Student Spotlight: Kirsten Sharpe

Kirsten Sharpe with cows

Name: Kirsten Sharpe

Hometown: Bemidji, Minnesota

Degree Pursuing: M.S. in Animal Science

Advisor: Associate Professor, Dr. Bradley J. Heins

Research Focus: Electric and thermal energy usage in dairy farms, and exploring nutritional aspects of pre-weaned organic calves on automatic calf feeders.

Why did you choose your current field of study?

Growing up in rural northern Minnesota has given me experiences that I have been able to utilize as an animal science graduate student. I have fostered a huge admiration and respect for animals and the natural environment from an early age. The experiences I have from exploring the forests near my home, watching wildlife, and observing the constellations at night are combined with the experiences I’ve now gained from living in the contrasting geographical location of west central Minnesota. This has deepened my knowledge of the processes of the natural world and given me insight into how we, as members of the agricultural community, harmonize with the natural environment by working with, in, and for it. I am lucky enough to have found a program and an advisor that allow me to apply my experiences and passions into valuable research.

With interest and concern growing in regards to detrimental effects of fossil energy consumption and resulting greenhouse gas emissions, consumers are demanding more sustainably-produced food. Some producers are wondering how they might be able to meet those consumer pressures. In investigating electric and thermal energy use in dairies, my goal is to better understand where and how energy is used in dairy production systems. I am confident that I can help dairy producers meet rising sustainability demands by targeting areas within their own operations where there is potential to reduce fossil energy use.  

Lastly, I have been fortunate enough to apply my passion for animals directly into working with calves from birth to weaning. Nutrition and health of replacement heifer calves can have a major impact on the profitability of the entire dairy operation. Providing optimum nutrition to calves is imperative to ensuring a successful milking cow later in life. My goal is to investigate nutritional and health differences between feeding milk replacer versus whole milk to pre-weaned dairy calves in an automatic-feeder system. The health data will then be used to determine which route might be more profitable to producers and their operations.   

Why did you choose the University of Minnesota?

Kirsten Sharpe in pasture

During my junior year of undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota, Morris, I took a job working at the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) in the dairy. I can honestly say that taking that job was the best decision I have ever made. Before I had been introduced to the WCROC, graduate school was not part of my plan after graduation. However, after working and interning at the WCROC and listening to the experience of other animal science graduate students, it was clear to me that the U of MN College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences would help me in furthering my educational goals and my itch to learn through hands-on and applied research. Dedicated to the advancement of learning through solving real-world challenges and bringing discoveries to life through science, The University of Minnesota is a school I have always respected and admired.

In what ways has your involvement at the WCROC enhanced your educational experience?

Working at the WCROC since 2013, I have gained experience in many areas including swine, dairy, crop production, renewable energy, and even pasture-raised chickens. I have taken full advantage of the amazing resources that the WCROC has to offer. I’ve always had an intense desire to learn, and the WCROC provides me ample hands-on learning experience and challenges that force me to think in creative ways. Further, as one of the WCROC’s goals is to work with and provide results and solutions to producers, I have had many opportunities to learn about and interact with agricultural operations outside of the WCROC.

What has been a highlight during your time at the WCROC?

The experience and opportunities I have gained at the WCROC are of truly inestimable worth, and the number of highlights are countless! Some of my top highlights include interacting with and learning from producers, organizing and leading tours for members of the community, and working directly with animals. However, to me, the most important aspect of the WCROC are the amazing people I am fortunate to work with every day. I say this with utter sincerity when I say there are no words that can describe how appreciative I am of the authentic employees, faculty, and staff at the WCROC who have helped me to become the person I am today.

What are your future plans?

With my background in research, animal science, and sustainability, I like to consider myself to be quite versatile. However, I thoroughly enjoy organizing and conducting experiments and would love to work in a research setting. Whether it be in industrial or government research or extension, I hope to help advance the animal science field by conducting studies that produce significant, interesting, and applicable findings.