restaurants of Canada, will start on July 1 and is guaranteed for 10 years.

It will be part of the university’s Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences.

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