Hannah Woodhouse

Role: HQP Scholar

Degree: PhD

Project: Identifying the major on-farm factors associated with elevated free fatty acids (FFAs) in dairy cows’ milk

Department: Department of Population Medicine (OVC)

What inspired you to pursue your current degree? 

I have always had a passion for agriculture, specifically the dairy industry. I grew up on a dairy farm with my parents and 3 younger sisters and I was a member of 4-H, Gay Lea Foods and agricultural societies. I knew from a young age that I wanted to remain connected with the industry, but I also had a passion for the health sciences at the same time.

I attended the University of Guelph to pursue a degree in Biomedical Sciences (with aspirations to work in the medical field) while running for the varsity cross country and track team. It wasn’t long into my degree though, that I missed my farm, animals, and agricultural lifestyle. I decided to declare a minor in Nutrition so that I could take more agricultural courses (livestock nutrition) and stay connected with the industry through my education. As a University of Guelph President’s Scholar, I was granted a summer research position in my field of choice, and I decided to reach out to Dr. David Kelton, who is head of Dairy Farmers of Ontario research chair. He offered me a position to study free fatty acids in milk, which was a recent milk quality concern in the dairy industry. It sounded interesting and relevant to me (as an athlete I consume a lot of dairy products), so I spent that summer (2018) and the following summer as a research student in the Population Medicine Department. In the fall of 2019, I took an in-course research project on this topic and the pilot study results motivated me to continue this research. Upon completing my Biomedical Sciences and minor Nutrition degrees in 2020, I decided to enroll in a Master’s in Population Medicine to resume the research. I thoroughly enjoyed my studies and was motivated and committed to taking my research to the next level by enrolling in a PhD program this past spring.

What about your research area excites you? 

I am excited to be studying a real-life concern in the dairy industry that can improve milk quality and consumer satisfaction. Elevated free fatty acids are associated with impaired milk frothing capacity, reduced shelf life, cheese coagulation issues and milk rancidity. I hope that my research can help to improve consumer satisfaction and the quality of dairy products by identifying ways that producers can reduce free fatty acid levels on the farm. Taking this action demonstrates dairy farmers across Canada’s commitment to maintaining high milk quality standards. I am excited that the study results can make a real difference for our supply-managed industry and support its future.

What challenges do you find in your research, and how do you try to overcome them? 

Every dairy farm is so different which makes it hard to study some of the farm factors of interest, such as nutrition. We have visited farms across Ontario and British Columbia (over 300 to date) to collect data using a survey that asks questions about various farm factors (cow, milking system, milk storage and feeding). We are confident that nutrition influences free fatty acid level, but this is hard to analyze since ratio components, quality, and amounts differ from farm to farm.  Because of this, we are trying to study the key components of the typical dairy ration. We are also examining free fatty acid seasonality changes to determine if pasture and feed maturity could be factors to consider.

Another challenge is addressing the individual cow factors that can influence free fatty acids. Because each farm’s free fatty acid level is determined by the bulk tank milk sample (a pooled sample) we are unable to analyze individual cow factors in as much depth.  However, in our questionnaire, we ask questions such as breed distribution, average days in milk and average herd age to help overcome this challenge. In future studies, we hope to be able to test individual cow-free fatty acid levels and analyze how her characteristics affect the sample level.

How would you describe your research and the implications of your project? 

Free fatty acids are a milk quality concern that impairs consumer satisfaction with dairy products. My research is trying to determine what the major on-farm factors that are associated with elevated free fatty acids are so that changes on the farm level can be made to mitigate the effects. To generate these results, I am travelling to dairy farms across Canada to ask producers specific questions about their herd, milking system, and milk storage characteristics. From there, I request a milk sample result from Dairy Farmers of Ontario (collected every time the milk is shipped off the farm) to compare the free fatty acid level to these farm factors. I will then determine which farm characteristics are associated with elevated levels of free fatty acids.

By identifying the major farm factors that can influence free fatty acids, producers can take action to mitigate the effects of elevated levels on farms to improve their milk quality. This will ultimately improve the processor, retailer and consumer satisfaction of dairy to encourage increased consumption that support our supply-managed industry.

What are three of your favourite activities outside the lab? 

I love to be active and explore the outdoors. I have a passion for long-distance running and train daily. I am a member of the Guelph Gryphon’s Track and Cross-Country Teams and have been privileged to represented Team Canada at international competitions which have allowed me to explore the world a bit!

Aside from running, I like to swim. I am a lifeguard at the Gryphon’s Athletics Centre and enjoy putting in some laps at the pool. The opportunity to go camping and swim in lakes is even better though!

I also enjoy cooking and baking. Not only do we produce milk on our farm, but I am also privileged to eat our own fresh beef, lamb, pork, eggs, maple syrup and garden produce. I recently started beekeeping and have honey to enjoy as well. I love being creative with these fresh foods and cooking meals for my family.

What is one important thing you have learned during the pandemic? 

During the pandemic, I learned that I am very, very fortunate to live on a farm. When everything else was shut down, I still had the ability to be active around my home and maintain a routine (the cows don’t stop milking!). It made life during the pandemic a bit easier because days on the farm were relatively “normal”. I became even more appreciative for having accessible fresh foods and a supporting family to share meals with when we couldn’t gather with friends.