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.”
Image Description: Simon Alexander