It takes vision

Nelson’s Story

When UBC began looking for someone to head up the new Dairy Centre all those years ago, it was a bold and unconventional vision. The idea was this: could science help change the way dairy cattle were being cared for?

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The Dairy Centre needed to fuse farming with science, where close study is matched with close care.

For that question to be answered, it would need to be within the traditional constraints of a fully-operational dairy centre — one that was also committed to the cause of science. Since no such place existed, it would have to be created. From scratch.

Who would lead such an initiative? Whoever was chosen would need to understand the dairy industry and the local area, be able to run a Dairy Centre (and keep it financially stable), and also understand the importance of scientific research.

“Plus, they needed someone who could set up the whole operation from scratch,” says Nelson. “Someone who would be comfortable 137 kilometres away from the main campus, all on their own.”

Nelson seemed born for the role. Raised on a farm in Agassiz himself, in a dairy family, farming is in his blood. He has an MSc in dairy cattle nutrition, and he genuinely cares for the animals under his watch.

“It just kind of pieced together,” says Nelson. Since the idea was first hatched in 1997, Nelson has been helping create the country’s most advanced dairy cattle research facilities, based at the Dairy Centre in Agassiz, British Columbia.

To this day, helping design the facility from start to finish is one of Nelson’s proudest accomplishments.

In Nelson’s story, so far, it’s just a neat tale about being a remarkably good fit for a remarkably unique role.

But vision isn’t just about launching something, it’s about helping it actually meet its purpose.

Can the Dairy Centre actually accomplish what it was created to do: influence the dairy industry for the better?

The milking parlour

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A visiting group of students is shown around the lab by Nelson.

Throughout the year, the farm is filled with visitors, as it becomes a living research lab.

Students at every level—from UBC and from around the world—flock to the farm to learn the latest ideas from the field.

Animal welfare and behaviour are major research areas at the UBC Dairy Centre. “We are learning how animals learn,” says Nelson. “We’re taking all our knowledge and applying it to how we’re rearing these animals.”

It’s an advanced operation. There are more than 500 animals, assisted by computerized milking and feeding technology. The land is managed with a systems approach: soil, crops, feed and manure are all carefully orchestrated to work together. And the Dairy Centre itself is also not just a research centre, but also a residence: soon, a new student housing facility is being built on the land, to host visiting researchers.

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Nelson takes pride in the incredible growth and influence the Dairy Centre enjoys.

Over the years, students from approximately 40 countries have come to learn at the Dairy Centre. With the ability to house the students at the Dairy Centre, it has the feel of a mini-campus, creating a rich learning environment for both students and staff.

When researchers spend time at the Dairy Centre, it’s Nelson’s goal to make sure they have a positive experience. From local to international students, their success at the centre can lead to internships afterwards, and after that, to great influence. Students from the Dairy Centre have finished their degrees and gone on to lead animal welfare conversations in the United States, at universities, and beyond.

“It’s exciting,” says Nelson. “It’s developing the next generation.”

Nelson knows that for the Dairy Centre to work, the knowledge must reach the dairy community, not just academia, and it must do it rapidly.

Nelson can quickly list more ways that the Dairy Centre’s influence is growing:

  • a recent open house brought over 400 people to the Dairy Centre. Approximately 2500 visitors from around the world pass through our doors each year.
  • an apprenticeship program was hosted at the centre this year, which wasn’t for university students, but for young people who work on dairy farms and wanted to increase their training.
  • and Nelson himself serves on boards, as a director and as a member, starting conversations with the community directly.
  • techniques pioneered at the Dairy Centre are already being incorporated at local farms, farms across BC and Alberta, across Canada, and around the world.

Nelson knows science wouldn’t be science if it didn’t influence the way we do things. He knows the Dairy Centre is part of a vital chain—as he cares for his animals and for the visiting students, he’s caring for a much bigger picture: the health of the world’s food supply.

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