I grew up in suburban Minnesota, very close to the Twin Cities. As you can imagine, that meant that I had little experience with the farming community. How I managed to end up as a Dairy Cattle Research Intern at the rural University of Minnesota Morris campus is as much your guess as mine. I spent the summer after my freshman year of college chasing after dairy cattle in wide open fields, all in the name of research. There were several life lessons that I learned that summer, mostly taught to me by cows.
Now, you might be wondering what on Earth a cow can teach you. They are stigmatized as being unintelligent, and sometimes scary, creatures. But boy, is that wrong! Everything I learned about cows and farming I learned the hard way (the first thing that comes to mind is experiencing just how much electric fences hurt, especially when you think they’re turned off but aren’t). Here are some valuable lessons I learned during that wonderful and exhausting summer:
1) Calves are cute, but the diseases they can carry are not.
As part of a pain mediation study for dehorning procedures, we spent a lot of time working with calves. Placing jugular catheters, administering medication, dehorning, and observation meant many hours of close contact were spent with adorable calves. When I developed bad GI symptoms I was surprised to discover that I had contracted E. coli (likely from the close contact with the calves). After sitting in agony with horrific stomach cramps for a week, I quickly learned that while calves are cute, snuggling with them is probably a bad idea.
2) Patience is a virtue.
This lesson is something that everyone realizes at some point in life. Mine came while trying to catch a nervous heifer that had gotten through some feeble fencing. She had become a bit nervous while we were moving her group’s grazing area to ensure that they didn’t over-graze any part of the pasture. This is a routine event, but young heifers are obviously a bit more nervous and inexperienced. She made a break through the fencing and so I quickly ran over to try and tempt her to go back through to where her other heifer friends were happily munching away. She started enjoying herself immensely and thought that we were playing a game…. I’m not sure how much time I spent chasing that heifer (they’re faster than you’d think), but I know I definitely have never been more exhausted in my life. I believe that it was purely her decision to go back to her group. Once she’d had enough fun, and realized that I looked about ready to pass out, she unceremoniously trotted back over to her friends. Cows can be stubborn animals, but it just takes a bit of patience to achieve the end goal.
3) All the long days and hard work were worth it.
12, 13, and sometimes even 14, hour days were the norm that summer. I have never worked harder in my life. The work was very physical, but it also challenged me intellectually as well. I learned how to create my own research project and worked throughout the summer to gather data and troubleshoot complications. I quickly grew fond of dairy cows, a sentence that I never thought I’d say. They each have their own individual personalities, and it was a privilege to get to work with them every day. Everyone has their own opinions regarding things such as “organic” products, use of antibiotics and other medications in food animals, and food animal welfare. While I only saw a small portion of the dairy industry, I was able to formulate my opinions based on my experiences. I learned so much that summer and it has shaped my opinions and thoughts on all of those issues since.
Farm work isn’t for everyone, but I think everyone should take the opportunity to experience the fresh air and beautiful creatures. It’s hard work, but so worth it.