By MITCH LIES
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Oregon State University College of Agricultural Sciences administrators said they are committed to the college's dairy program, despite the fact the college recently sold the bulk of its herd and suspended milking.
"We've never had any plans to eliminate the program," said John Killefer, head of the Department of Animal Sciences.
"We want to grow it. I think it just needs to be a little bit different than it was," Killefer said.
Killefer said the college plans to milk a herd of 80 Jersey cows beginning next summer with an emphasis on grass fed forage systems.
The college formerly milked about 160 head of equal numbers of Holstein and Jerseys under traditional feeding systems.
"Jerseys fit with (a grass-fed) management strategy better than Holsteins," Killefer said, when asked why the college was shifting to Jerseys. "And by keeping a single breed, we can have a sufficient number of animals that we can do research trials with. If we have multiple breeds then we don't have enough of either breed to do many studies."
The suspension of milking at the college's dairy barn this summer sparked rumors the university was considering discontinuing its dairy program.
Killefer and Larry Curtis, an associate dean of the college who oversees animal science, said at no time did the college entertain ideas to discontinue its dairy program.
"It's a very important resource for us," Killefer said.
Killefer said the dairy's plan to change from a traditional- to a grass-fed system was hastened after the Oregon Department of Agriculture last summer issued two civil penalties for the dairy's confined animal feeding operation.
The civil penalties, for $6,920, were issued July 12 for discharge of manure into Oak Creek.
"In order for us to come back into compliance and maintain our existing herd (of 160 cows), it was going to be a very expensive endeavor for us," Killefer said.
Curtis estimated it would cost $200,000 alone to add a storage tank capable of handling manure from the larger herd.
"That forced our hand on doing something," Killefer said.
Curtis said the college initially expanded the herd size from 120 to 160 cows in an attempt to optimize its ability to make money. In the process, he said, the college pushed the limits of the dairy's ability to handle manure.
The strategy's risk was exposed when a sprinkler head broke this year, causing manure to run unobstructed from a pipe onto a field and eventually into Oak Creek.
The college plans to use the $135,000 it raised from selling 120 cows to help pay for about $200,000 in improvements for its dairy farm, which is located about a half-mile from the western edge of campus.
The college plans to keep replacement heifers and some bred heifers from its existing herd. If all goes as planned, it will begin milking Jerseys at its upgraded barn next summer.
"We are looking at changing managing the farms; some people may get reassigned," Curtis added.
Mike Gamroth, a long-time OSU dairy extension agent who is retiring next year, said the dairy barn "grew into a very inefficient operation over time because we couldn't get bigger."
While the dairy may not be able to turn a profit, research into grass-fed systems could help the Oregon industry.
"I think we can help the industry by looking at home-grown feeds and forages," he said.
And by reducing feed costs and cutting the herd in half, administrators believe they can cut back on losses of about $300,000 a year in recent years.