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Science in real time

We are living in interesting times. All our lives have been impacted by COVID-19 over the past six months. Some things may never go back to the way they were before the pandemic. An interesting (and scary) phenomenon is the criticism of the scientific and medical community during this pandemic.

What we are witnessing is science in real time. This is partly understandable when it seems like the rules are constantly changing. Changing mask, treatment and quarantine recommendations.

Some people believe these constantly changing, often contradictory ideas prove that science does not work. In reality, this is exactly how science does and is supposed to work. Science is at its best when conclusions change as our knowledge improves.

Following the research of COVID-19 has been fascinating and we are all getting a close-up view of science at its best, at high speed. It is amazing the amount of information we have discovered about this novel virus in just a few short months. We should be thankful for the medical doctors and scientist around the world that have been working countless hours to identify effective treatments and develop vaccines.

Scientists are trained to be skeptical, critical and unbiased. They approach experiments without a preconceived bias of the outcome. They also are trained to not be advocates or judgmental for a certain position. They are trained not to make value judgments about results, but only report what they discover.

The discovery of the relationship between close-up diets and transition cow diseases

A real live dairy example of how science works was the discovery that low energy close-up diets reduced transition cow diseases after calving. This was not without early conflicting research results.

Initially, one researcher conducted an experiment and fed two groups of close-up cows the same diet. One group of cows could eat at will. As expected, as calving time approached there was a large decrease in dry matter intake. The other group was also allowed to eat at will, but any feed not consumed at the end of the day was force-fed or stuffed in the rumen through a rumen cannula.

They discovered that the group of cows that were force-fed had fewer transition cow problems and less fat buildup in their liver. They logically concluded that feeding a higher energy close-up diet could compensate for the decrease in feed intake around calving time resulting in less disease after calving.

Around the same time, another researcher had some limited on-farm data and research that showed feeding cows low energy diets containing straw reduced transition cow diseases. How could it be that these two research studies came up with what appears to be opposite observations and recommendations?

As more experiments were conducted, it was discovered that the common denominator of these trials was that preventing the dramatic decrease in intake as calving approaches was the mechanism that minimized transition cow disease. Cows fed low energy close-up diets do not drop as much in intake as cows fed higher energy close-up diets.

This simple example shows how scientists worked through the scientific process and eventually came up with diet recommendations to decrease fresh cow diseases. By trying different ideas, they developed a solution that was better than one of them alone.

Many other agriculture recommendations have changed over the years. These changes are the result of scientists developing and testing a hypothesis for a more desirable outcome. Some of the best research ideas come from farmers' recommendations and observations that are proven or refuted by scientific experiments.

Science is not perfect. But currently, the scientific process is the best way we know to discover new knowledge to improve the world.

Author: Jim Salfer is an Extension dairy educator in St. Cloud

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