USask student Morgan Lehmann, a third-year student in the USask College of Agriculture and Bioresources. (Photos: Supplied)

Range to research: how ranch lessons aid my research job

At first glance, sitting on the back of a horse watching cattle graze seems a whole world apart from extracting DNA at a pristine lab bench. But my experiences in research and ranching have shown me that both disciplines share common principles.

Morgan Lehmann received a 2023 Saskatchewan Beef Industry Conference (SBIC) scholarship during the SBIC's annual conference on January 25, 2023, in Saskatoon, Sask.

Growing up as a fourth-generation cattle producer, I was a valued part of our operation and spent hours away from class working on my family’s ranch. While I wouldn’t change the way I was raised, leaving home to study in the University of Saskatchewan (USask) College of Agriculture and Bioresources allowed me to discover new and exciting opportunities.

One new opportunity was becoming an undergraduate research assistant in a lab at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). My research supervisor is Dr. Cheryl Waldner, a professor in the college’s Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences.

She initially hired me because I was a hard worker and had beef industry experience. As Dr. Waldner explains, “Growing up in an environment where you’re contributing to your family business and are responsible for other living creatures tends to foster good team players with a strong work ethic as well as empathy for others.”

I appreciated Dr. Waldner’s efforts to find that first summer position for me in 2020, and although the environments are vastly different, I appreciate the similarities between ranching and research. These four life lessons were instilled in me on the ranch from a young age, and they apply quite well to my undergraduate research experience over the past two years.

1. Passion fuels perseverance.

Growing up, my dad told me that in any career I would encounter difficult jobs — but I’d have to grit my teeth and do them anyway. At least he always said that before sending me to clean the barn, unwrap bales in -30 C weather, or fix fence. Throughout university, my parents have encouraged me to try different things — to discover and refine what I truly loved.

I want to be part of the agriculture industry and involved with livestock, but I hadn’t considered research until I took a course with a first-year research experience component. This project was also the hardest part of my first year of university, and I shed many tears of frustration. You might think that after struggling through that course, research as a profession would be last on my list. But the challenge inspired me. I had chosen a research question for which the answer was more important to me than the difficulties I encountered searching for that answer.

Working with Dr. Waldner’s research team has been glorious for the most part. I’m surrounded by talented individuals who are working on a project that combines my interests in animal science and microbiology. And even though some aspects of the work aren’t as enjoyable, these difficult tasks are much easier to accomplish because I love what I do.

2. There’s always room for improvement.

The most expensive logic in ranching is the mindset of “Because we’ve always done it that way.” If this is the only reason behind a decision without exploring other options, you’re missing a chance to improve the efficiency of an operation. On my family’s ranch, we started growing corn for our cows to graze during winter — an alternative to starting a tractor every day in sub-zero weather to feed bales and silage. This decision reduced our input costs and labour requirements.

My family has challenged other ways of doing things on the farm because we want to enhance our business. Striving to improve best practice and solve problems that threaten animals, humans and their shared environment is what also drives many research programs.

Researchers in Dr. Waldner’s lab are developing a rapid genomic laboratory test to identify any pathogens (disease-causing agents) and the presence of antimicrobial resistance in calves entering feedlots — it’s background information for group-level, precision antibiotic treatment. Traditional lab tests can take up to a week of processing time, and although they’re gold standard, the delay makes them impractical for informing decisions in real-life production settings.

3. You need a backup plan.

While completing tasks at home and working with cattle, it’s important to think ahead about what could go wrong. For example, when we’re moving cattle and the herd may end up going in the wrong direction, someone needs to bring them back. Or better yet, we need an alternative route planned with the same final destination.

In our lab, we encounter difficulties with experiments or with lab equipment. Part of my job is to help troubleshoot these areas. Our lab manager always has a next step planned, but she will ask me what I think we should try — the experience helps me to develop critical thinking and scientific reasoning. Although you can’t always predict every roadblock you face, it’s helpful to have alternatives. 

4. Collaboration is key.

In life, it’s important to ask questions and learn from the work of other people. Different people have different strengths and bring unique perspectives to the table. Ranching and research both follow the saying, “Many hands make light work.”

In research, collaborating with others holds many benefits — especially since agriculture is evolving very rapidly to embrace a lot of new technology, points out Dr. Waldner: “Collaboration is essential as it’s impossible for one person or one team to be experts in all of the emerging opportunities for growth.”

As an undergraduate student, the best way to start my research journey is through networking and collaboration. I’m inspired and challenged by the diverse and talented lab group that I’m part of. To maximize my professional development, I plan to surround myself with people who offer genuine critiques of my projects and encourage my curiosity. 

Through my experiences as a producer and researcher, I’ve learned how these areas complement one another and share mutually beneficial principles. When it’s time to choose a career path, I’m grateful to know that I can universally apply many of the strategies behind our work in ranching or in research.

Morgan Lehmann of Rosthern, Sask., is a third-year animal science student in the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources. Morgan joined the Genomic ASSETS team as a summer research student in 2021, working with Drs. Simon Otto and Cheryl Waldner. Morgan stayed on as a research assistant in Dr. Waldner’s lab during the 2021-22 academic year and continued her work with the Genomic ASSETS team as a summer research student in 2022.