Skip Navigation

News - The Milky Way

In UMaine’s student-run dairy cooperative, the learning is large

by Aimee Dolloff

Claire Dugan

The dairy barn at the J.F. Witter Teaching and Research Center is a living laboratory for AVS 346, a three-credit course in dairy cattle technology, led by Associate Professor of Animal and Veterinary Sciences David Marcinkowski.

It’s 4 o’clock on a frigid March morning as blue-black as ink when Nile McGhie and Claire Dugan finish their half-hour of prep work. Bathed in the golden glow provided by banks of overhead fluorescent lights, the two are ready to face 35 of their teachers, who, between the strains of Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Crocodile Rock blaring from the radio, are expressing their anticipation and impatience with their own rising cacophony of coughing, stomping and heavy breathing.

They include Daisy, who smells nothing like a flower. There’s Raven, who can’t fly, and Dutchess, a native of Orono, not York. And while they’ve had no schooling themselves, the lessons they teach have the potential to shape the lives of students.

At the University of Maine’s J.F. Witter Teaching and Research Center, this trio and the rest of the dairy herd provide invaluable learning opportunities for undergraduates such as McGhie and Dugan.

“Normally, I would just be getting to bed at 2:30 a.m. after doing homework for hours,” says McGhie, an animal and veterinary sciences senior with a pre-vet concentration from Cutler, Maine. “Now I have to force myself to sleep at 9 or 10 p.m. in order to be ready to get up (and) milk.”

Last semester, McGhie was one of 16 students working in UMaine’s dairy program, UMAD COWS (the University of Maine Applied Dairy Cooperative of Organized Working Students) as a two-credit lab of AVS 346, a three-credit course in dairy cattle technology. The student-operated dairy cooperative that began a decade ago offers hands-on experience with large animals and management of a dairy herd. Students also learn lessons in business, teamwork, time management and communication.

For their part, the cows have each been named and “profiled” by previous UMAD COW members to help newbie co-op workers. Each student is assigned two cows to care for — from monitoring of health and safety to regular brushings.

This year, 33 calves (16 heifers) were born on the farm. The students are on call to assist when their cows give birth.

“(The dairy program) was a big reason why I came to UMaine,” says Jon Myers of Bristol, Conn., an animal and veterinary sciences major with a pre-vet concentration. “The Witter Center has got to be one of the best large-animal programs for its size in New England.”

UMAD COWS, modeled after the University of Vermont’s CREAM program (Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management), has grown into a $150,000-a-year operation, with a 35-head herd daily producing about 1 ton of milk that is sold to Garelick Farms through the Agri-Mark co-op. UMaine consistently receives awards from the cooperative for milk quality, placing in the top 10 percent of dairy herds in Maine. Proceeds from UMAD COWS milk sales help pay for the farm’s operation.

For the past few years, the dairy co-op has participated in an organic feed trial. The cows are fed a special organic diet, and data are gathered to see how it impacts milk production and quality, as well as financial aspects. The trial is set to wrap up this year.

“Without the dairy co-op students, we wouldn’t have a farm,” says David Marcinkowski, UMaine associate professor of animal and veterinary sciences, and a Cooperative Extension dairy specialist. “This program teaches students that a farm doesn’t run itself. A dairy farm operates 24-7, 365 days a year.”

No matter the season, early mornings on the farm evoke a simple beauty.Across the 300 acres of open and fenced pastures surrounding the Witter Center, moonshine dances off fresh blankets of snow and, in summer, mist rises from the standing hay. In the barn, the setting is nearly as romantic when the two rows of Holsteins stand stanchioned, waiting.

Witter dairy barn

The early morning milking at Witter

But as any dairy farmer will tell you, the work is arduous, dirty and regular as clockwork. And rewarding.

Each semester, about a dozen students, some of whom have no prior experience with large animals, are scheduled to undertake the daily milkings and chores at 3:30–7 a.m. and 3–5:30 p.m. In addition, the students are responsible for such activities as keeping the herd book, feedings, and barn mucking and cleaning. The dairy cattle technology class taught by Marcinkowski meets weekly for discussions in a room at the Witter Center and for demonstrations in the barn that blend theory and practice.

