Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Cal-Poly program brings students back to the dairy

Alisa Anderson Published on 25 August 2009

The dairy science program at California Polytechnic State University is one of the biggest dairy programs in the U.S. Students in the program learn large-herd management and gain practical experience working with the university-owned herd.

"I've heard more than one time that 60 percent of the dairy cows in California are either owned or managed by Cal-Poly alumni," says Dr. Stan Henderson, a faculty member in the dairy science department. "Our students are going to be the leaders and the big dairymen in the dairy industry in the future."



Yet an increasing number of students start out at Cal-Poly with little or no dairy experience. Many of them have parents or grandparents that owned a dairy, but they themselves did not grow up on a dairy. Out of the 24 students who are currently working at the dairy, 16 of them did not grow up on a dairy. Rich Silacci, the faculty member who oversees the dairy, says he believes that educating these students is an important part of what they do.

"We're going to continue to see this trend in the future as families get further and further removed from the farm," Silacci says. "When the students apply for a job here at the dairy, myself and some of the student managers will take them out and teach them how to move cows into a parlor properly, how to properly milk them and safety for the kids and for the cows."

Richard Darrach, who started as a feeder two years ago, is currently one of the student herdsmen at the dairy. Richard grew up on his grandfather's rice farm but had little animal-handling experience when he came.

"The whole industry just really grabbed my interest, and I wanted to get involved in it," Darrach says. Darrach's grandfather owned a dairy before he raised rice. Pleasant Grove, California, where Darrach is from, used to be an area that supported a lot of dairies. Darrach grew up hearing stories about dairy, which inspired his interest.

"The most interesting thing I've learned is the science behind the feed and the nutrition. How it goes in like that and comes out as milk just totally amazes me," Darrach says.


Silacci says that one of the main challenges is training these students and still maintaining a high production, reproduction and efficiency level. Despite this they've successfully developed one of the most up-to-date breeding and management programs.

The dairy herd consists of 85 registered milking Jerseys and 90 registered milking Holsteins. The Holsteins have a rolling herd average of 28,000 pounds milk, and the Jerseys have a rolling herd average of 20,600 pounds. The Jersey herd was recently recognized as the top fat-producing herd in the U.S.

"We try to maintain really good purebred herds in both Jerseys and Holsteins. We have one of the best registered herds in the United States. We've tried to maintain a quality of cattle that we can use in classes to teach top-notch production as well as top genetics," Henderson says.

A recent project is an embryo transfer program, which is designed to carry on the genetics of the dairy's best cows as well as earn some extra income to help support the dairy by selling the calves. They flush their most elite cows and get about eight embryos per cow. Other dairymen in the industry have volunteered their heifers to be surrogate mothers for these embryos. Later the calves will be returned to Cal-Poly.

Keeping calves healthy is a challenge with the cold nights, hot days and high humidity in central California, and the students previously struggled to care for them. Now students who feed calves are required to take a class on newborn calf care that Silacci and another faculty member teach. Students learn neonatal care, how to vaccinate them, proper calf housing and how to care for them in the first two weeks of life. Calf death loss is now down to 3 percent.

"To think that we're doing that with students who have pretty limited animal knowledge, I'm really proud of that. I think that's probably one of the best things we've done in the past couple of years," Silacci says.


Another recent success in calf-raising has been a new automated calf feeding system. It was started as a senior project, and afterwards the unit was donated to the school.

The calves are put into the group pen at 10 days old. The computer tracks the calves using their RFID tags and feeds them using that information. Health has not been an issue despite the calves being in a group. They've been using it since June 2008, and only recently had their first bloated calf.

"We can really see a huge difference between calves that are in the automated feeding pen and calves in a hutch. Their fill is just more even throughout their body. Sometimes in the hutch they get kind of a belly, and it's not as even. But in the group pen they get taller and longer, and they're a lot better-looking calves," Darrach says.

The economy affects their dairy just as any other dairy in the industry. This year has been tough and they've been forced to cut back on several things. "We're operating about as efficiently as we can and still keep in mind that we are a teaching facility," Silacci says.

The embryo transfer project is one attempt to survive the economic slump. Another ongoing project is an attempt to reduce their dependency on feed shipped in from outside of Central Valley. This past year they started working with the crops department and growing 25 acres of corn silage and 15 acres of winter forage. They've been able to use all of their lagoon water to irrigate the corn.

"In the near future our biggest goal is to survive the next six months and the budget crisis," Silacci says. "The next goal is to be aggressive with our embryo transfer program and to really improve our breeding. We're getting a lot of milk and a lot of production out of these cows, and our herd health is very good. But it's a challenge to improve our reproduction. Much like the calf program, one of the things I'd like to do with the students through the next year is to go through our reproduction protocols and work on different management practices to improve in that area." PD

Alisa Anderson
Staff Writer
Progressive Dairyman