Gleise M. Silva grew up in Recife, a picturesque city in northern Brazil that is home to lush rainforests, historic architecture and some of the most prized beaches in the world. While she savored the splendors of her birthplace, her real interest was animals: specifically, beef cattle. That interest led her to study animal sciences in her native country before travelling to the U.S. for an undergraduate internship at the University of Florida. She subsequently completed her PhD at the school’s North Florida Research and Education Centre where she specialized in beef cattle nutrition.
In 2022, she was hired by the University of Alberta as its first Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC)-Hays chair in beef production systems. In her role, Silva will conduct research into cow-calf production with her U of A colleagues and turn their findings into practical advice for beef producers. In our sister publication, Manure Manager, Silva shares what she hopes to achieve.
Interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Manure Manager: Tell me about the work and research you did prior to accepting your position with the University of Alberta.
Gleise M. Silva: After [my undergraduate] I went to the United States for my graduate studies. I did my beef cattle research there during my masters and PhD programs. At the University of Florida, I did applied research in which we answered questions beef producers had about their operations. I worked mostly with grazing cow-calf systems, and we evaluated different nutritional approaches and management approaches to improve health, and performance of the cattle.
MM: Part of your role with the BCRC is to help beef producers save money. Can you explain how your work will help with that?
Silva: That can be achieved many different ways. For example, it can be by increasing the efficiency of cattle by having animals consume less. It can be by making sure the beef cow is calving every year which saves farmers in terms of labour and fuel on their field. There are a couple of ways to achieve this goal and to improve the economics of this sector. We want to find better ways or more efficient ways to produce cattle that will translate into more profit for the beef producers.
MM: You’ve only been here a short time, but have you noticed anything unique about Alberta or Canadian cattle or cattle operations compared to the ones you studied in Brazil and the U.S.?
Silva: I think the biggest difference that I have noticed so far is the Canadian winter. It is maybe the biggest challenge here and it is unique compared to other parts of the world. The forage growth season is usually shorter than any other places in the world. We need to guarantee good forage production during the growing season and then store those forages for the months to come.
MM: When it comes to cattle production here in Canada a case is often made that you can be economically profitable or sustainable, but not both. How can cattle producers here maintain profitability while also being sustainable?
Silva: When we think of sustainability we have to remember exactly what it involves. Sustainability involves the environment, the social well-being of the farm family and the economics of the activity.
When we preserve natural resources, the grasslands, we are talking about sustainability. When we reduce calving intervals, when we reduce the stress on the land, when we reduce disease incidence we can improve profitability and the quality of life for the beef producer. It’s all aligned. One of the examples I like to use is when we have a cow that is giving a calf every 18 months instead of 12-month intervals we have to feed this new cow for longer without her being productive. That means we are losing feed, labor, space [and] general resources. But when we find the right management for our operation and can increase production we minimize waste, and we improve in gains.
When we select animals that are more efficient, and we give them adequate management, we reduce emissions and improve the performance of the farm. So that is all linked to sustainability and that is something we really have to think about. When we improve efficiency on our farm we are also more sustainable because we are reducing what we use, and we are reducing the waste we produce.
MM: You talked earlier about the importance of protecting grasslands. Can you discuss what role manure management can play in the protection of those grasslands?
Silva: Manure management can play a big role in the health of those grasslands. That’s really important because we know that manure can be a source of nutrients to the soil. When we have animals grazing we have what we call nutrient cycling. Nutrients are excreted through feces and urine and will be deposited in the soil. This is contributing to the soil’s organic matter and consequently to soil fertility, plant nutrition and forage production. When we have cattle grazing on grasslands we have nutrients being returned to the system which contributes to maintaining soil health. And it’s important to make sure when we have cattle grazing grasslands that we have this manure being distributed throughout the entire pasture and not just a concentrated area.
MM: How important will it be to the work you are doing on behalf of the BCRB to work directly with Canadian cattle farmers?
Silva: My goal is to be really involved with the industry. I want to get to know the producers and work together with them as a team. I have a lot to learn, and I hope they can learn with me as well. I hope we can exchange knowledge and learn with each other with the common goal of growing the beef industry. •
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