Candy is for more than people with a sweet tooth; it’s also a great way to train dairy cows how to use a robotic milking system, much to the delight and educational benefit of students working at Oklahoma State University’s Ferguson Family Dairy Center.
The robotic milking system highlights how the OSU Department of Animal and Food Sciences provides students with firsthand experience of technological advances that are changing how the dairy industry does business, said Nicole Sanders, OSU graduate student and interim dairy herd manager.
“If you want to work with high-tech agricultural companies in developing new programs and supporting new technology, we have that at Oklahoma State,” she said. “Not a lot of university [undergraduate and graduate] students in the United States get to work with robotic milking systems.”
And, yes, there is candy involved. Training dairy cattle begins with a special kind of pelleted feed with sweets in it that entice the animals to enter the robotic milking system. This goes on for several weeks before the actual milking process starts. The idea is to get the cows used to the presence of the technology – and eating the pellets.
“Everything has gone very well, especially with the Jersey cattle. After a while, it all becomes just a normal part of the cow’s day,” said Kristin Pronschinske of DeLaval, the manufacturer of the robotic milking system. “The students working at the center have had a lot of fun learning all about the new system and training the cows, and we have had just as much fun working with the students – and the cows.”
OSU agribusiness student Lora Wright agreed, citing how student access to cutting-edge technologies at the dairy center, combined with research-based educational experiences focused on best management practices, gives her and her fellow dairy enthusiasts working at the center the practical, applicable skillsets needed to pursue a variety of career options in the dairy industry.
“New technologies are an evolution in the dairy industry,” Wright said. “The center was the reason I came to Oklahoma State. Growing up on a registered dairy farm in southwestern Missouri, I wanted to continue that and pursue a degree in agriculture.”
Robotic milking systems are increasingly becoming the dairy industry’s default mode of business, in turn driving technological enhancements that affect related job functions – from feed advisors to veterinarians who are experienced with the interaction of animal and machine, to designers of dairy and other on-farm equipment.
“OSU’s Ferguson Family Dairy Center is a working dairy farm in addition to its role as an historically important research facility. The combination instills students who work there with a perspective that incorporates many different facets of the industry,” said Susan Allen, manager of industry affairs at Oklahoma Dairy MAX. “That is a valuable contribution to the industry, and to agriculture in general, in terms of turning out our next generation of producers, dairy scientists, livestock nutritionists, agricultural engineers, economic analysts, educators, entrepreneurs and community and government leaders.”
Enrollment in the OSU Department of Animal and Food Sciences typically accounts for about 1,000 students from 40 or so states, making it one of the most popular academic homes for students on campus. Department Head Clint Rusk said a highlight of projects undertaken during the last few years has been improvements at the dairy center.
“The Ferguson Family Dairy Center clearly is an excellent educational and career-building resource for current OSU students, but from the outset, we also envisioned it being a place where busloads of third or fourth graders might come and see the latest innovations related to dairy production and animal management practices, maybe help them learn a little bit more about agriculture,” Rusk said. “We thought, potentially, some of them might even want to come to school here someday.”
For current student Wright, the technologies and programs at the center are examples of how life is changing for the dairy industry and those pursuing agricultural degrees.
“At OSU, we still milk some animals in the parlor in addition to those going through the robotic milking system,” she said. “The combination of traditional and cutting-edge practices gives students the best of both worlds, and the knowledge to operate in each.”
After all, adoption of new technologies across an entire industry does not happen all at once. Wright said OSU is helping its dairy students position themselves for whatever comes next, both in terms of a potential career in industry, research and academia, and life in general.
The Ferguson Family Dairy Center and OSU Department of Animal and Food Sciences are part of the university’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, which is comprised of the Ferguson College of Agriculture and two state agencies: OSU Extension and the Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station system.