Hands-on laboratories in the campus dairy barn have long been a part of the dairy science introductory course. Students in lab sections work with faculty, graduate students and senior undergraduates in a wide array of hands-on experiences — from handling cows in the barnyard to micromanipulating embryos in reproductive physiology labs. Likewise, the dairy herd management course makes extensive use of farm visits, and offers an optional visit to western dairies over spring break.
These activities have proven so popular that dairy science faculty have added more active learning labs. The introductory animal nutrition courses now include customized ration-balancing labs, where teams of undergraduate students compete to formulate inexpensive and practical animal diets. The students handle animals, mix diets, and analyze the growth and economic data (students feed chicks or cows, depending on their interests). Students in the new Practicum in Dairy Management will learn how to analyze and troubleshoot commercial dairy operations.
The course will serve as a capstone experience for undergraduates to encourage teamwork, communication, and bringing practice and theory together, according to one of the instructors, dairy scientist Dave Combs. Students get real-world experience evaluating nutrition and feeding programs, genetic selection, reproduction, and milking systems and facilities.
“The course puts students in a leadership role. They go out to working dairy farms, make on-site evaluations, then get back to the farmer with recommendations,” Combs says. “The focus is on workable solutions — things that will work on that specific farm.”
Each student will evaluate three farms during the semester. Courses in cattle reproduction cover artificial insemination, palpation, embryo transfer and ultrasound. For example, all undergraduates take a semester course in artificial insemination. Taught in collaboration with the Animal Sciences department, the course includes theory and extensive “hands-in” practice with a variety of livestock and poultry, according to CALS reproductive physiologist Milo Wiltbank.
Once students become proficient in artificial insemination, they can move on to other aspects of animal reproduction, such as calving, or independent study in embryo transfer and other biotechnologies. A recent grant of more than $180,000 helped stock the basement laboratory with modern microscopes and feed-analysis equipment. In addition, the lecture rooms are all capable of computer, microscopic and video projection. The dairy science department sits atop a modern computer lab for CALS students and staff, and it”s a stone”s throw from one of the finest agricultural libraries in the world. And of course the cows are housed just down the block.
“As always, students play a major role in running the campus herd and in assisting with the research projects that are helping to define the future of dairy production,” says department chairman Lou Armentano. “Few campuses have cows within sniffing distance of the main teaching and research facilities, but at UW-Madison we”re glad for the reminder that cows are our business.”