Dairy Students Get Best of Both Worlds at Alfred State

12/15/2012 7:00 AM

Margaret Gates

Regional Editor

ALFRED, N.Y. — Alfred State College was at a crossroads in 2005 as its leaders pondered the future of the college farm, whose outdated, nearly 40-year-old facilities were desperately in need of an upgrade.

A task force composed of experts from outside the college was charged with determining whether such a hefty investment was feasible and worthwhile, and it answered with a resounding “yes.”

And so, the western New York college embarked on a plan to transform its farm into a sustainable, grass-based dairy operation where students could learn both conventional and organic practices side by side.

That plan came to fruition this fall with the official opening of the Center for Organic and Sustainable Agriculture. Funded in part by a $4.9 million state grant, the project includes a new free-stall dairy barn, milking center and heifer barn, along with renovation of existing facilities.

“It’s a very exciting time to be here and to be involved in the agricultural program at Alfred State,” said Terry Tucker, dean of the college’s school of arts and sciences, which encompasses the agricultural programs.

Tucker taught agricultural economics and farm business management at Alfred State from 1981 to 1995. He came to his current post in 2010, after 15 years teaching international agriculture at Cornell University.

Ironically, while at Cornell, Tucker chaired that 2005 task force that ultimately helped chart the course for the future of Alfred’s college farm.

While other colleges and universities, such as the University of Vermont, have sold off their herds in favor of experiential learning on privately owned farms near campus, that didn’t fit with Alfred’s hands-on learning vision, Tucker said.

“It’s a different approach to undergraduate education here than at many of the land grants,” he said. “The outside-of-classroom instruction in the farm laboratory plays a more prominent role.”

Although farm visits are an integral part of the curriculum, exposing students to a variety of producers and management styles, Tucker said some farmers are understandably uncomfortable allowing students to perform all of the hands-on tasks they are able to do at the college farm.

With the opening of the new facility, Alfred is now giving its students something only a few other colleges in the nation can offer — the chance to work with both organic and conventional dairy herds.

“We feel that it’s important for students to learn both systems,” Tucker said. “Agriculture has changed a lot ... so rather than teaching students a recipe, we want them to become keen observers, be able to compare, solve problems and make decisions, and having different management systems side by side allows them to do that.

“We’re one of a very few colleges and universities across the country that have organic,” Tucker said.

Alfred’s 60-cow organic herd is housed in the new free-stall barn with a DeLaval robotic milker. The 60-cow conventional herd is housed in a nearby tie-stall parlor.

The college is located in Allegany County, in the northern part of the Appalachian plateau, where the topography and soil lend themselves to a grass-based system, Tucker said.

Although the college owns a lot of acreage, much of it is woodland, Tucker said. The college farm has about 235 acres of pasture, with an additional 290 acres on a farm north of Alfred, in Groveland, N.Y., where they grow corn and high-quality silage.

“The entire farm, all the land, is certified organic, so there are not any problems as far as cropping for it all,” Tucker said. “The difference comes in the feeding and the veterinary protocols for the two herds.”

The conventional cows actually do eat the organic haylage that’s produced on the farm, but not the organic grains that are required for the organic herd, he said.

“The biggest thing that we have to focus on,” said organic herd manager Eric Beiler, “is clear labeling and separation of all feedstuffs, minerals. Anything that’s conventional and organic that’s close must be clearly labeled.”

They are currently having wooden signs made for the grain bins, so when a grain truck comes there will be no mistaking where to put its delivery, he said.

The organic herd started milking in the new facility about a month ago. Until that time, those cows were boarded at a farm in Wyoming County.

All things considered, the herd is coming along well, Beiler said, noting the cows have had to adjust to a new home, a new milking system and a new diet.

“After about three and a half weeks, I went from pushing a third of the herd to almost none of them now,” Beiler said of the herd’s adjustment to the robotic system.

The college farm is a member of Organic Valley Cooperative for the organic herd and Dairylea for the conventional herd.

The conventional herd, managed by Pete Chatain, who is also the overall farm manager, typically has a rolling herd average of 28,000, Tucker said. It also has the highest BAA of any publicly owned herd in the United States.

The organic herd is averaging 16,000 to 17,000, Beiler said.

For now, the college is strictly selling fluid milk, Tucker said, but they have explored the possibility of producing other value-added products in the future.

In the meantime, Alfred’s agricultural program is undergoing several other upgrades in addition to the dairy facilities, among them new laboratories for plant and animal sciences and some biological sciences, and a small farm incubator program at the Groveland farm.

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