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UMaine’s Witter Farm Climbs to the Top

The University of Maine Witter Farm in Old Town always ranked well for its milk quality and cows. However, an especially impressive number of accolades have been bestowed upon the dairy herd at J. F. Witter Teaching and Research Center in the past few months. Most recently, the herd was ranked 3rd in the nation among college and university herds of Holsteins for 2019.

The Witter farm was also recognized by the National Holstein Association with the 2019 Progressive Breeders Registry Award and 2019 Progressive Genetics Herd Award. They are the only Maine dairy herd to receive both awards. Registered dairy cows are often “classified” or scored twice a year.

In preparation for a classification, cows are prepped and beautified like they would be if they were entering the show ring. Judges arrive at the farm and score cows on a scale of 100. Judges are looking at the cow’s confirmation, her overall frame, udders, legs, feet, and her “dairyness” with 18 physical traits in all. They take into account her age, milk production over her lifetime, and current stage of lactation.

Classifiers have incredibly high standards. They are not generous with their points and never give perfect scores. Witter’s highest-scoring cow is 7-year-old Ponyo, who scored a 92EE.

Of their current 30 milking cows, four are classified as excellent. Anything 90 and above is considered excellent. Those in the 80s are classified as “very good”, which is still an incredibly desirable result in the dairy world.

Livestock Operations Manager Lizz McLaughlin with the Witter farm’s pride and joy, Ponyo. Photo by Sydney McDermott.

“We’ve always had a good herd, but I think the emphasis has changed in the last 20 years,” says Dave Marcinkowski, UMaine associate professor of animal and veterinary sciences and dairy specialist for the cooperative extension, “It’s a research herd. We used to focus really on milk production. Now, we go for showier cows. The cows have gotten fancier.”

These classifications and the genetics of the farm’s calves and young heifers along with milk production are what determine the above-mentioned honors given to the herd. All the scores and awards aren’t just for bragging rights. There’s a very practical reason behind having good genetics in your dairy herd.

Better cows are healthier cows. Cows, especially large Holsteins, put a lot of weight on their legs and feet. They need a good foundation on which to stand. They need straight backs that won’t sag from carrying a calf or heavy udder.

She needs to hold her udder up high to avoid injury and infections. Her teats need to be angled so that she is comfortable when a milking unit is attached. Genetics help in selecting cows that produce more milk while using fewer resources and are more disease resistant.

Livestock Operations Manager, Liz McLaughlin, started at the Witter farm as a student (2004-08). She has been on the staff there since 2009. Among other responsibilities, she is the farm’s matchmaker.

Cows are bred through artificial insemination. Liz immerses herself in catalogs and reports about available bulls to breed to the Witter cows in an effort to make each generation just a little bit better than the last. Using certain criteria, she can usually narrow the field down to 200 perspective fathers from the thousands available. From there, she selects the top five to breed the UMaine cows with.

What the back end of an “excellent” cow looks like.

“When it’s time to select bulls, I spend an incredible amount of time doing research,” she says.

When Liz started selecting bulls in 2009, the rolling herd average or the average of how much milk a single cow on the farm produced over 305 days was 21,000 pounds. They get a 2-month vacation before they have a calf each year.  Last year, it was 24,000. In 2019, it jumped to 29,995 pounds, or an average of about 98 pounds (a little more than 11 gallons) per cow, per day.

“That 5 pounds really bothered me,” Liz said of missing the 30,000-pound mark.

The jump in milk production isn’t solely because of genetics. It’s been well-proven that cow comfort and nutrition are important factors in milk production. The farm works with a nutritionist, who helps a farm determine the best diet for each cow’s optimal health.

The dairy barn has new stalls and beds for the cows. Cow comfort and health are important in creating an award-winning dairy herd. The achievements at the Witter farm are especially impressive when you consider that much of the milking and cow care is done by college students, mostly animal science and pre-veterinary medicine majors.

They rotate every semester. The majority of whom have no experience with cows. Liz’s other responsibilities include training and supervising 24 students at a time as they come in each semester for their mandatory stint on the farm.

Students work two shifts a week and have a lab once a week where they learn about dairy farm management. They are also assigned a cow for the semester. They have to take care of her calf when it arrives.

“I find that on average one out of 50 has ever seen a cow in real life,” Liz says. “I was the same way when I was a student. I had seen them at the fair but did not have any hands-on experience. The vast majority do really well. Most of them are really into it. They are here a lot, beyond what they have to be. They learn the importance of doing their part.”

Three students are designated the “herdspersons” each week. They are responsible for tracking the well-being of the herd and making sure their peers do all the required tasks. Students often come back beyond their one semester to continue to help on the farm as a volunteer or teacher’s aide.

Dave credits Liz’s training but adds, “The students take it pretty seriously. They police each other pretty well.”

The Witter Farm has several events throughout the year to offer the public opportunities to meet, and sometimes even milk, their award-winning cows. Follow their Facebook page for dates and times along with videos and blog posts from the students working there.

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Maine Dairy and Nutrition Council works with school nutrition directors and staff
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