Fresno State Dairy Gives Students a Truly Unique Experience
Established in 1954, the Fresno State dairy continues to prepare the next generation of Central Valley dairy professionals under the direction of Dr. Kyle Thompson, a first-year animal science faculty member and program alumnus.
The 430-cow operation’s reputation is well-known throughout the area for utilizing students to manage every step of the process in one of the state’s most demanding agricultural industries.
The four-hour milking process starts every day at 2 a.m. and 2 p.m. Two students from the 18-member staff milk a string of 170 Holstein and Jersey cows, in a double-herringbone parlor that accommodates 12 cows at a time and each milking taking about 15 minutes or less. Another student adds hospital milking duty at the end of the shift, and students also handle feed, calf, hospital and artificial insemination rounds during the day.
Milk is then delivered daily to the local California Dairies Incorporated co-operative as well as the campus creamery that produces and sells fresh Fresno State milk, cheese and 38 flavors of ice cream at the Gibson Farm Market. Each cow produces between 60-100 pounds of milk per day per cow depending on the breed.
“We’re tiny compared to an average California dairy, but the hands-on experience is invaluable since we’re one of the few, if any, college dairies in the nation that’s entirely student-run,” said Thompson. “Besides learning dairy and animal science practices, our students gain key interpersonal and management skills since they are totally self-reliant on each other, and that experience makes them even more marketable in the industry.”
The student staff has been managed the past two years by senior Gema Camacho, who had no previous dairy experience before arriving on campus in the fall of 2013. The Tulare native started working at the unit as a sophomore in the calf, milking and hospital areas. The past two years she served as the dairy student herdsman, the top position on the student-run staff, and oversaw all aspects of the dairy while managing work schedules, inventory, supplies and feed deliveries.
This summer she has broadened her experience by interning with DairyExperts, a Tulare-based company, and has helped conduct a summer research and development trial of a milk replacer fed to calves.
“Being a student herdsman is incredibly rewarding and has helped me develop a broad set of skills that I can use in whatever career I go into,” Camacho said. “Managing the cattle is often the easiest part because they’ll give you signs when something’s not right, and being able to nurse them back to health is extra rewarding.
The biggest thing our students learn is low-stress animal management skills that focus on making the animals as comfortable as possible. I’ll see people out in the field who are incredibly book smart, but some of them don’t have those up-close, practical skills.”
Thompson held the same position as a student 10 years before in his final two years as a Fresno State animal science/pre-professional student. He also blossomed in the role under the guidance of then-campus dairy faculty member Dr. Jon Robison who also offered guidance for his next career step.
After graduation Thompson did his master’s research at Oklahoma State University utilizing probiotics in lactating dairy cattle and doctoral research in comparative nutrition. His love of the industry and Fresno State’s dairy program drew him back upon Robison’s retirement after overseeing the program from 1996-2014.
“Honestly, the main reason I came back to California was because this position opened up,” Thompson said. “Being able to work with parts of the dairy industry, community, FFA students, school tours, etc. make this a living, breathing classroom for all ages, and our students take pride in serving as the hub of it all. I was fortunate to learn the same skills and passion our students have today for safe and productive dairy practices.”
A key part of the student experience has been the reintroduction of the campus dairy club. Students get valuable insight, professional contacts and experience from tours of other dairy facilities and presentations by industry professionals. Club members don’t all necessarily work at the campus dairy, and includes students from other majors who grew up on dairies, used to show heifers as youth or simply have friends that are members and are interested in the profession.
Students also hope to bring back a dairy judging team and a dairy show team with goals of showing at county and state fairs and sanctioned Jersey and Holstein competitions.
To help prepare for the 2018 North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge, the nation’s top collegiate judging competition, eight campus dairy students attended the Dairy Challenge Academy last spring. The two-day event attracted 230 college students from 34 universities and 25 states and will return to Visalia next April.
The dairy is also in the process of re-registering its herd with pure breed associations to increase the value of its cattle at sales.
The future of the program looks even brighter thanks to a pledged $1 million endowed gift from Manual J.R. Mancebo that will be used to help cover costs involved with facilities and other projects. The area trucking magnate got his start in the business in 1947 from his father Manuel S. “Spike” Mancebo who shifted his dairy industry knowledge and work ethic into creating a company that eventually shipped dry and refrigerated goods throughout the West.
Ultimately, Thompson would like to see the milking string increased to 200 cows and composed of 75 percent Jersey cattle. The adjustment would increase the amount of the higher-butterfat content in the milk produced, and better suited for cheese, ice cream and other processed dairy products.
“We’re a university program that wants to find a balance between teaching common industry practices and using cows that are managed on their volume with a mix of show string cattle. Whether students go into this field directly after college or another field, they learn so many practical skills. We have past students working in dairies all around the state, as well as alumni who work for related support industries such as veterinarians, consultants and pharmaceutical sales. They’re all strengthening the Central Valley and carrying on our dairy program tradition in many ways.”