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A veterinary student and newborn calf at the dairy research site

About 8 calves are born each day at the Transition Management Facility.

Maternity spa for cows: An innovative partnership keeps dairy herds healthy

An innovative partnership keeps dairy herds healthy

By Gayla Marty

Published on August 4, 2004

If you think of black and white Holstein cows mostly as decorative salt and pepper shakers, you should see the 400 beauties resting in splendor on the rolling green landscape an hour from St. Paul.

Lounging peacefully on sandy beds in the shade of a barn that's more like a tent--the canvas sides rolled up to let the summer breeze through--they munch on balanced nutritional feeds and sport fashionably docked tails in their fly-controlled quarters.

"It's kind of like a day at the beach for these cows," says Dr. John Fetrow, professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. The only thing missing is the sunglasses.

Their quarters are a kind of maternity ward for cows called the Transitional Management Facility (TMF), which is "a funny mixture of dairy operation, teaching hospital, and university classrooms," says Fetrow. It opened in 2002 as the result of an innovative partnership between a farmer who owns 2,400 cows and the University's College of Veterinary Medicine, which needs high-quality training for future dairy veterinarians.

It's a cow's life

Heifers give birth for the first time around age 2, and then are called cows. Cows are pregnant for 9 months and most have 3 calves over their lifetime, spaced about 13-14 months apart. Several weeks before birth, milking cows "dry off." Their first milk after birth, colostrum, is fed to the calf to transfer valuable antibodies and nutrients. Cows at the TMF are milked four times daily (6 and 12, 6 and 12), normally giving about 60 pounds of milk a day, which increases to a peak over 100 pounds (8 gallons). Calves born at the TMF are raised at a separate farm.

Because most health problems in cows occur in the days before and after their calves are born, the TMF makes economic sense to the farmer and is a dream come true to a vet in training. Up to eight students on rotations can stay in the living quarters adjacent to the TMF. It's unique in the world.

Most of the cows here are healthy and normal, which is great for teaching students because "they learn what 'normal' looks like," Fetrow says. "They learn that you don't have to help every cow have a calf." "But we need a large enough population so we can get a few abnormals," he explains. "For the senior vet students who come live here for two weeks, I can almost guarantee they'll see nearly all the common problems that dairy cows have...and they'll also see the odd things, a cancer, for example. It's all here."

Cows can suffer from ailments like mastitis (that maybe only a human nursing mother can appreciate). Despite this, there's not a lot of mooing going on at the TMF. The cows get plenty of attention and state-of-the-art treatment. They're at the top of their game, producing as much as 100 pounds of milk a day when they go back to work full-time at the nearby commercial dairy.

Because of the University's role, the research at the TMF reaches far beyond a single farm. The TMF Web site publishes standard protocols, from feeding rations to treatments for common problems.

"It doesn't matter if you have a thousand cows or one cow," says Fetrow. "The information applies to both systems. Any dairy farmer in the country can look over our shoulder."

Anybody else looking will see a lot of cool cows and their calves--about eight newborns a day, all exceptionally cute.

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