CIEL | Meet the Scientist

Dr Ruth Wonfor

Lecturer in Animal and Equine Science

Aberystwyth University | CIEL

What project/s are you currently working on?
My research is mostly focused on animal health and the effects on production, using either whole animal studies or lab-based models of diseases. I am involved in several projects centered around uterine inflammation in dairy cows. In this work we are working with industry partners to investigate alternative anti-inflammatories that can be used alongside antibiotics to minimise excess inflammation that leads to infertility in these animals.

I have a number of other student projects looking at the transition period in dairy cattle, focusing on metabolic stress and the links to production-related diseases.

We are also working on the interaction between the equine tapeworm, the host immune system and gut microbiome. Within this work we are interested in products secreted by the parasite that influence immune response and act on the host or microbiome, which may alter health and digestive function in horses.

Through my interest in lab-based animal models, I am working with an industry partner to look at cell sources for cultured/lab grown meat from different livestock breeds and different muscle sites. I come at this project from quite a unique angle compared to others in the field, with a view that the process can be used to get more from one animal, rather than as a replacement to animal agriculture and that therefore, animal production and the agricultural industry should be a part of the development.

What capability are you drawing on to deliver the research?
I currently use both laboratory and animal facilities at Aberystwyth University. Our dairy farm provides 350 Holstein-Friesian cows in milk using a newly installed robotic milking system. I also use our tissue culture facility where we have a number of defined animal lab-based models to look at immune responses in specific tissues to understand complex interactions between host and pathogen, without the need for invasive animal trials.

I draw upon the wider expertise of colleagues for my research, including parasitologists, nutritionists and a number of industry partners. I also enjoy working with social scientists to understand uptake of different strategies at farm level to better assess the likely real world impact of research.

What would be your ideal research project, assuming no barriers!
I have a few to choose from! I’d really like to start a large scale project with dairy sheep or goats that looks at how different diets affect health, methane outputs and final dairy product quality. I’d like to add to this an assessment of how heat stress impacts on immune response and digestive function.

Small ruminant dairy is an under-developed market in the UK but is gaining a lot of interest due to a number of human health benefits associated with these products. There is still a lot of research needed to support development of small ruminant dairy to ensure efficiency whilst improving animal health and welfare. It would be great to include social science and food science in this project to understand how the wider livestock industry sees the small ruminant dairy market alongside current systems and also how the public perceive these products, including some tasting panels!

How did you arrive at doing what you do now?
Originally starting off in equine science for my undergraduate degree, I moved on to a masters in Animal Science at Aberystwyth University. During my masters, I developed an interest in dairy cow health and fertility, which led me to my PhD in this subject, where I focused on inflammation in the uterus as well as some early pregnancy immunology. After my PhD I worked as a knowledge exchange fellow on a project between Aberystwyth University and Farming Connect in Wales. After spending 3 years in a laboratory, I really enjoyed this role which gave me a chance to work directly with a wide range of people in the agricultural industry, setting up on-farm research projects, visiting farms and writing technical articles. I then moved into my current position at Aberystwyth University where I have been working for the past 4 years..

Please could you explain your plans for linking the facilities within the new Aberystwyth Innovation and Enterprise Campus, your small animal facilities and your new milking parlour?
In IBERS we house the CIEL-supported Small Ruminant Platform which supports animal production performance studies, accompanied by EnviroPods to assess methane emissions in a controlled environment. This facility has, up to now, focused on meat production. However, we have recently installed a small ruminant dairy unit for research purposes, so that we can now extend the CIEL facilities into dairy science research for goat & sheep and their products.

IBERS is well known for its expertise in grass breeding and this has allowed us, as livestock scientists, to work on broad projects that encompass forage and soil science, as well as understanding the production efficiency, health and environmental impact of the animal. With the recent development of the Future Food Centre at the Aberystwyth Innovation and Enterprise Campus, we are now able to extend our work to also investigate effects on food products. This is really exciting for our new small ruminant dairy unit, as it means that we are now able to develop projects that will span the whole of the breadth of expertise in IBERS, and encompass the whole chain from field to fork.

We have a group of academics with expertise across the production chain who are keen to contribute to the use of the small ruminant dairy in developing a research thread in sheep/goat products. Our plans are to begin to not only investigate small ruminant milk, but also novel dairy products that can be processed from milk that may have human health benefits, and we hope to look at improving these products through manipulating the diet of the animal, whilst ensuring animal health and welfare is maintained and environmental impacts mitigated.

Find out more about our Founding Research Member, Aberystwyth University.

Ruth Wonfor | CIEL