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Livestock classes struggle with remote learning


The second week of online classes post-spring break has ended at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and the campus is closed to all non-essential employees and most students. 

Some classes have transitioned smoothly online. The livestock courses at UNH haven’t. The students have had to go home, or if they have stayed in Durham, have to stay in their respective dorms or off-campus apartments. The livestock, though, can’t leave campus as quickly as students do; some live on-campus year-round.  

One of the livestock courses is ANSC 603: Introduction to Livestock Management, led by small farm owner Jean Demetracopoulos. ANSC 603 teaches students about managing a variety of livestock in New England, according to the course description.  

The students also had to care for a flock of sheep at the high tunnels, near the Fairchild Dairy Teaching and Research Center on the west edge of campus. The course capped out at 26 students, who were also supposed to travel on livestock-focused field tricks after spring break.  

“As an instructor, I really focus on handling skillsets and recognizing ‘abnormal’ behaviors and management conditions, so remote learning has presented challenges I am still working on to give my student the quality experience I expect from this class,” Demetracopoulos said. 

She is supplementing the hands-on experience with YouTube and Zoom classes, but the sheep, which she provided for ANSC 603, are all leaving the Durham campus. Demetracopoulos manages Fox Hill Farm in South Berwick, Maine.  

  Demetracoupoulos is taking the sheep and their new lambs back to Fox Hill Farm, as it is easier to care for all the sheep in one place. Durham is at least a 20-minute drive from South Berwick. 

“While I ask students to plan for an hour because I want them paying attention to animal behavior, chores usually take much less time. I know my girls and their normal behaviors, so I can detect an issue very quickly,” she said. 

Near the high tunnel, the cows at the Fairchild Dairy Teaching and Research Center are not going anywhere, as they belong to UNH. UNH maintains two herds of Holstein breed cows at the Fairchild Dairy, their calves, and heifers, as well as Jersey cows, heifers and calves at the Organic Dairy Research Farm, in Lee. 

The 96 cows at the Fairchild Dairy are the cows used in dairy research, and the cows that the ANSC 698: Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management (CREAM) students manage for an entire academic year. 

CREAM students, known as CREAM-ers, manage everything for around 20 cows, as well as the calves at the Fairchild Dairy Teaching and Research Center. Typically, they hold business meetings every Tuesday and Thursday, making decisions like equipment to buy for the barn, cows to breed, and the proposed grading scheme for the class. The class is considered “flipped” and each student is evaluated by their peers. 

Much of the time CREAM-ers spend on the course is also devoted to herd care. Cows are milked twice daily, and there are four daily shifts that require at least two students in the 24-student class. The morning shift begins at 4:15 a.m. 

Normally these shifts are well dispersed amongst the CREAM-ers, and shifts taking care of the research herd are dispersed among student and full-time farm staff. As with the students managing sheep, most students and CREAM-ers have returned to their respective homes.  

Four CREAM-ers, the two full-time staff at the Fairchild Dairy, and farm manager Jon Whitehouse are holding down the fort for all 96 cows, plus the heifers and calves. An estimate of replacing the student labor equates almost 170 hours of labor per week.  

One CREAM-er still there is CREAM president Hannah Majewski, a junior animal science major who lives in one of the apartments at the Fairchild Dairy and works with the research herd. CREAM, she said, “didn’t quite transfer over as smoothly.”  

No visitors are allowed at the Fairchild or Organic Dairy right now in order to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations, though Whitehouse said he has had some people still try to visit the farm. 

The CREAM-ers at home and the CREAM-ers at the barn are still meeting twice each week over Zoom. A recent business meeting included the CREAM-ers at the barn reporting on recent herd updates and barn developments, including six new calves and higher milk production.  

The CREAM-ers at home talked about business, specifically of clippers to buy for the barn. Students who applied for the 2020-2021 CREAM class, as the class is by application only, are being interviewed over Zoom. 

Yet Zoom is not replacing the time the CREAM-ers spent at the barn, and an outpouring of sadness is coming from the students. They miss being with the cows, watching herd developments, and the hands-on component of the class. 

“It feels extremely odd to be at home and suddenly be cut off from the barn cold turkey. The barn has become such a large part of my daily life that it is hard to believe that I won’t be coming back,” Jillian Broadhurst, a junior in Biomedical Science: Medical and Veterinary Sciences, said. 

“I didn’t know much about cows so having hands on practically every day made me love a lot of what I was doing with the cows. I grew a lot of interest in dairy and working in the dairy field. I’m from Boston, so I don’t see much livestock where I live so it’s sad. It’s definitely hard to adjust to this because I miss the cows a lot,” senior animal science major Brianda Mendez said.  

The CREAM-ers at the barn are still posting to the Instagram page for CREAM (@unhcream), and offered to Facetime their classmates with their cow at 3:45 a.m. 

“It’s really sad that we can’t be as hands on, because that’s what I love so much about the class,” Olivia Rose, a senior biomedical science major, said. Many agreed, though a couple were at least grateful they did not have 4:15 a.m. shifts.  

The CREAM-ers at home have also made some changes, including a new grading schema to acknowledge that most aren’t actually with the cows. The Sunshine Committee, one of the many subcommittees in the class a CREAM-er will sit on, is debating whether to pick a student as a CREAM-er of the year.  

“I would agree that I miss being able to interact with people live. I have actually enjoyed meeting all of you CREAM’ers for Peer Evaluations, and the CREAM applicants. However, after 3 weeks of being on my little farm in Berwick, Maine, I am thinking about another month of this…and wondering a lot about the economy, the next school year, and where this is all going to end up,” Dr. Andrew Conroy, the professor for CREAM, said. 

The economy has been on the mind of Dr. Peter Erickson, a professor in the Department of Agriculture, Nutrition, and Food Systems. Erickson leads research on bovine nutrition, using the cows at the Fairchild Dairy.  

There was a run on milk nationwide when the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, causing the price of milk to drop. Other dairy product prices have fluctuated, such as heavily-imported products like cheese.  

While these prices end up impacting the dairy farmers, Erickson was particularly concerned about employment. Dairy farmers and farm staff are essential employees, but can’t work if they become sick. 

“It’s more of an employee getting the job done problem,” Erickson said. 

Luckily, Erickson said, typically one full-time employee is hired per 50 milking cows on the farm. Relatively few people can manage what seem like large herds, but this ratio does not include the calves, heifers and dry (non-milking) cows that are also on a farm. 

The pandemic could also have a cascading effect stretching into the fall because of employment, he said. Less available labor can limit how many crops a farmer can plant, “which six months from now will impact the industry.”  

“The big concern, as far as I’m concerned, is going to be the labor.” 

Agricultural research is also being impacted. Any research that has not currently begun cannot begin for the time being, and there is concern about losing an entire field season for research to occur. Ongoing research can continue, according to Erickson. Rachel Luddy, one of the CREAM-ers still at the barn, is part of one of the ongoing research studies. 

“You can’t really stop a study like that in the midst of an experiment,” Erickson said. 

Erickson also reflected on the fact that no members of the public can come visit the Fairchild Dairy, an unprecedented move. Both farms are usually open seven days a week to visitors throughout the day, including during milking.  

“In my career at UNH, that’s almost 23 years, the farm has never been off limits,” Erickson said. 

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