Priceless Experience

The Dairy Education Unit prepares tomorrow’s dairy leaders in a real-world environment.

It’s a very hot day spring day at the Dairy Education Unit in N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The facility, part of the university’s Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory, plays a vital role in the research activities of CALS faculty. It is also an extremely significant component of the teaching program, a place where students can get hands-on learning experiences and training in a working dairy.

Today, Dairy Unit herd manager Alli Davis, along with student assistants Danielle Pierce and Devan Schreiber and student volunteer Connor Reynolds – all CALS animal science majors – are handling chores that require both know-how and stamina. Among their tasks are caring for a calf born just this morning; moving newly weaned calves from individual hutches to a group pen; removing, cleaning and replacing hutches; handling vaccinations for various age groups; checking the status of milking cows, both the postpartum and those about ready to give birth; and milking cows in the state-of-the-art milking parlor.

And that’s just a sample of the day’s agenda.

It’s all part of a student volunteer program and student assistance activities at the dairy. “There are a couple ways to sign up if students are interested,” says Davis. “They can simply come to the farm and give us their email. We have someone who coordinates volunteers and the volunteer schedule. They will be sent the volunteer schedule and are able to sign up for time slots that work for them. We also offer volunteer slots in the dairy management classes.”

There are also student employees at the farm, most of whom began as volunteers and then applied to become part-time employees, she adds. “They are mostly CALS animal science and College of Veterinary Medicine students, but we have had other students with different backgrounds, as well, and they do an excellent job.”

Davis, a graduate of Virginia Tech with a degree in dairy science and a food science and technology minor, came to the CALS Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences and began work as herd manger in June 2013. Her basic responsibilities revolve around the animals on the farm, she says.

Davis helps a newborn Jersey bull calf swallow a vitamin, to aid in his immune support.
Davis helps a newborn Jersey bull calf swallow a vitamin, to aid in his immune support.

There are nearly 400 animals for whom the DEU is home, 190 of them in milk, Davis says. All calves are kept separate in a hutch area until they are weaned and 60 days old, she explains as she helps the newborn Jersey bull calf to swallow a vitamin pill. “They can’t receive immunity from the placenta, only from mom’s colostrum, so we’re giving him vitamins to aid in immune support,” she says.

“Pretty much, I am here to make sure they are all happy, healthy and performing at the top of their ability,” Davis says. “The dairy cow is a fascinating creature, and I get to see them at work every single day. It’s glorious! I do vaccinations for cows and heifers to control/prevent common cattle diseases, breeding protocols and management for cows and heifers, milking management (making sure the cows are milked in a clean, safe and calm environment) and diagnosis and treatment of sick animals. We work very closely with the Vet School here to ensure that all the animals are healthy and cared for in the absolute best way we can provide.”

The students who assist her work hard while learning valuable lessons, she says. “I think it can be rewarding for anyone who enjoys being around animals and doesn’t mind hard work and getting their hands dirty. However, if students want to pursue a career in the dairy industry, veterinary medicine or the agriculture industry in general, working/volunteering here is especially beneficial for them. It is great exposure to large animal handling and basic management practices.”

Their assistance is valuable to her, as well. “Honestly, it is nice having an extra hand, and when you also have the opportunity to maybe teach someone something that they are genuinely interested in, it can be very rewarding,” Davis says.

“Many students who volunteer here have never done a lot of the things we do every day. We might think it is mundane, but for them it could be a brand new experience which is really cool. For example, seeing a calf born –
a pretty normal day-to-day experience for me, but for someone else it’s amazing and eye-opening! I love to see people’s reactions to experiences like that; it just reinforces the fact that my job is awesome!”

Pierce, a senior from Boone, agrees. “As I did not come from a farm background, almost every task on the farm has been new to me,” she says. “I was able to milk a cow for the first time, learn to drive a tractor, artificially inseminate and treat animals for illnesses! The things I have learned on this farm will influence me for a lifetime.”

Pierce started work at the DEU two years ago after coming for a palpation lab through an animal science class in reproduction principles. That experience led to a summer internship, which led to her current job as student assistant.

