Learning by doingby Sally Colby

When Elizabeth “Lizz” McGlaughlin was a student in the pre-vet program at the University of Maine, she didn’t appreciate the time she was required to spend at the school’s dairy farm. She was more interested in horses, and her plan was to prepare for a career of researching heart problems in race horses.

But Lizz said taking the required class at the university’s J. Franklin Witter Teaching and Research Center changed everything. “I had no interest in cows, but I had to take this class,” she said. “I loved it, and it spiraled out of control from there.”

The class Lizz referred to is the one she now teaches as herdsman at the university’s dairy farm. The herd, which once included both Jerseys and Holsteins, was originally used for research. Over the years it’s transitioned to serve as a teaching model.

“All dairy and animal science students are required to take the course,” said Lizz, adding that the farm is operating with students who have never worked with cows. “They have lab once a week, two hours long, but in an average week, students are here about 10 or 11 hours.”

Lizz said many students feel overwhelmed when they first start taking shifts at the dairy, but pick up the routine quickly. “I do three weeks of training with them,” she said. She stresses the fact that dairy cattle thrive on routine. “After that, they’re expected to remember how to do everything, refer to the directions or work together to figure it out.”

Instruction begins with safety training, some of which can be completed online. “Then

they have area-specific safety training where we review site-specific hazards like confined spaces and paying attention,” said Lizz. “We go over handling, stockmanship and animal body language. After that, they start with chores, and as they learn more, I show them how to do nearly everything.” Lizz added that while there’s a large learning curve for students who have no large animal experience, they learn quickly.

The tie-stall barn designed for 35 cows currently holds 29 milking cows. Although the herd isn’t large, the goal is to run the farm like any other dairy. Morning chores begin at 3:45 a.m., and Lizz wants milking units on by 4:30. Afternoon chores begin at 2:45 p.m., with units on at 4:30.

Students typically work in pairs for milking, but Lizz said a boom in enrollment led to assigning three students at a time. Lizz conducts milking and other training to ensure consistency in procedures. Milking shifts also include calf chores, turnout, cleaning stall beds, young stock care and caring for animals in the bedded pack barn.

During weekly lab sessions, students learn about, observe and practice routine dairy tasks such as vaccinations and pregnancy checks. “Lab topics rotate with whatever is happening,” said Lizz. “Outside of lab, each student has to do two milking shifts each week. They are also assigned a pregnant cow, and when that cow calves, they help with delivery and take care of the calf.” Students also take turns serving as student herdsman, which involves some extra duties in the barn as well as making sure other tasks are completed.

A nutrition team works with the dairy and visits weekly. The farm grows feed for rations and uses a custom operator at harvest. Students learn about forage quality, testing for dry matter, formulating and balancing dairy rations.

Students whose assigned cows are close to calving can stay with that cow through labor and delivery, but cows are also monitored via cameras so students can check a cow’s progress on their phones. “We do a night check at about 10 p.m.,” she said. “Then we’re here at 3:45 a.m. to prepare for milking, so there’s usually someone here. The students usually see the calves born and do all the neonatal care such as drying the calf, dipping the navel, feeding colostrum and filling out paperwork.

“The more the students are here, the better, because there’s an infinite number of things to learn,” said Lizz. “We go over on-call procedures – if you see ‘this,’ who do you call? I want them to learn how to identify a problem. They don’t necessarily have to know what the problem is, they just have to know there is one. We’re also big on ‘if you want to know something, just ask.’”

Cows are bred using AI, and Lizz starts the bull selection process by looking at Holstein sires with high TPI®. “I want uniformity, good udders, good feet and legs, production, high components and good fertility,” she said. “Students also learn how to analyze DHIA records and review classification reports, so after that lab, we go over genomics and sire selection. I’ll give them a list of the bulls in the tank and let them do prospective matings.”

In addition to day-to-day cow care, students learn the importance of a good dry-off routine. After cows are dried off, they’re moved to a bedded pack barn for a 60-day dry period. Cows spend the final three weeks of pregnancy in a close-up pen. In winter, close-up cows are moved to box stalls in the barn.

Lizz encourages students to spend more time than the required hours on the farm, and said students who do stick around learn quite a bit. “It’s rewarding to see how competent students can be after just a semester of experience,” she said. “At the end of the semester, students have opportunities to see other dairy farms.”

Many who spend time on the farm are pre-vet students, and Lizz said most who maintain good grades, stick with the program and are otherwise qualified are accepted to vet school. While many go to vet school at Atlantic Veterinary College on Prince Edward Island, others head to Glasgow, Scotland, Washington State, Colorado State University and Cornell University.

Lizz often recalls her own student experience on the Witter Farm, and understands what it’s like to be tossed into an unfamiliar setting. “I can relate to students who think they aren’t going to like it,” she said. “I didn’t think I was going to like it either.”