A veterinary career in nutrition
I grew up on a dairy and suckler cow farm in County Fermanagh, where my father and brother continue to farm. I graduated from University College Dublin in 2002 and worked in mixed practices in County Tyrone and Armagh, where the majority of the workload was emergency farm calls.
After a year travelling with my belongings in a backpack, I moved to a practice in County Armagh, spending most of my time on routine farm visits and dairy herd health work. To increase my knowledge, I completed a postgraduate certificate in dairy herd health from Dublin in 2012.
Developing an interest in cattle nutrition
During routine farm visits, I would often organise combined visits with the farm nutritionist, so we could work together to achieve a better outcome for farmers.
It was through working with farm nutritionists that I gained an interest in cattle nutrition and felt that I wanted to learn more; however, no advertised opportunities were available.
I got impatient waiting for something to ‘drop into my lap’, so I decided to design something around my interests. I organised a meeting with the head of Hillsborough Research in the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, and I explained my background and aspirations. Together we came up with a PhD project, sponsored by AgriSearch, on ‘The effects of a management strategy on performance and immune function of dairy cows during the transition and early lactation period.’
Doing a full-time PhD as a mature student was fascinating. I really enjoyed the opportunity to immerse myself fully in a specific area and achieved five first-author publications from my studies. It was great to challenge the thinking in transition cow nutrition. As part of, this, I questioned why we follow the recommendations of research carried out in the USA, where they manage and feed their cows differently.
How does doing a PhD compare with working in practice?
A PhD is challenging, but in a different way to practice. At the start I thought that I knew very little about my topic. By the time I was about halfway through I thought that I knew my area really well, but by the end I had so many more questions, I again felt as though I knew very little.
"A PhD is challenging, but in a different way to practice"
I also felt that I was continuously ‘on-call’, because there was always work to complete – statistics to run, tables to plot, papers to write – and, as there was no-one else to do the work, if I had a break or holiday, I had to pick up the work where I had left it.
Technical manager role
Despite that, I wasn’t content to wait until finishing my PhD before looking for the next challenge. Nine months before finishing, I secured the post of technical manager for Trouw Nutrition Ireland– a business-to-business premix company, which produces blends of minerals, vitamins and additives for farm minerals and feed mills to add into compound feed.
When I started the job two years ago, I was the sole member of the technical team. It’s now grown to six people, with specialities in pig, poultry and ruminant nutrition, and formulations. I manage the team which provides nutritional support and advice to feed mills and their farmers, as well as supporting and training the company’s nutritionists.
What the job entails
I design and carry out validation studies to assess the activity and suitability of new products. I enjoy a good relationship with universities, and continue to contribute to scientific papers, updating the industry with the findings from our feed testing. I also work closely with the marketing team to provide technical input for our press releases and adverts, ensuring they are reporting information that is technically correct.
Mark used his PhD to challenge the thinking in transition cow nutrition
I enjoy the day-to-day variability of my work, particularly liaising with the global research team and colleagues worldwide. It might seem strange, but one of the things I like best is not knowing the answer to a question and having to research it and come up with a solution.
Feeding for health
This year, I applied for and gained a Nuffield Farming Scholarship, which supports my project on ‘Feeding for health, combating antimicrobial resistance’.
We know that antimicrobial resistance is a major issue for human and veterinary health. The methods being used to reduce the use of antimicrobials include vaccination, good management and good nutrition, about which the phrase ‘good animal nutrition is key to animal health’ is frequently used.
If the needs of an animal (energy, protein, vitamins and minerals) are met, its diet meets the term ‘good nutrition’ but I am more interested in ‘feeding for health’ to maintain health and decrease the use of antibiotics.
There are some products that are successfully used for the nutritional maintenance of a healthy animal, particularly for respiratory or digestive maintenance.
"My aim is to help reduce the use of antimicrobials, increase food animal welfare, support the production of safer, high-quality food and increase consumer confidence in UK animal products"
Coming from a logical background, I wanted to explore these in more detail, so I designed a project to examine novel solutions to reduce the need to use antimicrobials in food-producing animals, particularly cattle.
Could new feed technologies and solutions that show promise in in vitro lab work have practical applications to increase animal health? And could current solutions used by the feed industry be adopted by other species? For example, some of the products used in poultry, pigs and fish may have practical applications in ruminants.
I hope that the outcome of my project – which is supported by the Thomas Henry Foundation – will produce practical solutions that will make a difference for farmers and food producers.
My aim is to help reduce the use of antimicrobials, increase food animal welfare, support the production of safer, high-quality food and increase consumer confidence in UK animal products.
I would be the first to admit that I never had a long-term career plan. However, I am not afraid to try something new and to step outside my comfort zone; actually, I enjoy the challenge. When I entered the premix industry, I knew that initially I wouldn’t know as much as some of my colleagues, so I put in the effort to change that.
"I would say be true to where your interests lie and follow them"
I use my PhD every day, and I don’t mean my thesis title. A PhD is a doctor of philosophy, not a doctor of science: it means developing a way of thinking – how to read material, critically evaluate the findings, ask if it is applicable to other situations, come up a hypothesis, test it and evaluate the findings. I consider these to be the most important skills that I have acquired.
I would recommend my job to any vet with an interest in nutrition, especially if they enjoy being faced with a challenge and working it through to a successful conclusion.
If I were to give myself some advice earlier in my career, I would say be true to where your interests lie and follow them, because if you have an interest in an area, you can and will make it work. Be bold with networking. Opportunities don’t just land on your lap – you are the only person who can make it work.
Of course, change is always scary and difficult, but making it a success is worth it.