Meet Jo Newton who is stepping up to solve the big problems in agriculture

Today we continue our series for Ausagventures #YouthinAg showcase by featuring Jo Newton one of our three young farming champions completing her PhD

Jo Newton with melissa-henry-and-the-2013-wool-young-farming-champions and 2011 YFC Melissa Henry

Jo Newton (far left) with Wool Young Farming Champions Bessie Blore, Melissa Henry, Adele Offley and Cassie Baile

Jo is one of 10 people in the Art4Agriculuture team who have been listed in the Women in Australian Agribusiness 100 

Jo is one of a team of Australian researchers transforming Wool, meat and the sheep who produce them Jo Newton

Jo Newton with her beloved sheep  – Photo Matt Cawood

Check out what Jo has been up to ……

I’ve always been a problem solver and liked asking lots of questions so I guess it was no great surprise to my family and friends that I decided to embark on a PhD as its essentially 3 years of problem solving and answering (or trying to answer) questions. My family and friends accepted my passion for sheep a long time ago though I often find that people in agriculture are surprised to learn I am from Melbourne with no background in agriculture.

My PhD topic (or big “problem”) that I’m researching is the variable success rates for early reproductive performance in sheep. What do I mean by that?

Traditionally in Australia ewes are first joined to rams when they are 18 months old so they have their first lamb at 2 years of age. If we can successfully breed ewes so they have their first lamb at 1 year of age we are cutting one whole year from the production cycle which has several potential benefits for the Australian wool and sheep industry and farmers. However, one of the current challenges with breeding ewes at younger ages is the big variation in the percentage of ewes that fall pregnant. Last year we had a range from 0% to ~90% of ewes pregnant in 1 year across the different farms I’ve been working with.

For the last 2 years I’ve been working on 2 main aspects of my project. Firstly I’ve been collaborating with a number of sheep studs across Australia to collect data on joining ewes at 7 months of age. Thanks to the cooperation of numerous farmers we have been able to record live weights, condition score and collecting blood samples from young ewes. We then monitor these ewes to see which ewes have lambs. Last year we took measurements on 4000 animals!!! This year I get to start analyzing all this data. However, the drought has impacted on the number of ewes that we had in our study so we are also collecting data for another year.

The other aspect of my work I have been working on is an analysis of some historical data. This is data which has been collected on a 8 research sites around Australia as part of the Sheep CRC Information Nucleus Flock. As my research is centred around genetics a big chunk of my time is spent in front of a computer writing computer programs. I’ve been estimating heritabilities to determine what proportion of the animal’s expression of a particular trait (i.e. whether it has a lamb) is due to it’s genes and what proportion is due to the environment. Estimating genetic and phenotypic correlations between different traits enables us to work out which traits might be linked or “correlated” to one another.

At the moment I’m doing some simulation work. What this means is that I have a virtual flock of 300 ewes sitting on my computer. I’m using my virtual flock to test different breeding program designs. I’m changing things like flock fertility, the age rams & first have lambs and whether animals have genomic information or not. I’m then comparing my different scenarios to work out which ones result in the most genetic progress for important traits. Whilst it would be great to test these things on actual sheep to measure and compare genetic progress would require years and years of waiting whereas I can get results in about a week from my virtual sheep flock! This is all possible thanks to the enormous amounts of assistance, support and encouragement I get from my supervisors Sonja, Daniel & Julius and all the staff at UNE, CSIRO and AGBU.

The next 12 months as I aim to wrap up my PhD are going to be busy and I will probably encounter a few hurdles on my way. However with the support of my peers, family, friends, supervisors and staff I know that I can make it though.

Dr Steph says the path of research is not an easy one to walk but it is paved with passion.

Art4Agriculture has partnered with the dynamic Steph Coombes to contribute content to her phenomenal resource Ausagventures for all things YouthInAg and those thinking about venturing into the exciting world of a career in Agriculture.

Each month along with 10 agricultural youth groups and organisations we will be writing a blog exclusively for Ausagventures. You can find their profiles below and scroll down to read their blogs and to see what #ausagventures they have been getting up to around the country and how you can join in here.

In our first three blog we are going to feature our three Young Farming Champions who are currently daring to conduct very different and innovative research as part of their PhD thesis.

