CORVALLIS. Ore. — There’s always something to do at a dairy, and the 4 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. milkings are just a start. Walking past Jersey cows standing patiently at the feeding grates, Hayden Bush doesn’t miss a step. He grabs a snow shovel mid-stride and works his way down the line, shoveling grass silage back within reach of the cows.
Bush, 22, is the no-nonsense student manager of Oregon State University’s Dairy Center west of campus. He’s a senior, majoring in agricultural science, president of the college FFA club, executive president of OSU Agriculture and a member of the team that in September placed third nationally in a collegiate dairy cattle judging contest. Back home in Tillamook, his family operates Gypo Jersey Farms, a dairy that’s been in business more than 50 years.
He has classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but most of the week he’s here, running things, doing chores, teaching others how to do things right. “This is a vacation for me,” he says. “The thing I love about the opportunity is that it’s like I’m almost being paid to farm.”
He fully expects to return to the family business, but not yet. First he wants to teach dairy science and management, possibly even at OSU. And he frankly wants the OSU dairy to become a national “powerhouse.”
That would be quite a comeback. A year ago, the dairy was shut down as decades of facility neglect and university funding choices turned around to bite it. It had been fined nearly $7,000 for leaking cow manure into a nearby creek and was forced to sell its herd of 120 animals while making repairs. At least one industry representative called it an embarrassing turn of events for OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, the academic flagship of the state’s second leading industry.
It’s fair to say things are looking up. An alumnus in California donated 30 registered Jerseys to get the program running again and some improvements have been made to the manure handling system. The dairy is now also supplying milk to the campus fermentation center, where students make the popular Beaver Classic cheese.
Oregon’s dairy industry, which was gravely concerned about the closure, is happy to see things turning around. Industry representatives say giving students hands-on experience is critical, especially at a land grant university such as OSU.
“It’s fair to say it was embarrassing and upsetting,” said Jim Krahn, soon to retire as executive director of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association. “Frankly, that’s part of the requirement for being a land grant university.”
The need for understanding of animal agriculture is greater than it’s ever been, Krahn said. Many students, even ag majors, lack an agricultural background. In a state where the beef and dairy industries are key economic sectors, that could spell trouble, he said.
“If we want to maintain our position as an industry in this state, it’s really, really, really important these young people — who go on to be attorneys, vets, engineers — have some basic knowledge of what goes on at an agricultural operation,” Krahn said.
“I understand a dairy will not be a money-making enterprise, but neither is a building on campus,” Krahn said. “It’s simply a tool to teach students.”
For that reason, “The industry stepped forward and said there needs to be a dairy there operating.”
The dairy industry didn’t have money to throw at the problem, but lobbied hard for restoration of the dairy and helped in other ways. The anonymous alum who donated the Jersey cows is a longtime friend of Krahn.
The dairy’s problems came to a head April 11, 2012. The dairy has a system that separates manure solids and liquids, and uses the latter to irrigate adjoining fields. An irrigation pipeline riser blew out and liquid manure drained from a pasture into Oak Creek for as long as four hours. Someone living downstream reported the spill after smelling manure, and a creek monitor operated by the city of Corvallis recorded bacteria level spikes during that time. It’s not known how much manure spilled into the creek, which borders the dairy.
The state Department of Agriculture, which regulates CAFOs — confined animal feeding operations — issued the dairy a notice of non-compliance and followed it in July 2012 with civil penalty of $6,920. The department also ordered OSU to come up with a plan to correct the problems.
Ray Jaindl, manager of the department’s natural resources program, said OSU had a history of recurring problems with the dairy’s waste management system. OSU officials didn’t argue the findings, he said.
“They recognized they needed to pay more attention,” Jaindl said. “After the incident we were in constant communication; we want them to succeed and not pollute.”
University and industry officials believe the dairy is back on track. A smaller herd should make for less waste, and Jerseys are smaller, eat less, weigh less and produce less manure than other larger breeds while providing milk that is high in butter fat content — great for cheese making. Going to a forage-based herd should save feed costs. Despite other problems, the facility’s milking equipment is state of the art.
“As an industry we’re really glad to see them up and going,” said Jerome Rosa, a Gervais dairyman and member of the Oregon Board of Agriculture. “They’re taking care of some of the issues they had before.”
Classes use the facility often. Beginning animal science majors visit the dairy, veterinary students take a hand, and artificial insemination classes make use of the dairy as well. Student cheese makers pick up milk from the dairy.
Bush, the student manager, believes the dairy operations can go hand-in-hand with the specialty food emphasis emerging at OSU’s fermentation center.
“Ultimately what we’d like to see is to be able to do more of that,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is develop a dairy program that sets us apart from the others, with more student involvement all around.”