MOUNT JOY, Pa. — Montana Stump’s biggest challenge this summer was assisting with the breech birth of a calf.
Working by herself, the college senior struggled to move the baby’s awkwardly angled leg without tearing the mother’s uterine wall.
And when she finally got the calf out, it took a few breaths and died.
That was a tough moment, but it’s also the kind of thing that sometimes happens on dairy farms.
Stump, an animal science major at Delaware Valley University, was looking for real-world dairy experience when she signed on as a summer intern at Hetrickdale Farm in Bernville, Pennsylvania.
She was one of seven college students who participated in this year’s on-farm internship program offered through a partnership between the Center for Dairy Excellence, the Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association.
Interns must attend a Pennsylvania university, be a Pennsylvania resident attending an out-of-state school, or be a recently graduated Pennsylvania resident with an interest in dairy production, according to Emily Barge, a center spokeswoman.
The interns complete a research project and get to try their hand at many dairy farm tasks.
And while there are plenty of challenges, like that breeched calf, the interns accomplished a lot.
Stump met her goal of keeping up with more seasoned workers during an entire milking in a rotary parlor, and she nursed sick calves back to health.
“Being able to know that I treated that calf and it was able to get up and go was a good experience,” she said.
The interns gave their final presentations on Aug. 22 in the ag community room at MidAtlantic Farm Credit’s Mount Joy office.
Following are stories from six of the seven interns.
Aaron Harbach, who interned at a large dairy in Georgia, was featured in Lancaster Farming on Aug. 31. Read about his internship experience at bit.ly/harbach-intern.
The Center for Dairy Excellence is now accepting internship applications for summer 2020.
A Cloudy Drink of Water
George DeMers, a Penn State junior from York County, interned at Mason’s Chrome View in Nottingham.
The Masons, who milk 450 cows, don’t enjoy cleaning the cows’ water bowls.
“They’ve got so much stuff going on — I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that — it just sort of falls to the bottom of the list of things to do,” DeMers said.
As a result, feed, sand and other detritus build up in the bowls and turn the water cloudy.
For his research project, DeMers compared percent changes in water drinking between two pens of cows.
He cleaned one pen’s water unit twice a week but didn’t clean the other. Then he switched.
The results were inconclusive, giving little indication that cleaning the water bowls actually increased drinking.
“If you’re in the middle of corn silage, I don’t think you need to be staying up late at night wondering if you’ve cleaned the water bowls or not,” he said.
Of course, it’s still a good idea to clean water bowls periodically.
Junk reduces the volume of the trough available for water, and the extraneous material can foster salmonella, DeMers said.
Shara Allman, a Penn State junior, interned at El-Vi Farms and Willow Bend Farm in New York’s Finger Lakes region.
She compared the milk production of cows that gave birth to twins versus single calves.
The cows with twins clearly had higher rates of metabolic problems, which led to higher cull rates. But those cows that stayed in the herd produced more milk on average than other cows.
Research indicates that hormones cause higher-producing cows to have higher rates of twinning.
“You don’t want to just get rid of any cow that has twins because she could be your best-producing cow,” Allman said.
The trends she found were consistent between both farms where she worked, and one of the farm veterinarians found a similar pattern on other local farms.
Allman hopes a nuanced view of twinning can eventually help farmers make decisions about how to manage and care for their twin-producing cows.
No Place Like Home
Caitlyn Degner, a recent graduate of Delaware Valley University, spent the summer at Walmoore Holsteins in Chester County.
She compared the growth of calves raised on the farm and by a custom raiser.
The outsourced calves gained 1.7 to 1.9 pounds per day, while the ones kept at home topped 2 pounds. Walmoore offered a cleaner environment than the custom raiser, Degner said.
Home raising also turned out to be half the cost of the custom operation — $200 versus $400.
Degner recommended that the farm bring the calves home to raise.
Farm owner Walt Moore said he’s known that custom raising is expensive, but he’d have to build a barn to house all of his calves and get the right person to manage it.
Still, “it’s rising higher and higher on our list,” he said.
Degner didn’t grow up on a dairy farm, but she participated in 4-H as a child. At college, she worked on the campus dairy and was involved in the dairy club.
“I just have a passion for it. I don’t really know where it came from,” she said.
Drink More Whole Milk?
The task for Stump, who interned at Hetrickdale Farm, was to assess calf performance in the automatic feeding barns.
Calves in one barn were being fed milk replacer, while those in the other were being fed whole milk — 80 gallons of waste milk per day from the fresh and treated cows, and 60 gallons taken from the bulk tank.
Would switching both barns to the same feeding system make sense?
The calves in the whole milk barn gained more weight overall. But their growth was slower for the first 14 days, and they had scours early on.
The calves on milk replacer gained more consistently, Stump said.
The milk replacer cost about $4,000 per month, so if milk replacer were fed in both barns, the cost would be $8,000.
Feeding whole milk in one barn costs about $2,800 per month, but to use it in both barns, the cost would balloon to almost $9,000 a month.
“You’d be taking more milk out of the bulk tank,” Stump said.
In short, the farm’s current calf feeding program is OK the way it is, she said.
Stump did improve calf health through daily washing of the automatic feeder and twice-a-day cleaning of the nipples.
“It’s kind of like throwing all kindergartners into the classroom for the first day,” she said. Without good sanitation, “they’re all going to get sick.”
Bringing the Intensity
While most of the interns worked at farms with hundreds or thousands of cows, Catherine Moyer worked at a small grass-based dairy.
Little Crick Farm in Bradford County has 60 Jerseys crossed with Normandes and Red Devons.
For her project, Moyer pitted intensive grazing — small groups that mow down the entire paddock and are moved frequently — against farm owner John Meglich’s preference for larger paddocks and less frequent pasture changes.
Meglich gives his cows more space than they might need in the 12 hours before milking, clips what they don’t eat to even out the grass, and regrazes pretty much whenever he wants.
While Moyer’s approach is more regimented than Meglich’s, her intensive grazing produced good pasture stands.
Managing nanny cows and heifers, Moyer had success bringing pastures with old, poor-quality forages back up to the caliber needed for lactating cows.
Meglich was even able to regraze some of Moyer’s pastures when he ran short on grass for the milking herd.
During the summer, Moyer learned how to set up fences that would keep in small calves, not just the large cows.
She also discovered the challenges of making fence in a part of Pennsylvania that at times seemed more wild than agricultural.
“I was climbing up hills and over cliffs and down logs and trying to fit fence posts in sold rock,” she said. “So that was a bit difficult at times.”
Let There Be Light
Holly Musser, in her second year in an associate degree program at SUNY Cobleskill, spent her summer at Restful Acres in Hershey.
Farm owner Frank Graybill installed LED lights in the parlor during the summer, and he wanted to know if the cows would defecate less while there.
The thinking was that cows relieve themselves more when they’re in an unfamiliar or stressful setting. The freestalls already had intense lights, so going into the dimly lit parlor may have thrown them off, Musser said.
In her study, Musser actually found little change in the cows’ bowel movements after the lights were installed, though she didn’t have much opportunity to gather data because the LEDs were put in near the end of her internship.
The much brighter lights did at least have a big influence on the people who milked the cows.
“I thought it helped me keep awake at night if I had to milk,” Musser said.
She could finally see well underneath the cows, and the lights in the once-dark holding area made it easier for workers to gauge how many cows were left to milk.
It was, one might say, a particularly enlightening part of her internship.