The cows have come home.

The Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine recently welcomed several new residents—residents of the bovine variety. The college is now home to 21 dairy cows who will aid in the education of veterinary students. 

The cows will help veterinary students learn many different skills. Under the guidance of faculty, students will learn handling, restraint, and basic husbandry as well as how to put cows into a chute for health checks and shots. As they progress through the curriculum, students will learn how to assess milk quality and how to perform diagnostic techniques like rectal palpation.

"Virginia Tech was built as an agricultural university, that's part of our heritage. I think it's a cool thing to see that coming in,” said Virginia Edwards, collegiate assistant professor and service chief of Animal Care for Education (ACE). The ACE team provides husbandry, medical care, and enrichment to the animals who assist the veterinary teaching program.

“We absolutely need cows to teach veterinary students with,” said Sierra Guynn, clinical assistant professor of production management medicine in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences,  “Dairy cows are better because they're handled and have a much smaller flight zone as they are handled twice a day regularly.”

In the past, the veterinary college has used College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) facilities, but logistical issues have made the new facility a necessity. Having cows so close to the college will help with class scheduling and student commute. 

“The ability to come from class in the morning, to jump out here real quick, to go to class in the afternoon without 40 minutes of driving is a big advantage,” said third-year student Josh Smith of Syracuse, New York, president of the Food Animal Club.

“It’s nice to be near the school because all of our supplies are here,” said third-year student McKenzie Kyger of Ocean City, Maryland. “So if we need another clinician, they’re right there. If we need more ultrasounds or palpation sleeves or anything like that, it’s close by.”

Additionally, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has different regulatory standards for cows used by a veterinary college, so the college needs its own facilities to maintain those standards. 

The cows this year come from CALS, but in the future, the veterinary college plans on acquiring cows from other farms. They will seek out cows of different ages, which will better represent what veterinary students will encounter in practice. 

“We have the teaching herd for about two months in the fall and two months in the spring,” Guynn said. “All three of the years will use the herd starting with the ‘normal animal’ course in year one, then the ‘breathing and circulating’ and ‘eating and eliminating’ in year two, and then the third years use them in food animal theriogenology.”

Getting the cows to campus has truly been a team effort, with many people across the university working in collaboration to bring the cows to the college.  Several teams coordinated, including the veterinary college, CALS, Smithfield Plantation, and even Virginia Tech athletics. 

Casey Underwood, associate athletics director for facility management and capital projects, and Andy McReynolds, associate director of fields, were charged with coordinating a cattle crossing over the cross country track while keeping the track within ACC-level competition standards.

From CALS, Clint Stegar, an agricultural manager at Moore Farm, and Dean Fugate, an agricultural specialist at Moore Farm, chose fencing materials and coordinated installation of the fence.

Author and historian Kerri Moseley-Hobbs, a descendant of enslaved people at Smithfield Plantation, and Jamie King, university arborist, provided guidance on future plans for the site of the historic Merry Oak, felled by winds in May 2020, and how the cow pasture fencing would help them plan for the future. Smithfield Plantation officials Michael Hudson, Ryan Spencer and Kenna Jewell provided further guidance on maintaining the required agricultural viewshed at Smithfield Plantation.

Crews led by Roy Hughes, Chuck Dietz, and Bobby Polly built the cattle crossing, improved the barn entrance, checked storm water management and installed water lines.

Guynn, Edwards, and Hollie Schramm, clinical assistant professor for Large Animal Clinical Sciences in the veterinary college, developed the program to support the well-being of the cows.

ACE will be responsible for the care of the cows. ACE will work in partnership with the Production Management Medicine team, who will provide medical care for the cows should health problems arise. 

“For us it’s a huge time saver,” said Jamie Stewart, assistant professor in Large Animal Clinical Sciences. “Now we can come down from our offices, put our stuff on, and get over here without having to rush. It gives us a little bit of extra time to do the other things we need to do.”

Stewart sees a greater intangible value to having the cows at the backdoor and not having students and instructors scattered on the roads driving to the dairy barn.

“It brings a little bit of more community, because I feel the students are more connected to us when we’re all right here.”

Written by Sarah Boudreau and Kevin Myatt, writers with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine