Central Alberta researchers recognized for studies in agricultural sciences

Jessica Sperber of Ponoka and David MacTaggart of Lacombe awarded prestigious scholarship

Jessica Sperber. (Photo submitted)

Jessica Sperber. (Photo submitted)

Both of the 2020 recipients of the Dr. Karl C. Ivarson Agricultural Scholarships are from central Alberta, with the $17,000 scholarship for PhD students being awarded to Ponoka-area native Jessica Sperber.

The scholarships support students from Alberta who are studying agricultural sciences.

Sperber was born and raised on a fourth-generation commercial cow-calf and grain operation just west of Ponoka. She is currently a PhD student in ruminant nutrition at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln researching beef cattle topics that incorporate production efficiency and sustainability.

“Winning the Dr. Karl C. Ivarson Agricultural Scholarship is a true honour and testament to the dedication that I have exhibited toward the beef industry,” said Sperber in an interview.

“I am humbled to receive an award of such merit, and this scholarship will allow me to devote the necessary time to finalize ongoing research projects and complete my PhD in beef cattle nutrition.

“My roots are planted deep within the agriculture industry, and my passion for cattle was sparked at a young age,” she said.

“Growing up on a fourth generation cow/calf and grain operation, my late grandfather, Mike Hatala, and father, Ron Sperber, were my role models and mentors. My grandfather passed on Jan. 18, 2021, and I am proud to continue on the farming legacy that he left for my family and me.”

Sperber’s research “focuses on feedlot sustainability and greenhouse gas emissions, utilizing a wood-sourced biochar (a by-product of the forestry industry) and measuring its impact, when fed as a cattle-feed additive in a grower and finisher diet, on enteric methane production,” stated a release from the Canadian Foundation for Food and Agricultural Education (CFFAE).

“In addition, she is utilizing biochar as a feedlot soil amendment to improve manure nutrient capture of nitrogen and phosphorous, ultimately aiming to improve the economic value of manure and reduce ammonia volatilization to the environment.”

In 2016, Sperber was honoured as a Cattlemen’s Young Leader (CYL) through the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and she now serves as a committee member for CYL selections.

In 2019, she was elected for a two-year term as a member-at-large to the Young Cattlemen’s Council (YCC) and assumed the role of vice president in August, 2020.

Once she completes her doctorate, Sperber plans to return to Alberta and pursue a career in the Canadian beef industry.

David MacTaggart, the recipient of the $10,000 scholarship for Masters students, grew up east of Lacombe.

“It was a real honour to be chosen,” said MacTaggart.

“I understand that is something that people probably hear quite a bit, but it is really true because receiving scholarships like this are always a sign that other people believe in you and your dreams.”

MacTaggart says being awarded the scholarship allows him the flexibility to seek additional learning opportunities in his degree, such as attending workshops and going to visit agricultural experts on the prairies.

“Something I really like about agriculture is going to visit people on their farms to learn from them,” he said.

“Having the support from this scholarship allows me to do this.”

His main areas of interest are the people who grow and buy food and learning their stories and being in touch with nature.

“Especially during a disruptive year like we’re had, working in sync with the seasons is really grounding.”

MacTaggart was the top graduating student in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan in 2020, winning the most prestigious undergraduate Gold Medal award and is now a MSc student in Plant Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan, according to CFFAE.

In his younger years, he was active in 4-H from the local to the provincial level.

While in Saskatchewan, he has served as the academic vice president of the Agriculture Students’ Association, planning the Farm to Fork Tour to introduce first year and international students to food production around Saskatoon.

He is now the director of the Saskatchewan Forage Council, improving how information can be shared in agriculture to increase collaboration between private industry, farmers, and researchers.

His research focuses on “the development of drone-based tools to identify superior breeding populations of meadow bromegrass and cicer milkvetch for stockpile grazing.

“Through his research, he hopes to provide a strategy for forage breeders to increase genetic gain by decreasing the time needed to identify superior breeding populations. In combination with improved pasture management practices, the release of these forage varieties aims to decrease winter feed costs and greenhouse gas emissions by minimizing the equipment and fertilizer needed to prepare winter feed for cattle.”

CFFAE is a registered national charity with a focus on scholarship programs.

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David MacTaggart. (Photo submitted)

David MacTaggart. (Photo submitted)

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