Strolling the slanted concrete floors of the Oregon State University dairy barn, a visitor gets a feeling of being watched. And it’s true: 30 pairs of soft brown eyes follow your steps, and 30 velvety faces gaze at you with an expectancy that says, “Of course, you came to see us.”
These 30 registered Jersey cows seem to know they’re the stars of this show. And why not? When they arrived in 2013—a gift from a generous OSU dairy alumnus—they helped jumpstart the OSU dairy operation after a year-long closure and the sale of most of the previous 180-head milking herd.
The revamped dairy is now in its second year and seems to be off to a good start. “We had record high milk prices the first year,” says Troy Downing, “so we started on a high note. We made a lot of investments,” including pasture fencing and irrigation, and a new manure tank.
Downing is an OSU animal science professor and the Extension dairy specialist in Tillamook County. He says the university’s dairy is aiming at that sweet spot where it can both earn its keep and support OSU’s animal-science teaching and research—studies of animal health, nutrition, reproduction, and behavior, as well as herd management and crop and grass production.
Animal science students come here to get hands-on experience in all aspects of dairy operations and management. Youngsters from public schools and clubs come for various learning experiences—including getting up close and personal with the doe-eyed Jerseys.
The 2012 shutdown occurred mostly because of the high cost of feed, Downing says. “The cost of running a dairy is generally 50 or 60 percent feed. With the old herd, we were growing about 20 percent of the diet and buying 80 percent from elsewhere—alfalfa hay from eastern Oregon and grain from the Midwest.”
Then feed prices got high and milk prices got low, and budget troubles forced a rethinking of the high-input, high-productivity management regime. Now the dairy is keeping fewer cows and feeding them less grain and more homegrown grass. Between 60 and 70 percent of the cows’ diet comes from the 180 acres of OSU pasturelands surrounding the dairy. The cows graze the pasture’s grasses in summer and eat silage in the winter, reducing costs for imported grain and alfalfa.
The leaner diet results in a somewhat lowered volume of milk. For Seth Spencer, who manages the dairy and all of OSU’s animal facilities, this lowered volume is not a problem: “Our cows are healthy and happy,” he says. Spencer sees it as a good sign that researchers who want to study common cow diseases can’t find enough pathology at the dairy to study. “We had somebody who wanted to do a project on mastitis,” he says, referring to a common udder infection, “but our cows don’t get much mastitis. And somebody else wanted to do research on retained placenta [from a just-delivered cow], and we haven’t had a single incident of that in the last 9 months.”