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Students, staff greet the return of the milking herd at UW Madison

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Holstein cattle are unloaded from a trailer at the UW Dairy Cattle Center on Sept. 1, 2020. The cows at the Dairy Center returned to campus after being away at the Arlington Research Farm during late spring and summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over five months ago when the University of Madison switched to virtual instruction to help stem the spread of the coronavirus at the campus, many students packed up their laptops and headed back home in accordance with Gov. Tony Evers' "Safer at Home" order.

They weren't the only residents leaving the university on the isthmus. Without students on campus or research projects, the Dairy Cattle Center (DCC) was temporarily shuttered and its herd of Holsteins were trucked to Emmons Blaine Dairy Cattle Research Center located at the school's Arlington Agriculture Research Center 23 miles away.

Without students on campus or significant research being conducted in the DCC and the looming possibility of labor shortages due to the virus, Kent Weigel, professor and chair of the Department of Dairy Science said the closure was a "straight forward choice".

In late August, staff at the DCC began preparations to welcome the herd back to the campus, inspecting milking equipment important in maintaining its Grade A milk license as well as uncapping silos.

"There was a lot of work to be done, and we really had to hit the ground running, but everyone was eager to do that," said Jessica Cederquist, dairy herd adminstrator at UW-Madison.

Undergraduate Jenna Stonebraker puts a collar on a Holstein dairy cow at the UW Dairy Cattle Center on Sept. 1, 2020. The cows at the Dairy Center returned to campus after being away at the Arlington Research Farm during late spring and summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

And on Sept. 1 cattle trailers began rolling up to the facility, with the animals stepping back into the familiar cow yard.

"There was a lot of excitement," Cederquist said.  "The staff and students were happy to once again see cows on campus, and to be back working in a building so dear to our campus community."

With the cows back in the barns placidly chewing their cud, a sense of tentative normalcy settled over the DCC. With nearly 40,000 students and staff back on campus it was just a matter of time to see if safe practices in keeping the spread of the virus in check would prevail. 

But on Sept. 16, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank issued an order restricting the movement of undergraduate students in response to rising COVID-19 cases on campus, including moving all classes to remote instruction for a period of two weeks. As of Tuesday, 2,160 students and 31 university workers have tested positive for COVID-19, according to an Associated Press report. 

As a result of the order, Heidi Zoerb College of Agricultural and Life Sciences UW-Madison spokesperson said classes would not meet in the DCC.

Michelle Craig, unit manager at the UW Dairy Cattle Center, talks with undergraduates Brandon Strupp (left) and Austin Vandertie (right) on Sept. 1, 2020. The cows at the Dairy Center returned to campus after being away at the Arlington Research Farm during late spring and summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The biggest shift has been in the workforce at the DCC. Typically, a combination of professional animal care staff and paid student staff care for the cows," she said. "Because of the restrictions, undergraduates are not working with the cows right now, but professional staff, graduate students and veterinary students continue to care for the herd."

Zoerb says the department has mapped out different scenarios depending on the outcome of the restrictions. 

"With all classes online for two weeks, we are considering scenarios for varying levels of in-person courses. Prior to the Chancellor's announcement, many small, laboratory course began in person," she said. "It is possible to imagine scenarios where some, but not all, of those planned classes will return to in-person learning."

Zoerb says the school expects current research projects to continue, and some new projects to begin in the coming months.

"We have continuity of operations plans in place to address workforce needs should animal care staff need to quarantine or self-isolate in accordance with CDC guidelines," she said.

Zoerb says she's optimistic that the cows will remain on campus.

"The facility is extremely valuable for conducting intensive research studies," she pointed out. "In the extreme case of classes being fully online for the rest of the semester, we are planning for the cows to stay."