Kylie Kerner received a crash course in dairy nutrition during her first semester at the University of Idaho. As an animal and veterinary science: pre-vet student, Kerner was looking for work study jobs on campus that would allow her to earn money, but also work with animals. She was hired by U of I College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Associate Professor Pedram Rezamand to assist with a research project and her initiation into the dairy world began.
Kerner grew up in Caldwell and spent her weekends, breaks and summers on her family’s beef cattle ranch in Sweet. She enrolled at U of I in fall 2019 and as she made the transition from high school to college, she also made the transition from beef cattle to dairy cattle. The work study placement with Rezamand involved a research project on the feeding preferences and rumen characteristics of a new feed binder.
“It was kind of surprising, just the way the dairy worked versus a cattle ranch,” Kerner said. “Mixing of the feeds, that was all really cool and new to me. Coming from a beef operation, we just throw grass hay on the ground and the cows eat it. At the dairy, that is not at all how that works.”
The research project included 10 dairy cows, all around 13 months old, testing their preferences on different binding agent levels in feed that is made from processing lignin. Lignin is part of the plant cell wall that is critical for maintaining plant standability, however, dairy cows are unable to digest it. Lower digestibility of feed can affect milk production.
The research team tested four feeds with varying levels of binder against the control feed containing molasses to determine preference.
“My job was to move the cows from the pen in which the dairy kept them, to the stalls in the research barn to test the feeds,” Kerner said. “Each cow stayed in the stall for one hour and then we moved them back into their original pen. Then we weighed the feed to see how much they had eaten in the hour.”
The first part of the study included only one option for feed in each stall, along with water. The cows were videoed to record their activities and the amount of feed they ate. The second part of the study included two options in each stall — the control feed and one of the experimental feeds.
“We had to sit there and watch them for the hour because they were notorious for getting into mischief if they were unattended,” Kerner said. “Just my observations from watching them, they never really went for the control group.”
Early Life Stressors
Kerner requested to work with Rezamand again for the 2020-21 school year and is participating in another research project focused on early life stressors in dairy calves related to weaning. The purpose of the project is to see how different weaning dates and methods affect the calves’ health measures in the short term and production later in life.
“The faster you wean a calf, the more stress they may have,” Kerner said. “We’re testing how that affects them later on as a production milk cow on a dairy. Some calves will be weaned at industry standard levels of decreasing milk and others will be weaned earlier and some later.”
Kerner is working with a team of nine students and both male and female calves that were born in mid-September 2020. Prior to receiving the calves, Kerner and the team were responsible for setting up hutches in a research barn on the U of I campus, determining a plan that included scheduling, cleaning and feeding procedures and making sure all equipment was ready to go before the calves arrived.
Once the calves arrived, they were weighed, given colostrum and assigned a hutch. The hutches are cleaned every day and supplied with fresh bedding. Kerner’s main responsibility included making the bottles for all calves and then recording how much of each bottle each calf drank. She also monitored and recorded fecal scores for each calf.
“At first it was a challenge because they were newborns and didn’t know how to take a bottle, so we had to teach them how to drink out of a bottle,” Kerner said. “Then we had to teach them how to drink out of the holder that’s on the hutch so that we didn’t have to hold bottles for all of them.”
The calves are weighed each week and blood samples, body weight, feed intake, temperature, heart rate and respiration are taken to measure their health and overall growth. Once the calves are fully weaned the team will determine the overall health of the heifers. The heifers may be maintained at the U of I Dairy Center to evaluate reproductive efficiency and performance later in life, pending funding and proper approvals.
With this project, Kerner learned more about biosecurity procedures.
“What’s surprised me the most is how clean we have to be,” she said. “As a worker I can’t wear the same clothes to the calf site twice without washing them for sanitation purposes. We wear gloves and overalls that don’t leave the site and we all have boots that don’t leave the site. For biosecurity reasons, we don’t introduce anything to the site, and we don’t take anything from the site.”
For Kerner, the real-world experience of these projects has been invaluable. She plans to go on to veterinary school after earning her bachelor’s degree, and in only her second year at U of I, she has gained experience drawing blood, treating minor infections and administering medicine. Those experiences are exactly why she chose to attend U of I.
“I decided to attend U of I because I live in Idaho and in-state tuition is cheaper than out of state, so I was definitely looking into Idaho schools,” she said. “U of I is the only school that is noteworthy in the pre-vet program.
“Other colleges in Idaho have pre-vet programs but they don’t have the labs or the animals on campus to go with that to gain hands-on experience that is really valued. Especially by me because I like to learn be seeing and doing. I don’t feel like you can become a vet by studying out of a textbook and that’s all the other colleges in Idaho had to offer.”
Kerner’s experiences at U of I will help her achieve a dream she’s had since she was three years old — helping animals by becoming a veterinarian.
Article by Amy Calabretta, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Photos provided by Kylie Kerner
Published in November 2020