The students have to know their way around cows and dairy production, and they take their responsibility for the animals and their peers seriously. Scheduled for the morning milking and don’t show up? That means you’ve left your milking partner flying solo — a very unpleasant task when 35 cows wait anxiously to be milked. Show up too late and you’ll also face a barn full of agitated, uncomfortable bovine.

Typically, the pair of students assigned to morning chores begins by checking the milking system, readying the sanitizers and generally cleaning up. Any given morning can come with its share of surprises, including new calves delivered overnight.

Weekly, one student is named productions herdsperson, another named heifer herdsperson, with responsibilities for monitoring vaccinations and heat checks, and cleaning the maternity pens.

Marcinkowski, who grew up on a dairy farm in northern New York, drives home the importance of safety for both the animals and the students. Students are required to pass several training courses, including farm safety, and operating procedures for equipment and machinery. He also talks about some of the harsh realities.

“We’re going to handle drugs in this class,” Marcinkowski tells them early on in the course. “Stuff happens; you’re holding onto a cow with one hand and trying to inject it with the other. If you get stuck, report it.

“Somebody will pick up ringworm this semester. The good news is, once you have it, you’re immune to it for a while.”

Marcinkowski also talks about biosecurity issues and urges students working on this and other farms to keep a separate change of clothes for each facility to prevent contamination.

Marcinkowski admits that having a group of greenhorns in a barn isn’t an ideal way to run a dairy. “It’s really difficult,” he says. “It’s quite a bit easier with a small farm with only a couple of people milking. With 14 or 15 students milking the cows every week, it’s hard to find consistency.”

But then, as it happens each semester, the students hit their stride. And the co-op hums.

“It’s a kick to just watch students come in at the beginning and be absolutely terrified of cows because they’ve never had a pet over 20 pounds. Eventually they learn that they’re just big fuzzy puppy dogs,” Marcinkowski says.

Those puppies each weigh in at around three-quarters of a ton and have even bigger personalities. The students can’t get enough of them.

Jennifer McGintee of Windham, Maine, an animal and veterinary sciences major with a pre-vet concentration who graduated in May, introduces a visitor to Coffee Cake, standing in a pen segregated from the rest.

“She’s not ready to calve,” says McGintee. “She’s just huge and kind of a dope.”

Rebel likes to steal paper towels from the back pockets of those trying to milk her. Nessie loves attention and frequently plays “queen of the hill” on the snowbanks. And Skylar, “she likes to kick,” says McGintee.

dairy barn

The dairy barn at the J.F. Witter Teaching and Research Center is a living laboratory for AVS 346, a three-credit course in dairy cattle technology, led by Associate Professor of Animal and Veterinary Sciences David Marcinkowski.

The overall UMAD COWS experience is so labor-intensive and fraught with responsibilities and challenges that it can’t help but strengthen students’ team-building and communication skills, and knowledge of animal husbandry. Through the years, the program has springboarded several students into veterinary careers, many with large animals. For all, the experience bonds them through their UMaine years — and beyond.

Today, it’s not uncommon to see co-op alumni roaming the barn, looking for descendants of the cows they were assigned as students. And reminiscing with the newest UMAD COW participants.

For alumnus and Maine large animal veterinarian Simon Alexander, it was a Holstein named Louine and the hands-on experience he got at UMaine that solidified his career choice.

“The University of Maine by far is the best value in the state, and probably all of New England,” says Alexander, a native of Easton, Maine. “It set me up very well to excel in vet school.”

In 1998, UMAD COWS started as a two-semester, eight-credit program with 35 Holsteins and a dozen students, led by Alexander as vice president and Erin Emmans as president. After that first year, Alexander continued to volunteer in the dairy cooperative until he graduated in 2000 and went to vet school. When he returned to Maine to work first in a veterinary clinic in Dover-Foxcroft before starting his own practice in Bangor, he was once again a regular at Witter. One of those first farm calls was about Loucille, Louine’s offspring. He had to put her down.

“I still have her ear tag in my pickup at home,” he says.

Some students who participate in UMAD COWS are glad for the experience because they learn they don’t want to pursue this area of animal sciences. However, many more discover their calling.

“I never thought that I would enjoy cows and now I love them,” says McGintee, the herd supervisor during the spring 2009 semester. “Being here in this curriculum, I definitely want to be involved with large animals in some way.”

Back to News