Reflections: Barry Steevens

Dr. Steevens, professor emeritus, state Extension dairy specialist, (1978-2010) shares memories of animal sciences' Extension work

Extension is the third leg of our University of Missouri land-grant mission. In 1914 the Smith Lever Act formalized Extension, establishing USDA’s partnership with land-grant universities to bring applied research and agriculture education to the people. Then, half of the population lived in rural areas, and 30 percent were engaged in food production. Today, less than 2 percent are involved in producing food.

In 1940, one farmer fed 19 people, compared to 2012, where by one farmer now feeds over 166 people. The trend toward larger farms demands a much greater level of technology and management information.

I joined the University of Missouri Extension team in 1978 with a responsibility to provide an educational program directed to the dairy industry of Missouri. I also cooperated with many state agencies, such as the Missouri State Milk Board, Missouri State Veterinary Office, Missouri Department of Agriculture, and private dairy industries such as Dairy Farmers of America, Prairie Farms and Kraft.

With a statewide responsibility, one meets many great Missourians. Much of my activity involved adult education. Campus Extension specialists work closely with the regional Extension specialists in supporting their Extension activities. Since my assignment was to work primarily with milking management and mastitis control, I naturally worked with many of the dairy veterinarians out state. Participation in the National Mastitis Council and the American Dairy Science Association helped keep me informed on new information related to cow health. One of my major goals was to have all dairy producers adopt teat dipping and dry cow treatment practices in controlling mastitis, resulting in higher quality milk being sold. We made progress in the 1980s but it was not easy. There is a reason we are called the “Show-Me” state.

One creates awareness of new technology in a group meeting, but adoption many times is a one-on-one situation. Missourians attending a meeting consisted of a mix of producers, industry representatives and state agency employees involved with the dairy industry. Learning occurs in many ways. More than once I came to a meeting with my tray of slides, (yes, that was before we had computers and PowerPoint) and conversation began about a problem a producer had. The meeting evolved around their issues and I never even set up my slides. That was one of my better learning sessions!

Winter dairy meetings almost always involved 4-5 speakers. The poor speaker after lunch had a challenge to keep the audience awake as some of these folks were out in the cold since 5 a.m. They wanted a nap. A joke or two always lightened up the meeting. Dr. Spain was the best storyteller on our Extension team.

One of the interesting observations when one was on a farm, wearing the University of Missouri hat you were the outreach for the University. More than once I was asked if I might have seen someone’s son or daughter on campus and they may be enrolled in a non-ag major. Any question was fair game. Most of the time I promised I would try to find someone who could help them. Teamwork is part of Extension philosophy.

I always felt my Extension circle involved a group of 30 producers that one worked with closely. They might call the office monthly. Then the next larger circle consisted of a clientele of about 90. They would come to a meeting, read a news article or occasionally contact my office. Last, the larger remaining group obtain their information from a variety of sources. They may talk to a milking equipment dealer who attended a meeting, a local milk inspector, a local veterinarian or someone in a coffee shop or feed store. Yes, there several dairymen around Springfield who would finish the morning chores and drive into town to have coffee with friends. Dairy producers are businessmen and networking can be very helpful. Sometimes they might be reserved to go see their neighbor about something, so I served as the in-between. Looking back, I discovered my two psychology classes were very useful in working with people.

Missouri dairy producers as a whole had fewer cows per farm than other states. It was truly a family farm. I might be visiting during the evening milking to help with a milking management problem such as mastitis in the herd. Most times the dairyman’s wife is helping with the evening chores. More than once I had to be very diplomatic about suggesting a change in the milking procedures if the wife was incorrect. Several times I was set up before I even arrived. After I explained what they were doing wrong, the wife would exclaim to her husband, “See I told you were wrong.”

