Giving college students experience in the field


It may look no different from the other farms on Folly Quarter Road, but the University of Maryland's research facility in Clarksville offers many animal science majors their first experience of working with large animals.

Although research on crops and ornamental plants is done at the farm, the major source of study is the 200-plus dairy herd. Veterinarians, biotechnology engineers, researchers and students attend for a hands-on view of concerns such as nutrition, growth and lameness in animals.

"At some point, you've got to come out in the field and see what really happens," said Frank Allnutt, director of this and four other farm research facilities for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The majority of students in the College Park animal sciences program are not planning to farm when they graduate. Most will go to jobs in private industry or government, focusing on biotechnology, research or veterinary medicine. Few students have a rural background. Some go to the facility for the experience of the farm, understanding its daily operation, becoming familiar with the equipment and the animals.

"My philosophy on all of the research farms ... you should see some of the best stuff and you should see some of the worst stuff," Allnutt said.

Rather than being "the perfect farm," mistakes are allowed to be made here so researchers can study the effects, for example, of diseases and pests.

"There's always more demand than we can accommodate" to conduct studies, Allnutt said.

Often, proposals for research come from UM graduate students who, with the help of faculty advisers, write requests for their studies and arrange for external funding.

Among the permanent staff assigned to the dairy farm and crops is Benny Erez, who acts as liaison to researchers.

"You can actually broaden their horizons, make them aware of things that they never thought that they could do or see," Erez said. For students who don't have experience with large animals, "we are kind of the window."

Undergraduate Laura Taylor of Annapolis is one of those students.

Taylor, who is getting her first real exposure to large animals, expects to graduate from College Park's preveterinary program next year. She has been assisting with a nutritional study in which calves are fed four different rations and students monitor their growth.

Taylor said the farm experience has been a positive one, though she is most interested in wildlife and zoo medicine.

"It's very enjoyable," she said. "They [the cows] have interesting personalities. You start to notice some behaviors that some different ones possess. Some of them are more affectionate than others.

"I've always liked working away from the desk outside. I like physical work, and the atmosphere is just great. Everyone there is just pleasant and fun to work with. I like learning that way."

Taylor also helped a veterinarian during a recent study of lameness in dairy cattle. The project has resulted in new technology for dairy farms.

Mark Varner, a professor in the animal sciences graduate program, said the study's aim was "developing a system to identify cows going lame before you can see it by eye."

Computers in a scalelike device sensed whether an animal was putting less weight on a limb over a period of time.

As a result, veterinarians were able to treat animals early.

A team from several institutions worked on the program, including mechanical and bioengineers and veterinarians from University of Maryland in Baltimore; the University of Delaware; the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and the University of Maryland, College Park staff and students.

The Clarksville facility provided the space and the animals for the team. The device has been patented and is being licensed for sale by a leading milk manufacturer.

"To say you're going to come to the farm and learn how to milk a cow ... uh-uh," Allnutt said. "That's not what we're here for."

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