‘Whoever said a career in agriculture was all mud and flies obviously had no idea what they were talking about’ 

Steph Fowler and fellow Young Farming Champions

Our guest blogger today is Steph Fowler in the middle with fellow young farming champions

First up we have Dr Steph ( in waiting) Fowler who is currently sitting in one the troughs in the roller coaster ride that is the journey to a PhD and a scientific legacy in the world of agriculture R&D 

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Dr Steph with her beloved carcasses

The path of research is not an easy one to walk but it is paved with passion.

My current research project is looking at objectively measuring meat quality. I am working towards being able to identify which lamb carcases will eat well and those that won’t. I am using a laser technology called the Raman spectroscopic hand held probe because it’s rapid, quantitative and non-destructive. Developing this technology for use commercially is a huge benefit to industry because you can measure the actual piece of meat that people are going to eat without destroying it and lamb producers can be paid for the quality of meat they are producing not just the weight.

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The fantastic team at DPI at Cowra (Matt Kerr, Tracy Lamb, David (my supervisor) and Heinar (the probe’s inventor).

Over the last month I have been working on trials that take the prototype probe into lamb processing plants to figure out whether we can use it to determine how tender the meat will be early on in processing. While the work is exciting and new because there’s only two of these probes in the world (one here with me for a few months and another in Germany at the institute in Bayreuth where they are made), the work can be frustrating and deflating because every so often we come across a challenge we can’t see how to solve when we need to so we can continue working. Sometimes it’s something small like an electricity supply adapter that shorts out and then causes a bigger issue or an electric plug that’s lost a wire and sometimes it’s something a bit bigger like the equipment we need not liking the cold chillers. Because I work in smaller rural towns often these problems end in me driving somewhere to get a part or find someone who can help me. Makes for some long days when you start at 5am to be ready for the first carcases to come down to pack up, drive 2 hours, find the people or the part, and get in the car and drive back to be ready to start at 5am the next day. Add onto that some tough working conditions and you have yourself a somewhat difficult working week.

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Me in the lab

It’s not all doom and gloom though, as Ken Jr. Keyes said “to be upset over what you don’t have is to waste what do you do have”. With a little love, help, and support from those I work with at the plant, at DPI, at uni and in my own team, the industry as a whole, and the towns and communities I work in as well as my friends and fellow PhD-ers near and far I have been able to salvage my trial and continue. Sometimes it’s been the technical help, sometimes it’s having the part in stock or knowing who does, sometimes it’s helping me make a decision or cooking a home cooked meal or offering me a bed but mostly it’s just being there, and listening and trying to understand.

Research is a rollercoaster ride the ups and downs can come minutes apart and sometimes 20 seconds can change everything. Because each project is unique it can be isolating. We each face issues and challenges that are also unique and that can feel isolating. Relationships with friends, family and significant others don’t always get off the PhD rollercoaster in the same condition that they got on either and that can feel isolating too. Combine that with the stresses of just getting ourselves through the ups and downs and that’s why I value and truly appreciate the phenomenal backing I have received over the last 2 years. I wouldn’t be still standing without it and without being reminded that it is always there.

The backing of the industry and the communities I work in, the people I work with and those who believe in me and my work inspire my passion. They keep me striving at what I do to help move the industry forward. For that I am truly grateful.

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Me and my Italian friends Gianluca and Marco. Gianluca has become one of my biggest cheerleaders ever both professionally and personally.

But no mistaking there have been plenty of highlights in my journey including last year being  awarded a travel grant to attend the graduate program at the 59th International Conference of Meat Science and Technology in Turkey, where I presented two papers; I  was selected as a Crawford Scholar, and elected to the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW Youth Group. I also have lifelong memories from my opportunity as a Young Farming Champion  to share my journey in agriculture with four NSW schools as part of their journey to win the 2013 Archibull Prize.  Recently I my manuscript was selected for the Journal of Meat Science

For those who love the science here are all the details you need to read my paper

Predicting tenderness of fresh ovine semimembranosus using Raman spectroscopy
Stephanie M. Fowler, Heinar Schmidt, Remy van de Ven, Peter Wynn,
David L. Hopkins
PII: S0309-1740(14)00064-3
DOI: doi: 10.1016/j.meatsci.2014.02.018
Reference: MESC 6378
To appear in: Meat Science
URL Link http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0309174014000643

You can read Steph’s blog she wrote for her YFC application process here

Follow Steph on twitter @steph_bourke

How does one become a butterfly