Professor wins WiSys Innovator of the Year Award

Kehoe developed applicator for calf disbudding, improves animal welfare, enhances safety for handlers 

August 11, 2022 – University of Wisconsin-River Falls Dairy Science Professor Sylvia Kehoe always wanted to help animals.

"I had an idea my research could help a lot of animals around the world,” Kehoe said.

On Monday, Kehoe received the Carl E. Gulbrandsen Innovator of the Year Award during the WiSys SPARK Symposium held at UW-La Crosse. The symposium brought faculty, staff and students together from across the UW System to network, collaborate and celebrate research and innovation.

2022 WiSys Spark Symposium UWL 0120 Sylvia KehoeThe award is presented to a UW System faculty/staff member or student making exemplary contributions as an innovator. The award was created to honor the former managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation who supported WiSys throughout his 16-year tenure.

"It was a total surprise, and I am so pleased,” Kehoe said of receiving the award.

WiSys is a nonprofit organization that works with faculty, staff, students and alumni of the UW System to facilitate cutting-edge research programs, develop and commercialize discoveries, and foster a spirit of innovative and entrepreneurial thinking across the state.

Kehoe most recently has been working on an adhesive patch technology for disbudding the cells that cause horns to grow on calves.

"I am so excited about this applicator,” Kehoe said. “I am hoping the award will make it possible to get some recognition for it and that farmers would hear about it. It is such a wonderful tool for the dairy industry."

The applicator license has been bought by a private company that will decide how to commercialize it, Kehoe said.

Traditionally, caustic paste or a hot iron is used to singe off the cells that cause horns to grow in calves. Paste has grown in popularity in recent years with little to no research on how much of the product to use, Kehoe said.

Around 2017, Kehoe and one of her students put caustic paste on a calf.

"We watched the calf walk away and it was shaking its head and trying to get it off,” Kehoe recalled. “It’s painful.”

Kehoe realized there had to be a better way to disbud calves. After receiving a small stipend from WiSys and funding from the Dairy Innovation Hub, she worked with UW-Platteville’s John Obielodan to 3D print prototypes of potential applicators.

"It provides a self-contained, consistent application for the paste,” Kehoe said. “It provides safer handling for the workers. It’s safer for the calf, preventing chemical burns from run off or contact from other calves. It’s convenient.”

Last year, they received a WiSys Ignite Grant to further develop prototypes of the applicator.

The applicator allows for the effective disbudding of calves within the first seven days of their lives.

With the use of the applicator, handlers would still give pain relief to the animals through lidocaine block.

"“It’s exciting that a product like this could have huge benefits for humans and animals,” Kehoe said. “I love the idea my research could help many animals around the world.”

Steve Kelm, chair of the Animal and Food Science Department, said he was thrilled to see Kehoe recognized for her work.

"Dr. Kehoe has a true passion for the health and welfare of dairy calves, and this comes through in her teaching, her research and her interaction with students,” Kelm said. “She has mentored many students in undergraduate research projects and has been a very positive influence on these students as they look into future careers.”

Kelm said he loves the applicator idea.

“To me, ideas such as this that solve problems in a simple and cost-effective manner are so valuable to the dairy industry,” he said. “I am not surprised at all that someone saw the value in her ideas and is taking the applicator to market. It is a great idea, a win-win solution for the calf, the dairy manager and all entities involved.” 

Kehoe has taught at UWRF since 2006 in dairy science, animal science and calf nutrition.

“I love teaching,” Kehoe, of Hudson, said. “I love our students. Our students are the best. They are down to earth. They are engaged and curious. They are just real.”

Kehoe studied animal science at the University of California-Davis for her undergraduate degree, her master’s degree at Iowa State University and her Ph. D. at Pennsylvania State University.

Photo: Dairy Science Professor Sylvia Kehoe at the WiSys SPARK Symposium where she received the WiSys Innovator of the Year Award.

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