EAST LANSING, MI --
Holstein cows at Michigan State University’s Dairy Cattle Teaching and Research Center lined up Dec. 5 for their turn at the milking parlor.
Ellie, the matriarch of the farm, was among the first to be milked. Her dark-colored eyes shined bright as she hung her head below a nearby guard rail.
You wouldn’t know she’s the most senior cow on the farm by the way she acts, said Rob West, the farm manager.
“You wouldn’t know she was there unless you looked,” West said. “She’s not a trouble-maker.”
The 11-and-a-half-year-old black and white Holstein is two years older than the next eldest cow on the farm. Ellie gave birth to her 10th calf, Scout, in November. Most cows on the farm have less than a half-dozen offspring during their lifetimes.
Her formal name is 4274 Ellie. The number designates her as the 4,274th calf born on the farm since staff started keeping track. The name Ellie was given to her by staff who helped with the birthing process.
Ellie contributed 28 pounds of milk during her time at the milking parlor Dec. 5. The 15-minute process involves attaching vacuum pumps to each udder after prepping with an iodine solution. When the cows are done, the pumps detach and farm staff cleans the cows to prevent infection.
Over her lifetime, Ellie has given more than 240,000 pounds of milk, which becomes MSU cheese and ice cream as well as going into milk cartons for school children. Beyond the milk she produces, Ellie also has cannula; a porthole-like device that gives researchers or students a way to reach into the first chamber of a cow’s stomach to study their digestive tract.
Once milking is done, the cows are led back into their assigned pens. Robin Hosmer, one of the student workers at the farm, helped Ellie and a few other cows into their pens nearby.
Hosmer is a pusher, one of the employees responsible for moving the cows to and fro. Sometimes, a simple whistle gets the cows moving. A poke or a gentle slap is necessary for the most stubborn of the bunch.
“The cows know the routine and they know how far they can push it with certain people,” Hosmer said.
The cows on the MSU farm are named by the people who helped to deliver them. A corkboard in a nearby office is covered with a rainbow of name cards corresponding to each cow. The colors indicate where the cows are in the reproduction cycle. Female cows are at peak milk production in the weeks after they give birth to their offspring.
The bulls born on the farm are sold at auction after only a few weeks. Most go on to be raised for beef, West said. Heifers, the female offspring, stay on the farm, where they’ll double in weight in their first two months.
With 10 offspring, it’s likely Ellie has never missed an opportunity to have a calf, West said, a monumental feat. She’s had six male offspring and four females, two of which are still on the farm.
Outside of the main barn are about two dozen shelters that look like large, plastic dog houses. Inside, the newborn calves meander around their stray-bed pens. Knowing it’s nearly their feeding time, several of the calves begin mouthing the fencing around their pens in anticipation when West approaches.
Each newborn gets two-and-a-quarter quarts of milk per feeding. They also have dry feed, which they’ll eventually get once they are large enough to be moved into the general population. Each adult Holstein weighing in at between 1,500 and 1,700 pounds eats around 120 pounds of dry food a day. It’s a nutritious blend of corn and grain silage known to farm staff as cow casserole.
The public is able to see Ellie and the rest of MSU’s cows on self-guided tours from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Milking takes place between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., for those interested in seeing that process.
Pictures of past prize-worthy MSU cows line the walls of the dairy farm offices. Their space is granted based on rankings made by The Holstein Association. Ellie’s score of 82 out of 100 puts her in the good, but not exceptional ranking. But considering her longevity and contributions to the university, West said her photo might one day rest among the most memorable MSU cows.