On November 2, 2019, the class took a very short-distance field trip to the University of Delaware research farm with a tour led by farm superintendent Mr. Scott HOPKINS. Mr. HOPKINS spoke to the class largely on a University bus for the first part of the trip before leading the class on a walking tour through some of the barns. Along the way the class was able to learn about a variety of research projects and interact with a few animals.
The speaker begins talking about the farm’s October production & research. A few crops are grown on plastic, such as tomatoes & peppers- ¾ are non-organic. Many of the crops are sold to nearby restaurants.
Mr. HOPKINS states working on the farm in a good job opportunity- some of best employees have had no farming background. He then laments that it is often, ‘a challenge for people to show up’, even as ‘2-hour volunteers’. Maintaining consistent 2-hour work periods, a volunteer might be expected to work on maintaining irrigation and equipment, or keeping the grounds. Such work might consist of mending fences, weeding, and even picking up rocks- Mr. HOPKINS says that many volunteers don’t expect to do such arduous manual labor. They are often indignant, claiming they, ‘didn’t earn a college degree to pick up rocks’ – Mr. ISAACS is quick to add that most volunteers without an agriculture or working background forget that jobs often come with the caveat, ‘other duties as assigned’. He continues, saying when taking on a volunteer opportunity, as a new employee one is constantly watched & judged- ‘Education doesn’t make you ‘above’ tasks, and you are always part of a team’.
The tour continues, moving from the University bus to inside the University milk parlor. Once inside we are taught about the workings of the automated milking system. The cows are equipped with, ‘Hoopbar transponders’ each with an ID. Each transponder records data, such as the last milking, how much milk was produced, and any estrus abnormalities. The cows are milked with rubber-lined milkers. Having participated in a milking session before, I remember using iodine to sanitize each teat not once, but twice. Despite this, mastitis- an inflammation from bacteria in the teat- can still set in. This kind of infection often requires antibiotics- the #1 economic loss for the milk industry is often incurred by an elevated level of somatic cells. After it is gathered, the milk is refrigerated & stored before being hauled away. Getting milk in the tank is important, as the price for milk is relatively low and going down- taking out 6-8 cows for treatment is expensive and lowers the overall amount of milk collected. Today, a functional dairy farm needs a minimum of 1000 cows, compared to the 100-500 cow farms of yesterday. The University keeps Holstein cows for milking, while keeping Heifers and other breeds simply for visitors and tourists to see.
Walking from the parlor the class visits the Collin Barn. The Collin Barn is a tie-stall barn. A tie-stall barn is an older style of milking facility where cows are retained & left until milked. The cows are held via a chain & collar, milked from back with an overhead milk vacuum, & then released back to pasture. All that milk is deposited to a, ‘dump station’, before being shipped out for processing. The older barn has an overhead metal mesh on which pigeons, starlings, and perhaps even cattle egrets are nesting and coming for the feed grain. The birds pose no risk the cattle, but present a biosecurity risk for humans. The large presence of birds serves as an ample food source for hawks, who, ‘can’t eat enough’.
Thirty cows are fed inside this barn. Their diets consist of silage- grain, forage, & proteins/vitamins– that each cow has access to from their own individual troughs. Each cow is equipped with a transponder that sends out a signal when it leaves the stall to go out to pasture. The cows are trained or perhaps use a retained memory of the number of steps they’ve taken to return to their own assigned trough upon re-entering. Their silage is a Total Mixed Ration (TMR) as earlier described by Guest Speaker -Mr. Dan SEVERSON, consisting of 75-85lbs of alfalfa and corn. The mixed food is kept in large anaerobic bags to ferment and pickle. These bags are part of the innovative technology adapted on the farm for greater efficiency and improved storage solutions. Unlike a grain elevator, where workers can drown in grain cavities- air pockets in the grain bin that collapse onto themselves under the weight of unsuspecting entrants- or succumb to deadly silage gases, the bags have no motors and are less hazardous storage solutions. Mr. HOPKINS, announces UD’s own Dr. Limin KUNG is conducting research on storage bags without air for greater stability of the feed. White bags also reduce heat and albedo. Along with the food, the cows are given plenty of water to prevent dry mouth.
In addition to providing food, the barn also serves as an area to tend to the cows. The barn contains a, ‘Tiptable‘, where the cows’ heads are secured while their feet are trimmed. To keep 75-80% cows chewing cud, their feet must be maintained because a sitting cow isn’t eating or making milk. Cattle are ruminants that have mineral metabolization that occurs in their albumin, unlike humans who are monogastric and have probiotic enzymes and mechanical digestion. Cattle ingest bugs to add microflora in their gut to stay healthy. When a cow becomes sick, rumen fluid can be transferred between cows to improve the health of the sick one. This method is tested on the Universities’, ‘Window Cows’, a collection of 6-8cows with, ‘windows’- created by sewing the skin and rumen walls together and inserting a disk port, UD researchers unplug and extract samples to monitor the cow’s health. Researchers can extract samples from pigs- animals that are monogastric, like people- to test substances and food that might be consumed by humans.
