Getting a crash course in cow care and feeding

Wear washable boots. That may be one of the most important tips offered to a group of 19 incoming Penn Vet students who took part in a three-day seminar introducing them to the daily care of dairy cows.

Officially, the seminar, tailored to students getting ready to start their first year at Penn Vet, is called “Introduction to Dairy Production Systems.” But it’s more commonly known as, “I’ve Never Touched A Cow, But I Want To.”

“It’s all voluntary,” says Jon Garber, clinical lecturer in Penn Vet’s Department of Clinical Studies at the school’s New Bolton Center campus in Chester County, Pa. “The students come and start school a couple of weeks early, here at the dairy.”


Garber is talking about Marshak Dairy at the New Bolton Center, a working dairy laboratory with a herd of about 180 Holstein milking cows. The herd produces about 1,500 gallons of milk each day.

During the three-day immersion program, which took place in mid-August, students got a crash course in the basics of dairy production, the role veterinarians play in keeping herds healthy, and key concepts of the dairy farm business, including milk production and processing. The hands-on portion of the seminar involved milking the cows, doing barn maintenance, and feeding calves.

For many students, it was the first time they’d been around farm animals or had anything to do with the food animal industry. 

“I have no experience with large animals of any kind,” says Kayla Feldman, who comes from suburban Boston. “I mean I’ve had the children’s look at a cow at a farm, but that’s about it. It makes me feel as if I’m already behind, so I wanted to do this to get some experience before classes start.”

Clad in coveralls and rubber boots, the students were encouraged to learn by doing. 

First, they descended into the milking area of the dairy, where humans work in a trough-like walkway that puts them eye-level with the cows’ udders. They were instructed on how to clean and prepare the animals’ teats, attach the milking machines, and move the cows along when the milking is complete.

As they wiped udders with disinfectant and slipped the milking tubes onto the teats, the students learned first-hand that the cows aren’t always cooperative. Sometimes they kick, squirm, or simply refuse to move. And, the students discovered, in this line of work there seems to be an endless supply of urine and manure to dodge.   

“I’ve had no exposure to large animals, at least not this end of them,” says Matt Terzi, who at 32 is a bit older than many of his first-year Penn Vet classmates. “This is all really new to me, but it’s really cool to learn.”

While handling the milking machine, Feldman admitted that standing at the feet of the 700-pound cows is “definitely a little scary.” But, she acknowledged, “the animals aren’t as aggressive as when you’re working with dogs and cats.”

During the seminar, one small group of students got the opportunity to feed a calf that was only a couple of hours old.

Armed with big bottles of bovine colostrum (the first milk produced by a mother cow, rich with antibodies and nutrients), the students entered the stall where the calf was born and gently coaxed the baby to drink the liquid. It is critical that newborns receive a significant dose of colostrum, Garber says, because they have weak immune systems.  To make sure they get enough—up to 14 quarts—the calves’ first feeding is always administered by hand.

“Just on this first day, I’ve learned way more about cows than I ever knew before,” says Klaudia Polak, who worked part-time at a cat hospital before becoming a student at Penn Vet. “I didn’t realize how much planning goes into dairy farming.”

Garber, who oversees the program, says this is the fifth year the school has offered the cow seminar, and each year it has grown in popularity. All Penn Vet students will eventually participate in a rotation at the New Bolton Center campus as part of their medical training, he says. But the students who attend the cow seminar often feel more comfortable with the animals when that rotation comes around.

cow care - slideshow