It was 4 a.m., last Thursday morning, and the sun wouldn’t rise until 6:21. The stars were out, and it was 51 degrees Fahrenheit. A group of students arrived at the Fairchild Dairy Teaching and Research Center at on the west edge of campus, against Route 4. Three of them were enrolled in the Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management (CREAM) course, and the students called CREAM-ers.
CREAM is a year-long course, academic breaks and weekends included, where undergraduate students actively manage and care for 26 Holstein cows, as well as all the calves born and raised at the Fairchild Dairy—the Fairchild Dairy also houses a herd for research studies that have examined a variety of topics, such as milk production and calf growth.
The CREAM program involves two portions: direct hands-on management and care of the herd, and business management.
The students taking CREAM are not just animal science majors concentrating in dairy management: the three students who arrived for the 4:15 a.m. morning shift were Brianda Mendez, a senior animal science major in the pre-vet program, and Olivia Rose and Devyn Enwright, both seniors in biomedical science: medical and veterinary science.
CREAM-ers join the program for a multitude of reasons, but large animal experience is often key, as it is with Rose: “I want to go to vet school. I want to be a large animal vet.” CREAM gives her an “opportunity I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
The three CREAM-ers met in the main office, where they switched shoes for boots stored in a locker room. For each shift, of which there are two in the morning and two in the evening, the CREAM-ers have to be ready to work when that shift starts, Mendez said, not simply arriving to the dairy.
The three CREAM-ers determined who would take what chore and split up. The first chore with the cows was milking, which Rose was in charge of. The CREAM cows were not the only cows being milked, however, and they had to wait for a “string,” or milking group of research cows first. Cows do not always produce milk, depending on what stage of pregnancy they are at, with cows in the 8th and 9th months of pregnancy being considered “dry cows” that do not get milked.
The research cows were guided into the milking parlor, where there were 10 different stalls that contained automatic milking machines. As this string was milked, the CREAM cows waited behind a gate at the edge of the milking parlor that could be remotely moved, moving the cows forward when their turn came.
With oversight from one of two full-time staff at the Fairchild Dairy, Leah Caverly, who is a UNH alum and advisor to the Dairy Club, Rose began the milking process by “stripping” each cow’s teats. Chaloux used a gloved hand to spray some milk from each teat, checking the milk for signs of mastitis, which is udder inflammation. Chunky or bloody milk could indicate mastitis.
Rose then put a pre-dip on each teat, a liquid iodine-based disinfectant. This prevented any bacteria on the outside of the teat from getting into the milk. She attached the milking machine that automatically began milking. Each machine had been programmed with the cow’s identification number, allowing analysis of an individual cow’s milk production.
Rose learned how to milk from enrolling in AAS 425: Dairy Management. Dr. Drew Conroy, a professor at the Thompson School of Applied Science and with the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture, teaches Dairy Management, and is also the professor for CREAM.
Advisors also help Rose and other CREAM-ers learn how to complete chore. These advisors are undergraduates who were part of the CREAM program last year, and assist this year’s class for the first few weeks of the fall semester.
The machines milked for on average 10 minutes before they automatically released. Each cow at the Fairchild Dairy, including the CREAM herd and the other milking cows, had made on average 80.7 lbs of milk in the last week, or 9.4 gallons a day.
This average was up a few pounds from the previous week, Caverly explained. “Cows don’t like the heat.” She said. “Cows like thermoneutral zones, like 40-50°.” She noted that the temperature of last Thursday morning “is perfect.”
Successful milking production also depends on another factor: “We milk the same every day, do the same procedures…cows really love consistency.” Caverly said.
Once all the CREAM cows had been milked, they were returned to their stalls. While Rose had been milking, Mendez had put fresh bedding down, cleaned up scattered feed, and cleaned manure into a manure trench. Enwright had put out fresh feed.
Cows, the CREAM herd included, are fed a specialized diet, Enwright explained. Multiple components go into their feed, such as haylage, minerals, and beet pulp. What each cow eats can change, with lactating, or milking, cows eating differently from heifers, cows that have not yet had a calf. The proportions of the different substances in a cow’s feed need to be exact, as errors can harm the cows.
One part of the feed was blood meal, which, Enwright explained, was for the microbes in the cow’s rumen. Like many other animals, the rumen contains microbes to help digestion. This digestion is for plant material. Animals cannot easily digest plants, so microbes in their digestive systems ferment it and provide the plant nutrients.
The feed is mixed in a large mixer that will tell the CREAM-ers and other dairy staff if they need to add more of a substance to the feed. The CREAM-ers then drive the mixer along the cow’s stalls and disperse the food.
With all the chores done, the morning shift had finished by 6 a.m. Rose, Mendez, and Enwright checked with each other to confirm the cows had been taken care of. Each CREAM-er is graded by their peers, and collaboration and holding to commitment is essential. If a student misses even one shift, they will see a drop in their grade, no matter how early the shift starts.
Luckily, Rose, Mendez, and Enwright had found the adjustment to waking for such an early shift not a great struggle. Mendez noted that it prepares her well for her 8 a.m. class. However, the adjustment can be a struggle for many.
The other morning shift, the mid-morning shift, had begun at 5:30 a.m. The two CREAM-ers on that shift fed the calves, mixing each calf’s individual diet. The mid-morning shift focused on calves, as they would also check and clean out calf hutches, or larger outside enclosures that each held two to three older calves that had been weaned off milk.
Morning shifts, as well as afternoon shifts with the second round of milking for the day, are not all that the CREAM class does. The class meets twice a week for business meetings, where they break into committees they all rotate through. Committees include a variety of tasks related to the business of managing the CREAM herd, including breeding, maintaining the dairy facilities, and milk production.
Each of these committees have different responsibilities: the breeding committee selects bulls to artificially breed the cows to. “It’s like a puzzle,” Mendez said of breeding. The CREAM-ers will select bulls whose offspring have characteristics they are looking to have in a calf. Production, Enwright said, involves examining body condition, such as checking temperature of certain cows at night and cleaning manure.
The CREAM-ers also have to deal with the emotions of managing live animals. “We’re a business. We do as much as we can to keep the cows happy and healthy.” Rose said.
“You kind of have to know number 1, it’s a business, number 2, the animal world is not perfect like the human world…it can be hard.” Enwright said. Rose talked of a calf that was prematurely born, and no matter the dairy staff’s efforts, passed away.
The CREAM-ers may also return outside of their required chores to check on their calves and learn more of herd management. Last Thursday, Rose stayed beyond the time required for the morning shift, and planned to return to the dairy after class to check the pregnancy of her cow. Each CREAM-er pays special attention to an assigned cow outside of the morning and afternoon shift chores.
The time commitment and difficulties of managing a dairy herd does not sway the CREAM-ers’ opinion of the program.
“You are literally responsible for those cows’ living [and] wellbeing…it’s a real-world type of responsibility.” Enwright said.