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Dinner before data became the protocol for the Faciola Lab at the UF Dairy Unit when the pandemic pause began.

“We could no longer collect data, but we kept feeding the cows,” says Antonio Faciola, an assistant professor of livestock nutrition in the Department of Animal Sciences. “It was an essential activity.”

And a big one. Faciola started the shutdown with 500 cows but sold about 100 to streamline the operation.

Now that research has resumed, Faciola’s large team – eight graduate students, two visiting students from Brazil, one postdoc and one lab technician – embarked on two new studies Monday Aug. 3. One will examine whether certain minerals in the diet have an effect on the gut health of the cows, and the other will study three types of proteins to see which is more digestible and better at promoting milk production. In September, undergraduates will rejoin the lab and assist in experiments as well.

Like other labs, Faciola’s lost time, and theses and dissertations were stalled because students could not collect the data they needed.

“Cows in lactation don’t produce milk forever, so losing four months where we couldn’t collect data on what they ate and their milk production meant a delay for those experiments, so that was our biggest issue,” Faciola says.

Starting up comes with delays, too, this time in the form of the breeding cycle. The birth of a calf is the trigger for lactation, and the cows must be lactating for Faciola’s group to study the effects of different diets on milk production and quality.

During the shutdown, lab members took turns keeping the herd fed.

“Our grad students work really hard feeding and taking care of our beloved cows,” Faciola says.

The cows chill inside an open-sided barn most of the day, cooled by fans and sprinkler systems since heat stress compromises not only current lactation but future lactation, Faciola says. They are fed and milked each day, with the excess milk sold to local co-ops that make cheese and other dairy products. While the cows wear number tags, Faciola says some have names.

“I don’t know their names, but the students do,” Faciola says. “They each have their own personality.”

Faciola grew up in Brazil on his family’s farm, where they raised cows both for meat and milk. Many of his graduate students, too, come from farming families, so they all share an understanding of the appreciation farmers have for their animals.

“The animals are not pets, but they are close to us; they allow us to work and make a living,” Faciola says.

As a student, Faciola had planned to return to his family’s farm, but research opportunities and a love of science changed his course. Today, his research is funded by the USDA, the National Science Foundation and the dairy industry.

Overall, he says the shutdown was a mixed bag. Two plusses were a surge in productivity on the academic publishing side and spending more time with his 2-year-old daughter. On the down side, he missed the face-to-face interaction with the students in his animal nutrition classes.

“Losing that personal touch has been difficult,” he says.

By Cindy Spence