Building Team Chemistry: The Bigger Picture Behind Cows & Climate

Conor McCabe headshot

Conor McCabe

Animal Biology Graduate Student, UC Davis

Davis, CA

  • Advanced Animal Systems

How does cattle production impact the climate? Microbes that reside within the stomach of cows break down the grasses and plants they eat. These microbes also form the greenhouse gas methane, which is released into the atmosphere via cattle burps. Our lab studies various plant compounds, products and feed ingredients that have the potential to reduce this methane source. While a single graduate student coordinates designing one of these studies and leading it to completion, it takes a dedicated team to make it all happen. As the lead graduate student on a recent project, it was my role to recruit, manage students and create community, which made for a challenging but invaluable growth experience as an aspiring scientist.

In our study we measured methane fluctuations using head chambers whereby each cow had their heads enclosed inside a container for a couple of hours throughout the day. Cows could stand up and lay down with access to feed and water (Figure 1). We measured the air surrounding the cow’s head for differences between the animals receiving treatment versus ones that did not. Our work schedule took place at almost every hour of the day—thus the need for a team to see it all happen.

Gradually Empowering the Team

My team strategy consisted of welcoming in each person based on their experience level. With 26 undergraduates coming from mainly the Bay Area or Southern California, we had some that worked at the campus dairy farm and others who had never touched a live cow.

When we started out, my initial plan was to be present at all shifts to make sure everything was on schedule. During the first 20% of the project, I realized that I was consistently repeating myself and stretching myself thin with little sleep. To begin to spread the responsibilities, I took two strategies. First, I gave trained students the responsibility of teaching those who were still learning. Secondly, I created task checklists that tracked pieces to be completed on all shifts. As a result, I was able to slowly back off on my engagement while empowering other team members to get everything done.

Every two weeks we entered a four-day gap in the study where the project activities dropped to a less-intensive level. During this lull, I took the opportunity for students to get to know each other outside of the barn. We organized socials around ice cream, basketball games and the most recent Avatar movie. These were instrumental in helping the students get to know and trust each other when there were so many tasks to be completed.

Conor McCabe headshot
The FFAR Fellowship has been the best piece for my personal and professional development. I emphatically recommend it without hesitation to any PhD student considering applying for an FFAR Fellowship. Continuous appreciation goes to Zoetis, one of the global leaders in animal health, for their unwavering support to make my participation in the FFAR Fellows Program possible. As one of the leaders in animal health, it has been a pleasure to work alongside them to learn about their ongoing programs for healthier more sustainable livestock. Conor McCabe
Animal Biology Graduate Student, UC Davis

The Big Takeaways

I came into the project with a predisposed mentality that I, individually, had to do everything to see it succeed. This was far from the truth when we had trained students who could perform any task asked of them. I wore myself too thin by sleeping at the dairy, running around to different parts of the farm to make sure everything was to a high standard and placing myself on a shift when I didn’t need to be there. Knowing what I know now, I would have begun to delegate tasks from the beginning. This approach would have been better for everyone’s physical and mental health.

In the end, it wasn’t about the cows, the data or the research, but the students and people I had the privilege to work alongside. Looking back on our study design, to say it was ambitious would be an understatement. The game plan was made possible thanks to those who made the personal and professional sacrifices to see it succeed. Many of these students will go on to veterinary school, graduate school or other professional endeavors in agriculture with the seed being planted from this project.

I found that the most critical investment in research isn’t the equipment or the cows but having the right team to make it all happen. For me, there was just as much personal growth through discovering and refining my own communication and management style as there was technical skill development in managing a study of this size and scale.

I don’t know if I will take part in a research project as intense as this again, but what I do know is that the abstracts, publications and posters from our findings will be just the surface of what impact this project brought to me and my fellow teammates in dairy science.

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