UD Cattle are no longer shown at the Delaware State Fair for biosecurity reasons. Mr. HOPKINS with this practice however as the documents and records that are kept from shows help both producers and the public learn. He does, however, understand the increased level of caution. Producers are taking on a 2-year investment before they have cows or milk. Heifers are sent out to become pregnant. The resulting calves are placed in a hutch or sold for an average price of $60-100, usually at a public auction in PA where livestock are sold. The firstborns’ immune defense comes from antibodies transmitted from a vaccinated dame to the calf through colostrum. When the dairy cows reach maturity, they will weigh around 1400-1800lbs.
Cattle are not the only livestock managed by the University. The University also grow feed and forage for horses and sheep, as well as experimental plots. The 1.5% grade of the UD farm is not fit for some research, though the property is suitable for a wide range of projects.
One such project involves research on the arsenic uptake of rice. Mr. HOPKINS tells us there have been documented incidents of people in Asia with near-clinical levels of arsenic poisoning stemming from the high consumption of rice. In 2017 I attended a talk on-campus lead by Assistant Professor Angelia SEYFFERTH who described an experimental method where rice chaff was used to absorb arsenic from the soil.
Other projects deal with poultry. Poultry has the greatest biosecurity risk. The farm has 10 colony houses with 30 birds to each house. Only one will contain vaccinated birds. The rate of, ‘generation interchange’ for chickens is only 3-4 months, a relatively quick one compared to the 12-13 years of a humans. This accelerated rate makes it easier to observe genetic changes.
In addition to their work with poultry, Mr. HOPKINS the University has a partnership with another university studying Kestrel Hawks.
Beehives are also kept on the farm. The hives must be opened multiple times per week to check on the Queen. This is done to check for, ‘Colony collapse’. A queen will lay 3 egg types- a female infertile worker; a male drone, whose only job is to eat & breed; and a new Queen, who lays eggs in the cells the workers build. When a new Queen reached sufficient size, she goes up on mating flights, gathering all the reproductive she requires from other drones over the course of 2-3 flights. A Queen will live and lay eggs for up to 3-4 years, reproducing every Spring. The is only one Queen for each colony- when a new Queen is introduced, she is either killed or ousted from the hive. A bee swarm protects the ejected Queen until they reach a new site, a cavity in which a new hive is built of wax and comb produced by young bees. When farmers want to extract honey and jelly from manmade hives, or bee boxes, they must remove all 10 frames of honeycomb from every 50lb box and scrape the wax form each side before spinning the frames in a centrifuge.
Etymology & Entomology departments will quarantine certain bugs to combat invasive species. Public enemy number one is the region has been the recently discovered Spotted Lantern Fly, which arrived in Delaware from PA on a shipment of ornamental rocks, only to be detected 3weeks later. The Emerald Ash Borer is another notable pest to watch for. Parasitic Wasps are often effective pest management solutions. When used to combat the Tobacco Hornworm Mr. HOPKINS has observed the moths with 30% of their bodies covered with wasp eggs, which signals and agonizing end.
In addition to pest management, the farm also uses mindful soil and water management to protect the farm and the surrounding communities. The farms’ wetlands are fed with water from the Townsend & Worrilow Halls. A Storm weir was created to mitigate flooding to the nearby development.
Other activities hosted on the farm include Environmental Balloon Launches, and, on the day we arrived, ‘Goat Yoga’!
Crossing over the Rt. 72 highway, the group pressed on to the adjacent Webb’s Farm. The first building we visited featured a controlled area for horses established in 1994 where the University once held horseriding. The ceiling used to have insulation instead of a metal roof, which birds would use as nesting material. The building as has sand bedding on the floor. Next door, we enter a climate-controlled 8-9yr old building used for mares & stallions. This building has rubber flooring and grilled grating for fear of injury for those with handicaps participating in therapeutic riding and also to improve sightlines. This smaller space allows for 2-3 horses at a time. Here the horses are tended to, with such familiar methods as feet trimming. Horses are also bred in the building. Mares are teased into estrus & pee before breeding. Once pregnant, they receive ultrasounds.
16-17 breeding mares a kept per year at 1 time within 6 stalls. Sightlines throughout the barn are important for the feeling of safety among mares as well- possibly an evolutionary need. The stalls contain water meters to monitor the mares in-take. For students it is important to be present at the birthing of a foal, but it was always a challenge for remote students to connect to on-campus Wi-Fi to witness the delivery. Mr. HOPKINS tells the class that horses- & dolphins- can stop contractions during labor – delaying their delivery for at least 1 day or 2 if they feel threatened or too many people are present. It has proven more effective to record the mammary secretions & calcium level increases in a titration lab – those levels are more accurate measurements to time the mare’s true delivery time.