Another time the farm visit involved milk quality. According to the National Pasteurized Milk Ordinance policy, the cow’s teat is a food contact surface just before the teat cup is attached. The dairyman was trying to get his two sons to follow the correct cleaning procedure. I told him the teat should be clean enough for the milk we drink to be in contact with the teat. A week later he told me he took one of his son’s colas, poured it into a glass, then dipped the clean teat in the soda and handed it to his son, telling him he should not be afraid to drink the cola if he done a proper job cleaning the teat.

I firmly believe sight, sound and smell reinforce learning. A number of years I would borrow an udder for teaching purposes from a deceased cow over at the veterinary college post-mortem lab. It was the ladies who were most interested in the inside of a teat and to see the porous secretory tissue. They quickly picked up on how bacteria can easily enter the teat end after milking and connected the dots in understanding why clean free stalls are important to cow health.

A challenging and unique issue to the Ozarks of Missouri involved stray voltage shocking cows during milking. This was a milking/electrical issue. Dairy cows are 10-100 times more sensitive to electrical shocks than are humans. Partly because they stand with four feet on a wet floor in a milking parlor with electricity being used. My first experience was near Nevada, Missouri. A dairy producer’s wife was being shocked while she was washing the equipment in a stainless-steel wash basin. At this farm the cows were OK. I requested a representative from Ameren Union Electric visit the farm. It was discovered a neighbor’s faulty hot water heater was the source, and they were one-half mile up the road. Both farms had appropriate ground rods driven, but it was not adequate to take away the voltage on the neutral line. Needless to say, the U.E. reps were very perplexed over this issue.

Another farm near Monett, Missouri, had an electrical problem where the cows appeared nervous, excited and wanting to leave the barn at about 7 a.m. Upon visiting the farm in the early hours of the morning, we determined the kitchen stove was the source of the problem. That is when his wife made breakfast.

This type of problem lent itself to an interdisciplinary approach. I worked with Extension specialists in the Agriculture Engineering Department. I also worked with Rural Electric Association (REA) engineers, milking equipment dealers, and installers and engineers from Ameren Union Electric. Resolving this issue was essential to the dairy producer. Most local veterinarians were not familiar with the problem and that was the person dairy producers looked to for help. The problem was very frustrating as they did not know what to do. One dairy producer’s wife told me several years later after the stray electricity problem was diagnosed during my farm visit, they went to the steps of their house, sat down and just cried. The stress was hard on some of the producers. In some cases, civil lawsuits resulted. Being subpoenaed in a lawsuit was not a pleasant part of my Extension activity. Over a period of 10 years, the electric companies worked to minimize the problems. Things changed in the country. More electricity was needed for the new homes being built in the rural areas. They all have air conditioning and many have electric heat. Farms also have a greater demand for electricity.

Participating in Field Days at the University of Missouri Agricultural Experiment Station at Mt. Vernon (Southwest Research Center) was a lot of fun. The first day the Field Day was for the FFA high school students in southwest Missouri. I and Dr. Belyea, dairy nutrition, University Missouri Animal Sciences Division, teamed up and brought two rumen fistulated cows from Foremost to the Center. The students loved to look in the rumen fistula to see how feed is digested inside the cow. They also got to put on a long plastic AI sleeve and feel the rumen papillae inside. The volatile fatty acids, especially butyric and valeric fatty acid, were a bit odorous. The kids loved the show and tell. We would have 1,200-1,500 students visit our stop during the Field Day. I had adults 10 years later tell me about their experience. We had two people alongside the cow at all times to assure none of the students might be hurt by the cow. One white cow sometimes would cough if someone touched the rumen in a certain place. She was ticklish. The person next could get rumen juice on themselves if they didn’t quickly get out of the way.

In terms of animal nutrition, that was a very effective learning event for the Vo-Ag teachers. They were better able to teach their class about forage digestion in ruminants by relating to the cow they saw at the Field Day.

