Exploring many fields in agricultural research

Senior research scientist Dr Peter Moate recently retired, but in his 42 year career he contributed to world-leading research in agriculture and medicine.

Whether it was wrapping pasture silage in plastic or measuring methane emissions from dairy cows, Dr Peter Moate has achieved what he set out to do at the beginning of his career – to make a difference by conducting research that had an impact in the real world.

Starting in 1980, Peter spent the first 20 years of his research career with the then Department of Agriculture at the Ellinbank Dairy Research Farm (now Agriculture Victoria Ellinbank SmartFarm), leaving for the University of Pennsylvania in 1999 and returning to Agriculture Victoria in 2009.

His early research focused on dairy cow nutrition, pasture silage, fodder crops, white clover, and bloat in dairy cows.

Large round bales of plastic-wrapped hay are now a familiar sight in dairy regions across Victoria, however, they were unheard of 40 years ago.

Silage - hay covered in plastic coveringsPeter’s research into improving the nutritional value of pasture silage confirmed that wilting prior to ensiling led to increased milk production. Initial experiments in bagging wilted pasture in plastic found the resulting silage was prone to mould. However, in 1985 Peter conducted the first research in the world concerned with the machine wrapping of pasture silage. He found that round bale machine-wrapped silage was of higher nutritional value because it was less susceptible to mould and spoilage. Further research into the type of plastic and how to tightly wrap bales proved successful and within two years machine-wrapped round bale silage had become standard practice in Australia and around the world.

“Throughout my research career I’ve been motivated by a desire to make lives easier for dairy farmers, and dairy research has given me the opportunity to work on a diverse range of topics,” Peter said.

Other achievements included contributing to the development of an anti-bloat capsule that reduced bloat in cows by approximately 80 per cent.

Peter said in the mid-1980s, typically one per cent of cows were dying from bloat, but on some dairy farms as many as 10 to 15 per cent of cows were dying, due to consumption of white clover in spring.

“Bloat is rarely seen in cows these days and the need for the capsule has passed with the high use of nitrogenous fertilisers and endophyte ryegrasses now grown on farms.”

His research into rumen gases in grazing cows for bloat, led him to be the first person in Australia to measure methane in dairy cows in 1996 – a forerunner of his subsequent research in this area.

Peter in the science lab looking through a microscopeMoving to the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1990s, Peter worked on mathematical models of biological systems. He worked closely with medical researchers to develop software to monitor glucose levels in diabetics and undertook statistical analysis of research data that led to the development of a drug that is now one of the most commonly used medical drugs for pain relief.

Peter is particularly proud of the work he did in developing a mathematical model to analyse dynamic contrast MRI images of breast tumours.

He devised an equation to measure changes in the image intensity of breast tumours, resulting in a 10 per cent improvement in the diagnostic accuracy of breast tumours. This method has been adopted by MRI centres across the world, resulting in many lives being saved.

Upon returning from the United States, Peter re-joined Agriculture Victoria to lead research into the mitigation of methane emissions from dairy cows.

Peter said methane emissions and climate change are ‘wicked problems’ that need complex interlocking solutions.

“As part of our research, the team looked at the impact of different feeds on the production of methane by dairy cows. We’ve been able to develop new ways to measure methane emissions and quantify how much methane a dairy cow produces when consuming supplements such as wheat, canola and grape marc.”

In his outstanding career of 42 years, Peter has published 140 research papers in peer-reviewed journals, which have had a vast cumulative impact, with citations in over 6000 research papers.

His sound advice to young researchers is to be curious and to only examine genuine problems.

“Only research what you intend to publish, employ outside-the-box scientific thinking, and have a simple, clear hypothesis.”

Inspired in the 1970s by Dr Norman Borlaug whose research into dwarf rice varieties led to the Green Revolution, Peter has sought to make a difference to people’s lives.

“My research has benefitted Australian and international dairy farmers who are facing market pressures to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

“As these emissions contribute to global warming, ultimately our research benefits our children and their children, and my grandchildren will be able to say their grandfather tried to do something to reduce global warming.”

Read more about the dairy research program on the Agriculture Victoria website and on the DairyBio website.