By Jean Clavelle, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan
Agriculture is much more than farming. It’s a diverse community of people who work closely with and support those farmers who grow our food, and without this supporting network, farming would not be what and where it is today.
This month, RealDirt spoke with Morgan Hobin who is the Manager at the Rayner Dairy Research and Teaching Unit at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. The Center boasts one voluntary milking system (robotic) and a parlour (or conventional milking system), and is currently milking 104 cows with an additional 150 calves and cows that are not producing milk.
Hobin explains that although they are a commercial facility, they are not a conventional dairy. Among the requirements to produce milk that you will buy in the grocery store, they have extra space to allow for teaching dairy production to students and have two different milking systems which allows for different kinds of research. “We also have the interactive cow walk suspended above the dairy so consumers, farmers and anyone, really, can observe the cows in their day-to-day life and to see where their milk comes from. And the other unique thing is that we are a commercial dairy in the city, which is quite rare.”
Morgan acts as the liaison between the barn operations, the research faculty (from the department of Animal and Poultry Science and the Western College of Veterinary Medicine) and the public and teaches dairy management labs to Animal Science students.
“It’s a very quiet and calm environment and you don’t hear banging or yelling or animals in distress. The animals get to take their time. It’s a pretty relaxed place.”
RealDirt: What do you feel are your most important responsibilities?
Morgan: My number one most important responsibility is taking care of the cows. This includes making sure the staff is on board for the day’s activities and goals for the week. I make sure the cows are fed the right diets, calves are taken care of, and cow’s reproductive systems stay healthy. We are a commercial facility but we have research responsibilities on top of the general day to day management so all of the team needs to be on the same page.
The second is to make sure that the research that is being done is high quality resulting in publishable data. And under that scope the most important thing goes back to the cows being taken care of. Our ultimate goal is that the research that happens here directly transfers and is practical for Saskatchewan farmers and their animals.
RealDirt: What does a typical day entail?
Morgan: I get to the barn around 7:45 am and I do my rounds. I see how much feed is left over in the bunks, and then I make adjustments for that day’s feeding schedule based on how much is left over from the day before. I look at the cows and the manure (which is important because manure tells you if they are healthy or not) and make sure that all of the cows are doing well. A healthy manure patty has good consistency, piles firmly and is a brownish colour. Manure that is too runny, too firm, has gas bubbles or grain in it, indicates a problem! Then I check the notebook – these are the notes that tell us if there were any issues from the night shift (we have people here from four in the morning until 11 at night) and deal with anything that has come up. This is followed by a team meeting so everyone can get up to speed about what is happening in the barn that day and if anything out of the ordinary is happening like a tour, or a special research project that might be starting. Then it’s all up in the air from there! I usually have a plan but every day is different.
There are a lot of tasks that happen on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. An important one is to make sure to look at our computer programs which provide specific info about each animal from the day before and a snapshot of the previous week which is another indicator of how the cows are doing and their health and well being. I look at animals that are due to calve and determine if any cow needs special attention or if we need to bring them in if they are getting close to their due date.
And then there are all of the regular dairy farm duties. I need to pay bills, order feed, make feed sheets based on the morning bunk checks and check the bulk tank (the stored milk that will eventually go to the grocery store) to make sure we are on track for our quota (the amount of milk expected to be produced each month). And of course there’s scheduling all of the workers (we have six full-time, five casual employees, and four students).
In the afternoon, I often have meetings with faculty and researchers to hash out and schedule upcoming research projects. I also go to check on the calves in the calf barn and on the heifers and the rest of the animals outside, to see if they are doing well, body condition wise. Every second week we have “herd health” where the vet and several fourth year vet students come to check for pregnancies and do general post-calving checks on each cow to make sure they are all healthy. And, because we are a teaching centre, I teach dairy management to Animal Science and Veterinary Medicine students.
RealDirt: What do you love most about your job?
I love the fact that when I come to work I know that every day is going to be different. I love the combination of office work and caring for the animals and getting to be a part of the neat research we do.
RealDirt: What is the most challenging part?
Finding the sweet spot between meeting the demands of research and teaching while still being a productive and profitable herd.
RealDirt: What has changed since you started doing your job?
I’ve been here for two years and in that time, we’ve seen an increase in the technology that is available to help us on a cow-by-cow basis and for overall herd management. Everything is constantly evolving and improving.
RealDirt: What kind of training and education do you have to do this job?
I have a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture and a Master of Science in dairy nutrition from the University of Saskatchewan. To do this job, I think it is important to have practical experience. I went to Australia and milked cows there for a year, so I understand and can work better with the team that’s out in the barn because I understand what they are doing. And having management experience definitely helps.
RealDirt: How do you interact with farmers?
Our researchers work with the provincial dairy industry so we can link the research with industry priorities which is the ultimate goal. Often farmers will stop by to view our facilities or they might have a guided tour. Farmers want to know the research that’s happening here so they can understand what’s new and what they may be changing in the future. They also want to see how our facilities work and often compare their own to ours.
RealDirt: What is the biggest misconception you encounter in your job?
I think it’s just general animal care and how cows are housed. I think visitors’ minds change when they tour our facility. For example, we have brushes in each pen, that lets the cows brush themselves and you can see how happy the cows look while getting scratched. I think visitors are surprised at how easily cows come to see you when you are on the floor which is a clear indicator to me that they aren’t scared or being mistreated – they want nothing more than to lick you. Plus we milk three times a day and people can come in (most of the time without us even knowing they are there) and see us moving the cows. It’s a very quiet and calm environment and you don’t hear banging or yelling or animals in distress. The animals get to take their time. It’s a pretty relaxed place.
RealDirt: What do you wish consumers knew about the dairy industry?
I guess I wish consumers knew producers respect the animals and the consumers. It takes commitment and attention to detail to make sure that there’s a high quality product coming out of the farm. And we wouldn’t pay attention to detail and try to constantly improve if we didn’t care. We want to make sure the consumers are getting a high quality, safe product because we care about them.
RealDirt: What do you think surprises visitors the most when they come to visit the Rayner dairy facility?
The biggest thing is that most people are surprised how much cows produce in a day: our cows produce about 40 kg of milk per day. That’s the “holy cow” moment. There is a lot of work behind milk production like this and we need to pay attention to every detail of the cow’s life to help them be this productive. Stressed, sick, or unhappy cows do not produce milk like that. We also like showing people the robotic milker. A voluntary milking system is a great tool because you can have a 400 cow dairy and seven milking stations and it can be managed by one person. Voluntary systems are also good for animal welfare because cows can choose to be milked three or four a times day if they want, while others may choose not to be milked more than twice, so it gives them an option.
Robots can improve welfare for the animal and improve welfare for the farmer, too. These days in the dairy industry we work hard to find staff that we can trust our animals with. People ask me do you have kids? And I say “yes, 250 of them”. I can’t trust their health and comfort to just anyone. So having robots lets farmers provide great care to the cows and allows the farmer to have a quality of life too.
RealDirt: Is there a way for interested readers to connect with you (blog, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)?
Visitors are welcome at the barn between 12:30 pm and 4:30 pm, seven days a week, or you can contact the Dean’s office to arrange a personalized tour at 1-306.966.4058
We’re blogging about Canadians working in agriculture. Each month, we’ll feature someone different on www.realdirtblog.ca to show how diverse our Canadian agriculture industry is! Know someone that we should feature? Send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.