Adult education happens in many different settings. One of the good moments involved a four-day bus trip for dairy producers and their wives to Oklahoma and Texas in 1985. I worked with Darryl Robertson, National Holstein Field Representative. We left Springfield, Missouri, and stopped at farms Darryl had lined up. First day I was told they wanted a good lunch at Oklahoma City. No fast food. The dairymen tanked up at a buffet style restaurant and were sound asleep in 15 minutes after they got on the bus. That evening steak was planned for the meal but no one seemed to be hungry. We visited several dairies at Windthorst, Texas. They were effectively growing, harvesting and storing wheat silage. The soil in that region was not conducive to growing alfalfa.

As we traveled, I tried to mix up the group so dairymen could get acquainted with someone they never met before. We saw dairies successfully feeding a total mixed ration (TMR). In 1985 this was a new concept. We also got to see our first grass-based rotational grazing dairy of 400 cows. Grass management was a little different than what we were used to in Missouri. On the way home, several producers commented “I think I can do that.”  We had two Greyhound buses and the last day we were east of Dallas. The drivers told me they had a 10-hour drive and they needed to make it in eight hours. The road was open and the Greyhounds really stretched out. We made it back to Missouri in eight hours!

The last 10 years included helping teach part of the advanced dairy production class along with Dr. Belyea and Dr. Garverick. I really enjoyed interacting with the students. Some of the students were on a pre-vet track. As fewer students had any previous animal experience, one had to modify teaching. One day I began my lecture and a hand was raised. Question asked: “What is a free stall?” That question caused me to rethink how I introduce new production concepts. I tried to instill creative thinking but they have to have the basic skills before they can make rational decisions. Laboratory activities at Foremost Dairy were always fun. Students liked to have animal handling experiences. It was fun to talk about cow psychology, all about dominance, mixing new animals in a group and the effect it has on milk yield. John Denbigh, farm manager at Foremost, was always very supportive in having animals available for lab.

A lot of new technologies have been introduced since 1978. Back then, the total mixed ration, free stalls for cows (many Missouri farms had just blue sky for housing) and parallel parlors were introduced. When computers arrived, they were quickly adopted by the dairy industry. Now, the cow wore a neck tag or ear tag and she is identified when she enters her stall to be milked. Data collected included milk yield each milking, electrical conductivity of the milk (indirect somatic cell information) and cow activity. We now could manage the cow individually in a group setting.

Computer-formulated diets became available. I was involved initially but soon become apparent private feed nutritionists should provide that service.

Bovine Somatotropin (BST) was introduced by Monsanto. Cows were given a shot of the product every two weeks and they gave more milk. Public reaction against giving cows a hormone shot grew and the use in Missouri decreased. DFA also announced they would no longer buy milk from cows given BST. Monsanto should have hired a sociologist before they introduced their product. The consumer was no longer convinced by science.

Recently the two technologies that have had the greatest influence on the dairy industry are sexed semen and timed breeding. Cows are now bred with sorted sperm that result in 98 percent heifer calves. As dairies have grown in size, estrus detection has become a significant management problem. Today the producer synchronizes the cow with a series of hormone shots and can successfully breed the cow on a certain day. A profitable dairy needs cows calving at 13.2 months. New tools will be developed so we do not have to give the cow hormones to aid in pregnancy. The consumer wants to know how their food is produced.

Heat stress reduction has become more important. Barns have fans and misters to cool cows by means of evaporative cooling. Today, tunnel ventilation is the new method to cool cows. Also, air passing over the cow at 6 mph blows the flies away. A comfortable cow is a happy cow and gives more milk.

In about 1995 I had opportunity to work with the Missouri Commercial Agriculture Program. The objective was to help producers grow their business and profitability through a multidisciplinary team approach. The Commercial Ag Program was a separately funded Extension effort and was able to develop seminars, business plans, and nutrient management plans that we as individuals could not easily develop. Waste management issues sometimes became the most limiting issue on a farm. We had to keep the manure out of the water. This was a hot potato at the state legislature as the size of a farm grew.