Despite the mindful living arrangements for the horses, Mr. HOPKINS expresses concern at the way such animals are kept. He states horse were not meant to be enclosed- they’re built to run. An unhealthy horse may resort to, ‘Cribbing’ – chewing on wood – or weaving. He says the issues with horses breeding run deeper that how they are kept, citing, ‘Stacking Genetics’, as a problem that effects both livestock and crops like potatoes (in S. America), tomatoes, and Kudzu grasses.
Walking to the last building, we visit some sheep. Sheep were selected for out-of-season commodities- wool blankets are made and sold in the UD Creamery. They seem to require minimal management, only needing to be sheared once a year and keeping their feet trimmed. Shearing every year can allow wool to grow with a 4-5inch staple length. We see a few lambs with their young. One small lamb is recovering from a hernia repair & has had no tail docking. Mr. HOPKINS explains that while the while this lamb could not undergo the additional stress of that procedure, tail docking is done for health reasons. Lambs are usually born with rather long tails- because sheep don’t lift their tails to relieve themselves or swat flies, the can develop a, ‘Fly strike’, or necrotic area on their backsides. Mr. HOPKINS says the procedure is usually done early when there are less nerve structures for minimal pain for the lamb. Each ewe had two lambs, as it is typical for the species to have twins or triplets. Because the mothers only have two teats, the added demand from a 3 young one can lead to mastitis. To avoid that complication, a farmer might remove the third lamb to be fostered by another mother. If the mother has difficulty accepting the lamb, a dog may be brought in overnight to encourage the mother to protect the lamb. The lambs receive milk for about 60 days and take around 2 weeks to ween- during maturation a female will gain .7 to .85lbs per day will and intact male will gain .9 to 1lb per day. The adult sheep can live up to 23 years. Sheep use only their bottom teeth when they begin grazing, keeping close to the ground. This intense grazing was the sources of the infamous, ‘Range Wars’, from a few years back- the sheep would leave no food for the cattle and cowboys could be shot be sheepherders. This does not happen today because sheep are sequestered to their own feeding grounds for better land management. Lamb is popular among the Greek Orthodox, Haitian, Halal, Islamic, and Latin American communities, many of which prefer mutton, which comes from an older sheep and has a stronger flavor.
Challenges in running the farm include the many supplies needed, such as grain bins, augers, pans, chains, and other equipment. Farmers must continue watching feed trucks and sprayers, so that they don’t enter organic growing zones. Bacteria die with desiccation but viruses live a long time. A well-managed farm layout can track where trucks go- no need for trucks to go through spreading unwanted contaminants. Specific applications stay on designated sides of the farm.
People often look at a farm like a park– they let dogs run around in sprayed areas. They also view livestock more like pets or comfort animals. Prof. ISAACS mentions that on his farm, near the UD Research Station off Rt. 9, beachgoers and people will stop & hand harvest sweet corn, watermelons, and lima beans on fence lines & property lines. Doing this without the proper background, they can expose themselves to harmful chemical treatments and weed killers. Farmers also face arguments with their neighbors, Mr. HOPKNS tells the story of when the farm trimmed a neighbors’ white pines planted on the property line. Years later, when one of those trees falls on the neighbors’ shed filled with Barbie dolls, the tree suddenly belongs to the farmer, when the neighbor is seeking financial compensation. Mr. HOPKINS then goes on to state farmers often receive negative feedback for taking down trees, often to meet the need of utilities companies running lines. He says that this is really, ‘no big deal’- when they cut down trees they plant new ones.
Another ongoing problem is pest management. Foxes as pest are not as great a threat as 3 or 4yrs ago. Red Hawks, Coyotes, Fox & birds have largely decreased. The biggest pest to date is deer. Deer can void research plots for an entire year, which is a big deal as those are not refunded, They can spread Leptospirosis, which can lead to infertility in livestock. The challenge for farmers is how to eliminate them. One law within the city of Newark prevents the usage of projectile weapons- that means no shot guns, but also no slings, BBs, or bows.
Mr. HOPKINS gives us a short forecast for the future of the farm. He predicts the growth of hydrophilic plants that retain water. He says the farm is on-track to diversify its production to include fermented commodities like Kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut for a new market.
Overall, I enjoyed this final trip and lecture. I enjoyed seeing more parts of the farm I hadn’t seen before. The most memorable part of the trip for me was when Mr. HOPKINS went to pick up one of the lambs to the class could quickly pet it. It was somewhat upsetting to hear the lamb bleating in distress with a very clear, ‘Mahhh’, and the ewe bellowing back. It didn’t feel justifiable to me to take the opportunity to pet the lamb just because we humans wanted to, when the lamb and mom were clearly very distressed. It made me think of people request to pet working service dogs and feel angry when they are denied, or when someone feels entitled to touch a pregnant woman’s abdomen.