A $10 million renovation is underway at the University of Vermont's Miller Farm Complex.
The barn houses cows for the university's Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management program, known as CREAM.
The program began 27 years ago, said Tom Vogelmann, dean of UVM's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "This is a dairy herd managed completely by students and so they get first hand experience working with large animals." The herd is 34 cows and they are transitioning to entirely Holsteins. The new barn will allow the herd size to increase to 56.
"The fact that there are cows here on the Miller complex seems to be the best kept secret in Vermont," Vogelmann joked. In 2009, the university sold its 200-cow research herd. Now most of that research is done through partnerships with 19 dairy farms around Vermont. But the small CREAM herd remained and its focus is on teaching.
Vogelmann said prospective students are interviewed by CREAM students before they can join, and not all are agriculture students. "There is not stereotypical profile. We've had history majors, we get people who are interested in animal sciences. It's pretty much across the board."
"They absolutely love it when they get down here. I'm looking at the dedication that it takes to get through this program. There are chores, milking chores at 3:30 in the morning. The last shift goes off at 10:30 at night. So you have to be made through hard stuff to make it through this program," he added.
One of those tough students is Carolyne Ricardo. Growing up in New York City, cows and agriculture were not on her radar.
"I've never worked with cows before, so it's been an amazing experience." Going through the program, she had decided that she'd like to become a large animal veterinarian, but she added that other students want to go into the dairy industry or become nutritionists.
She said at first her friends think she's crazy for getting up at 3:30 to milk cows. "And then they see how dedicated I am to the program and they also see how much I end up loving the cows."
Vogelmann said with agriculture becoming increasingly important, the university would like to see the farm complex become the "farm for the future." One of the challenges for modern farms will be to become as energy efficient as possible, he said. The new barn will be built with a goal to become energy neutral down the line. The new barns will be structurally equipped for solar panels, to be added at a later time, and they're looking at methane digesters to create bio-gas and they are working with engineering students are explore geothermal heating.
But most importantly, the project will make improvements to the CREAM barn.
"This barn was built in the mid 1960s. We've gotten our money's worth, but you can imagine what the new barn will look like, using modern technologies." The barn has a low ceiling, and only houses 15 to 20 of the program's cows. Vogelmann said cows have gotten 30 percent larger since the 1960s, through genetics, so the new barn will be bigger.
While most modern barns have milking parlors, the new CREAM barn will use tie-stall milking systems, since the focus is on teaching, and student safety is a concern.
"One of the goals of this program is to train leaders that can go into just about anything, but have a working knowledge of what a farm really is like," Vogelmann said.
Ricardo added that one of the biggest challenges of the program is working as a group. "That's pretty much what this program is about: 15 strangers trying to run an entire dairy."
"That's one of the things that makes this program unique," Vogelmann added.