“The farm as whole intrigued me, and I wanted to know more about it as my knowledge of dairy was very limited to the things I had retained from past classes. I worked for a while doing milking before I started to become interested in the other things that happened on the farm,” Pierce says. “I worked some with the former herdsman, Drew Gibson. Once I started working with him, I became more and more fascinated with the dairy and started coming extra, to see other things that happened on the farm besides milking. By the time Alli became herdsman, I was already in love with the dairy. She was eager to let me help her with whatever she needed.

“Alli loves an extra hand, especially if you have a keen interest in what is happening. All of us at the dairy are eager to share our knowledge and love for the dairy with anyone that wants to listen. Even if you just come out for a few shifts, I guarantee you will leave knowing more about dairy than you started out knowing.”

The experiential knowledge and skills Pierce and her fellow students have gained at the DEU are quite impressive.

“I have had first-hand experience in diagnosing and treating cows/calves with the assistance of Alli and without. I did not have much experience giving shots or drawing blood, and now I have given more shots than I can remember,” Pierce says. “Through our breeding program, we check heats every morning to see if anyone needs to be bred. I have been able to know what signs to look for to tell if a cow is in heat or not and make the decision about whether or not to breed.”

The newly named “Anchor” resists the efforts of Schreiber and Pierce.
The newly named “Anchor” resists the efforts of Schreiber and Pierce.

Also, through the dairy, she learned about and enrolled in an artificial insemination class and received certification to breed cows. “I have been able to breed many heifers and cows on the dairy. Currently I have five cows and two heifers with a confirmed pregnancy at my hand,” Pierce says.

Likewise, Schreiber, a senior from Lenoir, heard about volunteer opportunities at the dairy when she had a lab at the unit her freshman year. She came back to the DEU
as a volunteer and then became a student assistant.

“I started volunteering as a sophomore, then I worked on a calf nutrition research study as a research assistant at the dairy, and then I starting working for them last May. I really enjoyed being with the calves and cows at the dairy, and the managers were great about teaching me new things while I was out there. I loved it so much I decided I wanted to work here,” she says.

“I’ve learned many basic management practices through my experiences at the dairy, but the most important thing I’ve learned is that you get back what you give to these animals. The better you take care of these girls as calves, heifers and cows, the healthier and happier they will be. And of course, happy, healthy cows give more milk!” Schreiber says.

Reynolds, a junior from Los Angeles, Calif., is a current student volunteer at the DEU.

“I first heard about the Dairy Educational Unit my freshman year in my Intro to Animal Science class. We were told there were animal units associated with the university that allowed students to get hands-on experience with the animals and learn about the industry,” she says. “I chose to volunteer at the Dairy Unit because I wanted to learn more about dairy cattle and broaden my education about different species. I had years of equine experience, but I wanted to learn about cattle, as well, and the dairy has provided me with hands-on experience and an education I could not have experienced reading from a textbook.”

Reynolds notes that she has learned how to milk cows and feed calves, as well as basic calf management in her four months at the Dairy Unit. “I had no idea how to do any of these tasks before I came to the dairy, and in a few short months I have learned the basic practices that take place at dairies and the general management practices that go into taking care of dairy cattle,” she says.

“I have loved learning all the daily tasks that go on at the Dairy Unit and experiencing all the farm duties. The most rewarding things about working at the dairy are spending time with the cattle and learning how to take care of them. They are very curious animals and they can be very funny. The most challenging is definitely working in the hot temperatures we have been having lately. You can definitely work up a sweat, but I just consider it my workout for the day,” Reynolds says.

That point is soon illustrated as, nearby, Pierce and Schreiber are attempting to lead a newly weaned 8-week-old, 200-pound Holstein calf from the hutch area, where still milk-fed calves are kept, to its new location in the group pen. The calf is resisting vigorously: They’ve decided to name her “Anchor.”

At the same time, Reynolds, with Davis, is leading another Holstein, Frosty, who, like Anchor, is destined to become a milking cow in the DEU herd. In the pen, where there are all females, they are fed a grain and cotton seed mix, which they were gradually introduced to when still in the hutch.

