The annual Dairy Show at the University of Connecticut is a chance for the hardworking bovines behind the famous UConn Dairy Bar ice cream to take the spotlight.
During March and April, eager students head to the green fields around Horsebarn Hill to train and prepare the animal of their choice.
Entering the Cattle Resources Unit (CRU) on the outskirts of campus, you’re hit with a very strong scent. Workers clean the droppings twice a day, but the sweet, rotting smell actually comes from the cattle’s fermented feed.
“When they’re milking they consume a ridiculous amount of calories,” training coach and pre-veterinary student Kate Rowatt said. “Producing milk is a very energy-consuming, metabolic process.”
Milking cows are naturally skinny, even bony. With the energy they burn while making milk, they simply cannot eat enough calories to gain weight.
“That’s the way they’re built,” Rowatt said. “They just have big bony hips.”
Inside the CRU, the cattle are arranged in pens according to age and size. Closest to the entrance are the heifers: young bovines that have yet to give birth.
Technically, only bovines that have birthed a calf are called “cows,” Rowatt said. Sometimes “cow” designates a bovine that has given birth twice and those that have given birth only once are called “first-half heifers.”
Most of the student trainers work with heifers, though a few work with young cows.
They start a training session by working to get their specific animal out of her pen. Some are more stubborn than others. One particular cow pushed through its pen mates to resist getting the halter put on its face.
“It takes a bit of effort to get them to move. They’re stubborn sometimes, especially if they’re not halter broken,” said Cristian Mortali, a second-semester animal science and dairy management major, who works in the barn.
But a few of the cows are more agreeable.
“She (the cow) was surprisingly gentle,” student trainer Paige Orlofsky, who studies chemical engineering and German, said. “It helps that she’s been trained before.”
Orlofsky’s bovine is Andie, a light brown cow of the Jersey breed. Andie could be seen smushing her face up against the metal fencing of her pen.
“She’s very itchy,” Orlofsky said. “When we train, she keeps trying to use me as a scratching post.”
The students focus on training the animals to walk with them with the help of halters. On this particular Saturday morning practice, the students led the cattle to walk up and down a side of the CRU.
Another important part of training is grooming, which also helps to get the animals accustomed to their trainer.
Later, they’ll be able to position the cows and move them into specific stances at the Dairy Show, Rowatt said.
“(Before the show the students) give them fancy baths and haircuts, which is hard but a lot fun,” Rowatt said. “For show day they’ll have their tails brushed and their hooves cleaned and polished.”
Students of all majors are able to learn to train a cow for the Dairy Show, which helps to grant exposure for UConn’s Animal Science Department.
“It’s nice to see people outside animal science,” Mortali said. “There are students from chemistry and kinesiology. I think that’s the most important and interesting thing.”
The student participants range from freshmen to seniors.
“I’m from New Hampshire so I live near a lot of farms, and I just thought it would be a different experience for my senior year,” said trainer Marcela Trocha, an eighth-semester physiology and neurobiology major.
Trocha works with a heifer named Drama.
“She’s dramatic, to say the least,” Trocha said. “She’s very stubborn and very hungry always. She ate at my hair today. They’re kind of like dogs, like puppies. They need to be trained.”
Mairead Deacy, a second-semester psychology major, was in her third session working with a cow named Marabelle.
“It sounded like fun. UConn has a lot of unique opportunities and I want to do all of them,” Deacy said. “Dairy cows seemed cool too. They’re very stubborn but very cute.”
After an hour-long session, the animals are moved back into their pens, and the students gather at another corner of the CRU to hose off their boots.
“Today was pretty good,” Rowatt said. “The first couple times are a bit harder. Now the cows are more willing to work with their people, and the people know what they’re doing a bit more.”
This semester’s Dairy Show will be held April 16.
“I have a great air freshener in my car,” Rowatt said on the way to central campus. “My dad always asks why it smells coconutty and fruity in here, but that’s much better than it smelling like cow.”
Christopher McDermott is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.