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‘Milking’ the experience

Columbia State Veterinary Technology students build skills working with dairy animals at Middle Tennessee Research and Education Center
Story and photos by Chris Villines 5/26/2017


Columbia State Community College Veterinary Technology students, front row from left, Christina Presbytero, Monica Arroyo, Madi Nichols, and Haylee Gymer are joined at the MIddle Tennessee Research and Education Center dairy in Spring Hill by, back row from left, Dr. Jamie Woodard, director of the school’s Veterinary Technology program, and Dr. Dearl Lampley, dean of Columbia State’s Science, Technology, and Mathematics Division.
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Before now, Christina Presbytero’s background working with animals consisted of cats and dogs. Little wonder, then, that the prospects of being around dairy cows on a regular basis were a bit intimidating for her.

Presbytero, a student of Columbia State Community College’s Veterinary Technology program, is one of many students enrolled in the program who are benefitting from a unique partnership between the Tennessee Board of Regents school and the University of Tennessee system. Through this agreement, students have access to hands-on learning opportunities at UT Research Center dairies in Spring Hill and Lewisburg.

“I did my clinical rotation at the Lewisburg dairy last semester and this semester I’ve been at the Spring Hill dairy,” says Presbytero. “I’ve learned so much about every part of the operation and have become more confident around large animals. You just need to be easy around them because they’re more nervous than you are. Being here will go a long way toward helping me in my career.”

The partnership isn’t new. According to Dr. Dearl Lampley, dean of Columbia State’s Science, Technology, and Mathematics Division, some 2,000 students have completed work and research labs at the two UT dairies over the past 20 years.

“The staff at the University of Tennessee Middle Tennessee Research and Education Center has been extremely good to us and takes its mission statement about education to heart,” says Lampley. “I can’t say enough good things about how well they work with us. We usually do about six labs a year at the dairies, and they’ve been gracious enough to let us ‘borrow’ some calves at times. Our vet tech students feed those calves up to the age of about 8 weeks old and we bring them back here. It’s valuable experience for the students, and the calves perform very well. We’ve only lost one calf in 18 years.

“I always tell my students that dairy calves lay awake at night trying to think of a way to die. Our death loss is 1 percent. That’s terrific, and a lot of credit goes to the products we get from the other partner in this whole process, Maury Farmers Co-op.”

To get these dairy calves off to a good start, they are given Co-op Victory Lane Milk Replacer (#1750), Co-op Calf Starter/Grower (#308), Co-op Calf Primer I (#93114) and Calf Primer II (#93124).

“We get them as early as 1 day old and take them until they are weaned,” says Lampley. “If they are heifers, they will come back to the dairy. If they’re bull calves, I’ll purchase them and take them back to my farm.”

There are usually some 30 students involved each semester with the calf project and another 30 to 40 performing clinical rotations at the dairies, notes Dr. Jamie Woodard, director of Columbia State’s Veterinary Technology program.

“Our clinical rotation students get the hands-on experience of helping with all facets of the dairy operation,” says Woodard, who’s in her second year of leading the program. “Daily milking is an important part of what they do, as well as feeding calves, performing clean-up work, vaccinating, and helping to cut cows out of the herd for breeding. As they’re performing these tasks, they’re building their skills and confidence. I feel like students who go through this program are ready to go out and work in any veterinary capacity, whether it’s a large-animal, small-animal, or mixed-animal practice. They’ve all got a good handle on it.”

The full range of learning opportunities offered through the Columbia State Vet Tech program enticed Madi Nichols to enroll even though she had already obtained her bachelor’s degree in animal science.

“I wanted a little bit more education and I felt like I didn’t have enough experience from my bachelor’s degree,” says Nichols, a Nashville native. “Columbia State Vet Tech is hugely hands-on, which I love, with great job placement options after graduation. A bachelor’s degree cannot touch this degree because this experience is priceless. You can’t see how big a cow is in a textbook. Some people tell me, ‘You did things backwards.’ I say, ‘It was a huge improvement.’”

The UT Dairy staff members who work closely with the students say these aspiring professionals are valuable contributors and eager to learn.

“Having these students to help out here on the farm has been a benefit to both us and them,” says David Johnson, who manages operations at the UT Dairy in Spring Hill. “It never hurts to have the extra hands to help, and in the process we try to teach them everything we’ve learned about these cows through the years. Hopefully, they all learn something important to take into their veterinary careers.”

Embra Plunk, the senior herd caretaker at Spring Hill, says safety is the No. 1 point of emphasis when a new group comes to the dairy.

“We try to teach them to deal with these large animals in a way that they don’t get hurt,” she explains. “Some cows are less cooperative than others. Next, we teach them practical applications like feeding the calves and identifying any problems in the herd such as strange behaviors or a cow not eating. They’re putting to use what they’re learning in the classroom. One of our primary purposes here is for research. We incorporate the help of the vet techs in this area so they can see how research operates and get used to following a research protocol.

“We’re fortunate to have this relationship with Columbia State where we can offer students something that very few places can.”

It’s a rare cooperative effort between a state land grant school and a Tennessee Board of Regents school for the good of animal agriculture’s future, says Middle Tennessee Research and Education Center Director Kevin Thompson, with Co-op serving as a third partner in the equation.

“It’s a wonderful partnership between the two schools to accomplish experiential learning and help make an impact on these young adults,” Thompson says. “We are also grateful for Co-op’s participation and the dedication it has to helping educate these students. That’s what it’s all about. I wish this example of institutional cooperation could be used more across the nation.”

From the Co-op perspective, Tennessee Farmers Cooperative Feed Specialist Rick Syler says, “TFC is pleased that these two fine educational institutions have chosen to use Co-op feed and animal health products to assist them with these initiatives. We’ve seen good results with calf growth and development and production in the milk parlor.”

For more information on the Veterinary Technology program at Columbia State Community College, visit

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