Pierce says that probably her least favorite thing to do is move weaned calves. “As you saw, they are not very willing to move, so it is a physically trying task,” she says. “I also hate putting them in a situation where they are not happy. Although I know it is for the best for them and they will eventually love it, it is hard to put them through the stress of the move.”

However, she says, “The thing I enjoy most is being able to see my actions affect the well-being of an animal for the better. When I do something and I immediately see the joy in the cow or calf, it melts my heart. My favorite type of shift is the calf-feeding shift because, well, who wouldn’t love playing with the happy babies? I love being able to give them their meal and know that they are dependent on me to take care of them and give them what they need.”

After the weaned calves are moved, it’s back to the hutch area, where Reynolds grabs a pen enclosing Frosty’s former home and carries it off, so the newly vacated hutch can be cleaned and replaced, along with new gravel and bedding. Schreiber totes Anchor’s old pen, and Pierce is shouldering Frosty’s hutch over to the cleaning area.

Newly relocated calves get acquainted in the group pen.
Newly relocated calves get acquainted in the group pen.

The next task for the three is changing the bands on the pens to indicate the weaning status of the calves within. After that, they all head over to the free stall where the milking cows are. These are the just recently calved, or postpartum, cows. Here they have access to pasture, where other Holsteins and Jerseys are gathered, either standing or down in a resting position, on a hillside.

“All of them lying down is what you want to see. It means they’re comfortable and happy,” says Davis, as she leads her team into the pasture to learn if any of the close-ups (cows in the calving lot) are about ready to give birth or are in labor. “It is preferred that they are born in pasture, but sometimes they are born in here [the free stall]. When the time comes, the mothers will usually go off on their own,” she says.

For Schreiber, “it’s rewarding to help a cow through a difficult birth and deliver a healthy calf. It’s rewarding to see a calf I helped raise grow up, have her own calf, and enter the milking herd. It’s rewarding to nurse a sick animal back to health. There are definitely challenges along the way, but there’s no better feeling than knowing we’ve made a positive difference in the lives of these animals,” she says. “Working at the dairy has provided me with valuable experience that I can now take with me to other farms.  It also helped me figure out that I want to work with dairy cattle as a career.”

Reynolds says that, after graduation, “I hope to be a consultant to either the dairy or equine industries. I hope to be a source of knowledge to farmers and ranchers, and be able to work directly with the animals and benefit the industries. This experience will be valuable because it will show future employers that I have personally been involved with the industry and have first-hand experience of the work that goes into a working farm.

“I am so grateful I started working at the Dairy Unit, and the knowledge I have gained from working at the unit is something that I will always remember as an amazing supplemental education to my schoolwork. I learned animal and management skills that I would only have learned at the dairy.”

Pierce’s after-graduation plans include “taking a job on a 900-cow dairy farm in Australia for six months before, hopefully, returning to this farm to start work as a fulltime employee,” she says. “The farm has shown me that I can make a difference in the dairy industry and be a valuable piece of any farm. I would like to one day be a herdsman on a dairy farm and use all Alli has taught me and will continue to teach me to be the best herdsman I can be. I have learned more from her than I ever thought I could, and I can’t wait until I am ready to run a farm!”

Davis, who grew up on a 600-milking-cow farm in east Tennessee, says, “When I was younger I would watch my Dad care for our cows and I really never dreamed I would be doing that exact same thing, but here I am and I couldn’t imagine a different lifestyle for myself. It is constant hard work, but really it’s not work or a career for me; it is more of a way of life. Dairy cows are my passion, and I will love them and dairy farming for my entire life.”

The DEU teaching farm evolved from the consolidation of four dairy units, the most recent being Randleigh Farms, a gift from the Kenan family. The 389-acre operation maintains herds of registered Holsteins and registered Jerseys to support dairy teaching, research and production.

“The students at NCSU have a unique opportunity here,” Davis says. “[Students at] not many schools can go to the exact place that all of their milk and ice cream come from. That is something to be proud of and really appreciate.”

— Terri Leith

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