Women in mask crouching beside a dairy cow
Charlotte Havercroft of the Royal Veterinary College in Hertfordshire, U.K., participated remotely in the Saputo Dairy Care Program’s February rotation.

The University of Guelph’s Saputo Dairy Care Program is continuing this year in the digital space and has attracted increased interest from international veterinary students.

The program, delivered by the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) at U of G, was recently renewed and has been expanded thanks to a $750,000 contribution over five years from Montreal-based Saputo Inc., one of the top 10 dairy processors in the world. The company previously contributed $500,000 to the program.

The funding supports intensive learning in dairy cattle welfare for final-year student veterinarians from across Canada and abroad. Students typically receive hands-on instruction in a series of clinical rotations at U of G’s dairy facilities and local dairy farms.

“The week-long elective rotation provides final-year student veterinarians the opportunity to discuss key areas of dairy cattle welfare in a safe and supportive environment,” said Dr. Lena Levison, Saputo Dairy Care Program manager. “The rotation combines theory and practical animal welfare applications equipping veterinary students with the skills needed in their profession.”

Before the pandemic, students in the program spent time at the Ontario Dairy Research Centre at Elora and visited local dairy farms.

Students in overall inside a dairy barn
Before the COVID-19 pandemic made it go online, the program brought veterinary students together for in-person instruction.

Five U of G dairy experts from OVC’s Department of Population Medicine and the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare (CCSAW), along with a dairy veterinarian from the private sector, have conducted virtual learning since July 2020.

The program’s rotations consist of a series of exercises that explore specific aspects of dairy animal care. The final rotation of the 2020-21 academic year takes place over the week of March 22.

“We are fortunate to have a large catalogue of photographs and videos that we are using to train students virtually to identify animal welfare problems, including body condition, cow mobility, and feet and leg injuries,” said Dr. Derek Haley, associate professor and animal behaviour and animal welfare researcher at OVC. “Since we recently renewed the program that supports the rotation, we have added a third one-week offering of the rotation, giving us three in total for the 2021-22 academic year.”

Dr. Lena Levison

Throughout the year, a total of 24 student veterinarians have taken part — 13 from OVC, seven from Canada’s four other veterinary schools, and four from schools in the United Kingdom.

Haley said the international reputation of the program continues to grow.

“Veterinarians are looked to by clients for expertise in all manner of animal welfare. OVC is one of only two veterinary schools that we know of in the world that offers a final-year rotation that focuses on animal welfare.”

The recent support provided by Saputo will also expand the scope of the program through the creation of the Saputo Dairy Welfare Scholars Program. The immersive, one-week experience will focus on fostering welfare leaders among early-career veterinarians.

Dr. Derek Haley

“As a leading dairy processor, we believe that high-quality dairy products begin with milk from healthy and well-cared-for animals,” said Dr. Warren Skippon, director, animal welfare, Saputo Inc. “Since the initial launch of our animal welfare policy in 2015, we have committed to supporting the University of Guelph’s Saputo Dairy Care Program to advance animal care and handling awareness, education and training for veterinary students, practitioners and dairy producers. We recognized the tremendous value this program offers final-year veterinary students, helping future practitioners to develop a specific skill set to better manage key aspects of animal care with their dairy clients.”

U of G is a global leader in dairy cattle welfare, and initiatives like the Saputo Dairy Care Program build on that reputation, said Levison. The program began in 2015 through a partnership between Saputo, CCSAW and OVC.

“We have been impressed with how students have adapted to the online learning environment and have been thrilled with their willingness to engage in the content,” Levison said.