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Davis, California

Saturday, April 20, 2024

MOOving the “best animal on campus” vote

The UC Davis cows win the student vote for fourth year

Behind the Tercero first-year dorms, groups of dairy cows rest in the sun, watching as curious students bike along or pause for a short visit. UC Davis has several homes for cows across campus, leaving each group of cows with their own unique experiences to share with students.

Aside from the Tercero dorms, students can find over 300 UC Davis cows at the UC Davis Dairy Teaching and Research Facility, the UC Davis Beef Barn, range facilities in Folsom and Vacaville, the University of California Reserve Putah Creek Restoration site, Browns Valley and the Sierra Foothills Research and Extension Center. At each facility, UC Davis students are the problem-solvers, critical thinkers and researchers, learning real-world world applications to start their own careers.

“We have these facilities to solve problems, our students can apply their education and knowledge from their classes from birth to production,” said Donald Harper, the animal resource manager at the UC Davis Animal Science Beef Barn. “It’s rewarding to see their light bulbs go off. Most of our students come from an urban area, when we first meet them they come with tunnel vision, but then their vision becomes full view, like a panoramic. They become independent and proud of their success and accomplishments because they can see the full view and understand it.”

The Dairy Teaching and Research Facility teaches students to manage cow and calves, offering vaccinations for dry cows and cows that are close to having calves, sterilizing calf environments and caring for sick cows with gut microbiome imbalances.

“At the dairy farm, we’re not just treating a cow to survive, we’re also treating them to produce calves and milk,” said Sara Baker, a fourth-year animal science major and student herd manager at the UC Davis Dairy Teaching and Research Facility. “We are also looking at what factors into these decisions to maximize animal welfare.”

When Baker was growing up, she did not have agricultural experience. By taking a course in the ANS 49 series, she spent three hours a week working with fresh and sick cattle, realizing how much she could learn at the dairy farm. She hopes to become a veterinarian who thinks about both production and veterinary needs in order to create practical ideas that can be implemented for food production animals.

Students can watch newborn calves grew up, applying ideas from their classes to new lives. When calves are born, they are born without any adaptive immunity. Students can then help the calves learn how to drink from a bottle, building up their immunity with their first milk in sterilized environments.

“It’s a great feeling to teach them how to survive,” Baker said. “When you cradle a calf, they like to suck on your finger. The goal is to get them to suckle on the bottle. Sometimes, they’re not interested in the nipple on the bottle. One time, I was there for 45 minutes feeding a calf and I had class right after, I had to remind myself that there are other people who can also help support the calves.”

The UC Davis cows support local areas just by grazing.

Last year, Vacaville burned during the Solano Country fire. Groups of UC Davis cows come out to graze on the Vacaville open rangelands, preventing the spread of wildfires. Although the Solano County fire burned 25% of the range, the damage could have been more severe without the cows.

When cows dry graze, they prevent grass from spreading fires to trees. Even after the wildfire had passed, native wildlife seeds were grounded, ready to grow back and bring new life.

The UC Davis cows offer a similar effect with the UC Reserve’s Putah Creek Restoration efforts. Every spring, the cattle are brought to restore native species, like oak trees, in the area.

Although cattle are notoriously associated with high methane emissions contributing to climate change, California cattle industries are placing their hopes of reducing greenhouse emissions with new technologies produced with UC Davis’ cows.

“In 2014, the state of California mandated that cattle industries lower methane emissions by 40%, there was no way to do it, so they turn to universities to find solutions,” said Braden Wong, a fourth-year animal science major.

The UC Davis Animal Nutrition and Environmental Modeling Applications Laboratory investigates ways to lower methane emissions with seaweed. Certain species of seaweed have been shown to lower methane emissions by working in their digestive pathways.

Student researchers come by the UC Davis Beef Barn twice a day, during the early morning and early evening, mixing up seaweed feed.

Cows can be picky eaters too. They hate seaweed, and refuse to eat it when they spot large clumps of it in their food.

“We take ground up seaweed, alfalfa silage and mix it with molasses because cows love molasses and it gets rid of the seaweed smell,” said Anna Wilson, a second-year animal science major. “We analyze their feed samples, refusals or leftovers, fecal samples, ruminal fluid [fluid within a cow’s stomach carrying gut microbiota] and capture 24 hours of their gas emissions once a week.”

Each week, students budget time with their classes and lives, choosing to spend the rest with the cows.

“The evenings go by pretty quick,” said Cynthia Martinez, a fourth-year animal science major. “They’re part of our routine, our normal.”

These cows have been part of the study since they were nine months old, moving towards the second phase of their production life. UC Davis cows live through three phases. In the first phase, they are born, navigating their development as calves. The cows grow during the second phase, often near the freeway, grazing to significantly gain weight. In their third phase, they continue to gain weight, nearing food production.

The methane emissions research study investigates the cows during their third phase with preliminary findings showing approximately 60% of methane emissions reduced. Towards the end of the summer, UC Davis researchers hope to investigate how seaweed consumption impacts meat quality and internal systems.

“This experience amplifies what you have been learning in classes,” said Daisy Castro, a fourth-year animal science major. “You don’t retain a lot from a slide, but here you learn there is a lot of more work in research because a lot of changes could happen.”

Students from both animal science and non-majors can build experience in navigating memorable and unpredictable cattle behaviors at each site through the ANS 49 series.

“We have lab and discussion, where we talk about how productions work,” said Viviana Escobar, a second-year animal science major. “It opens up new windows by coming out here. It’s different than being in class and it’s important to get hands-on experience.”

Written by: Foxy Robinson — science@theaggie.org


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