Dr. Diego Moya will study cattle behaviour at the WCVM. Submitted photo.

Moya targets better welfare, productivity balance for beef cattle

In early January, the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) welcomed its new beef cattle ethologist — Dr. Diego Moya — to the college’s team of large animal specialists.

By Kathy Fitzpatrick

Saskatoon is a long way from Moya’s birthplace of Barcelona, Spain, and from his most recent post in Wales, but his arrival here on the Prairies may feel like a homecoming. When Moya scanned the WCVM job requirements, it felt like he was reading a description of his own résumé.

“I felt like I had been training all these years for this position,” says Moya.

He will step into the place left by the WCVM’s former beef cattle ethologist, Dr. Joe Stookey, who retired in December 2016 after accomplishing much-lauded work in animal welfare.

Stookey’s special interest is the maternal and social behaviours of cattle, seeking to minimize the stress of production procedures. In particular, he and his research team made their mark with the development of contact weaning and two-stage weaning — practices that are now widely used by livestock producers.

“Dr. Stookey has had such an impact on production animal medicine and bovine welfare here in Western Canada. He’s made a big difference and so we certainly wanted to keep that momentum going,” says WCVM Dean Dr. Douglas Freeman.

“He’s [Dr. Moya] is coming with an incredible background of experience, both in Europe and here in Canada.”

Modestly, Moya says his intention isn’t to fill the big boots left by Stookey “because that would be a hard job to do.” Rather, he hopes to bring his own expertise and knowledge to complement all that Stookey has done over the years.

Researching cattle nutrition and behaviour on the Canadian Prairies wasn’t the most predictable career path for a city boy from Spain’s Mediterranean coastline. But even as a boy, Moya preferred to spend time in his mother’s countryside village where he was in contact with animals. Raising cattle and swine remains the dominant agricultural activity in Catalonia, and Moya dreamed of becoming a veterinarian — travelling from farm to farm to care for animals.

“That was the romantic idea I had at the beginning,” he says.

However, practicality soon led him into research. Since competition for veterinary jobs in Spain is intense, a career as a scientist captured Moya’s attention. After completing his degree in veterinary medicine at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, he obtained Master of Science and PhD degrees in animal nutrition, studying feed additives as alternatives to antibiotic growth promoters.

Moya went on to complete a postdoctoral fellowship in the Beef Welfare and Behaviour Unit at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Research and Development Centre in Lethbridge, Alta. There he worked on the use of techniques to recognize feeding behaviour patterns that would aid in the early detection of illness in cattle.

He also worked to develop new ways to measure chronic stress in beef cattle, as well as assessing the effects of age and handling on livestock as they undergo routine management procedures. As well, he examined the use of tri-axial accelerometers to measure animal behaviours related to pain and discomfort.

At his most recent post as a research fellow at Aberystwyth University in Wales, Moya has been working to better understand animal behaviour and metabolism (feeding, growth, urination pattern and use of shelter) to increase productivity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Here at the WCVM, Moya will develop a research program based on his background. He’s especially interested in the balance between animal welfare and profitability. He intends to use the study of animal behaviour to assess the impact of different types of feed on fermentation and long-term effects on cattle health and productivity. With healthy fermentation, he explains that farmers can produce more with less— resulting in more sustainable production of beef cattle.

Another line of Moya’s research will focus on early life management — assessing long-term effects of early-life cow-calf management on calves’ health and productivity. As part of his research program, he plans to characterize the impact of existing and new management strategies (of newborns, at weaning, or preconditioning) on stress susceptibility, health, welfare and productivity.

Moya will also continue his work on evaluating the safety and efficacy of new production technologies, including the use of antimicrobial drugs. He’s mindful of commercial campaigns that play to public concerns about the use of hormones and antibiotics.

“I’m okay with all of that as long as we pay close attention to what the scientific literature is saying,” Moya says. He sees a role for himself in providing scientifically sound, evidence-based solutions in the cattle production system, helping to converge the wants of consumers and the needs of the beef industry.

Moya will be working alongside Dr. Yolande Seddon, the WCVM’s swine ethologist. The two share an interest in the so-called “gut-brain axis” — the connection between gut microbiology and the brain – a research field he considers still in its infancy.

“We have very similar interests but in different species, so I’m excited about the opportunity of working along with her,” he says.

Moya hopes to find ways to reduce animals’ perception of stress during routine events, such as vaccinations or castrations, through manipulation of rumen microbiology or diet.

“That could be a huge step forward towards better beef cattle production,” he says.

One of the attractions of coming to work at WCVM is the University of Saskatchewan’s Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence (LFCE), a unique complex of field laboratories that will model all aspects of raising livestock on the Canadian Prairies. Moya arrives on campus just a few months before construction on the new beef cattle unit and the forage and cow-calf unit will be completed in March 2018.

Moya is impressed by the possibilities, particularly the chance to keep working with multi-disciplinary teams. He also looks forward to collaboration with the researchers at the U of S College of Agriculture and Bioresources.

Kathy Fitzpatrick is a freelance journalist in Saskatoon. Born in Manitoba, she has spent close to four decades working in media — including radio, television, print and digital.