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How the Penn State Dairy Barns help bridge a gap between food producers, consumers

In today’s world, there is a growing gap between the people who produce the world’s food and the consumer. Many consumers have no idea where their food comes from or how it is produced.

The Penn State Dairy Barns, operated by the College of Agricultural Sciences, help to bridge that gap both by educating students in the college about dairy management and by providing tours to many outside groups interested in learning about dairy farming.

Additionally, the facilities are used to conduct research to better understand the relationships among dairy cow performance, management, nutrition, behavior and the environment. Information from these studies then is disseminated to farmers through Penn State Extension to benefit dairy farm management throughout Pennsylvania.

The Dairy Research and Education Center maintains a herd of 240 milking Holstein dairy cows. The total herd size is around 475 animals including calves, growing heifers and dry cows. On average, the milking cows produce about 10 gallons of milk per day per cow. The milk from the dairy is used by Penn State’s Berkey Creamery, and the excess is shipped to Land O’ Lakes.

The dairy employs a staff of 10 full-time employees and approximately 20 undergraduate students each semester. These employees are the backbone of the operation and keep things running for 16 hours each day, 365 days a year.

Our student employees come from many types of experience levels and backgrounds. They can gain experience in animal handling, milking, calf care and feeding, animal health and equipment operation. Some students have grown up on a family farm, and some have never touched a cow before. Working at the dairy is an asset to any resume as it requires working early mornings, late nights and in bad weather.

Taking care of animals requires a strong dedication and work ethic. Many of our students work here to get large animal experience for veterinary school. A limited number of students live in apartments located on the dairy farm and exchange work hours for housing.

Prior to the COVID pandemic, staff at the dairy gave approximately 50-60 tours each year to a total of about 1,000 people. These include tours to complement classes in animal science, food science, nutrient management, the Ice Cream Short Course and animal welfare at the university. Many local primary schools visit for field trips along with high school science and agriculture classes from across the state. We are finally getting back up to our pre-COVID levels of visits to the farm.

Research occurs on the farm year-round. Current studies are exploring several different areas. Milk fat, or the percentage of fat in the milk, is integral to profitability of a dairy farm. Researchers are conducting trials to see how we can alter the diet to maximize milk-fat production without impacting milk production or health.

Methane generation from agricultural production has been a growing environmental focus in recent years. Altering diet to reduce the amount of methane produced by cattle has been a focus of research here. Adding products derived from seaweed has proved successful in reducing methane production in the cow’s rumen. Scientists also have trials looking at dairy cattle reproduction, nutrition, and gene expression that determines specific diseases and traits in dairy cattle.

Nadine Houck and Travis Edwards are co-managers of the Penn State Dairy Barns. OLLI at Penn State, open to mature adults who love to learn, offers many types of courses. Nadine Houck will lead a tour of the Penn State Dairy Barns for OLLI this spring. For information about OLLI’s summer and fall programming — created, arranged, presented and supported by OLLI member-volunteers — visit OLLI at Penn State at olli.psu.edu or call 814-867-4278. Anyone with questions about the dairy farm or groups interested in tours can contact Houck at nsd107@psu.edu or Edwards at tde111@psu.edu .