My road trip to Palm Springs, California, continued with my wife, Wendy, and I heading south from Minneapolis through the heartland of Iowa – to reach our next destination in Columbia, Missouri. It was there we would meet a friend I had recently re-connected with as a result of writing about the sale of our farm.
Dr. Scott Poock, the University of Missouri-Extension dairy veterinarian, once did our veterinary work when he was at the Birnamwood Veterinary Clinic in nearby Birnamwood, Wisconsin. He’s an enthusiastic guy who exudes the phrase, “It’s a great day to be alive!” He was always ready to take on any challenge as a veterinarian, with a sense of eagerness and positivity. His sleeves were rolled up and ready before he climbed out of his truck. He hasn’t changed a bit in that regard.
Poock left the practice in Birnamwood to fulfill his desire to combine veterinary work with teaching, joining the University of Missouri. He comes from a family of educators. As the state’s dairy veterinarian, he divides his time between classroom teaching, traveling the state to speak at agricultural-related meetings and seminars, and spending time at the University of Missouri-Foremost Dairy Research Center. It was there we found Poock to learn about research being done on the farm.
The center’s land was donated by J.C. Penney in the 1950s along with his herd of prize-winning Guernsey cows. The mixed herd of Holsteins, Guernseys and cross-bred cattle today provide hands-on learning for university students along with research opportunities. One of the projects that’s coming to fruition under Poock’s tutelage has been the dividing of the dairy herd into two separate enterprises. The research center now has a small herd dedicated to grazing-based dairying in addition to a larger free-stall barn that focuses on confinement-dairy research.
Some of the fencing supplies used to create the paddock layout were donated by Grassland Consultants LLC., which operates 12 grazing dairies in Missouri. The company has also been instrumental in providing different varieties of ryegrass seed for research. The potential for using improved ryegrass for grazing in Missouri has great potential. A portion of the grazing land at the Foremost Dairy Research Center is a patchwork of grass strips with varying shades of green across the variety lines.
The farm uses 35 acres dedicated to the grazing herd. The herd of 50 cows is able to graze without significant forage supplementation for the entire growing season. A mixture of endophyte- free fescue, orchardgrass, ryegrass and alfalfa is used in the paddocks. No-tilled winter wheat provides some of the earliest grazing in March and April. Poock said the grasses tend to shut down during mid-summer so the alfalfa helps keep the cattle grazing in the heat. The hot weather is challenging, particularly for the grazing herd. The student employees routinely hose the cattle at each milking in the summer months. Poock said one big difference from Wisconsin is how the nights don’t always cool. He talked about nighttime lows of 85 degrees coupled with humidity.
Students of the grazing program learn about pasture management with some twists of modern technology. A four-wheeler can be fitted with a sonar-reading device that rides across a paddock and gives an accurate estimate of available forage. That’s an excellent way of rationing pasture with little wasted or under-utilized grass.
Poock’s enthusiasm shows when he talks about the breeding program at the center. He pointed to several cows, speaking about their genetic background. He seemed passionate about herd genetics, telling us he was doing the artificial-insemination work on the cattle. Poock said using genetics to produce highly functional cows is his goal. He said he’s always asking the students questions and engaging them when he’s at the farm. Cattle handling is one of the topics he frequents in his exchanges with the often-inexperienced students.
It was great to re-connect with Poock and see what he’s doing. As we said our goodbyes I reminded him of my favorite Poock story – the one where he singlehandedly repairs a prolapsed cow out in the pasture, during a hectic spring morning at calving time.
That night I studied the map and decided to head for Oklahoma the next morning – the land that reminds me of Woody Guthrie and the dust-bowl era.