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UT Conducts Research on its Blount County Dairy Farm


UT conducts research on its Blount County dairy farm

Photo: University of Tennessee

The research being conducted right here in Blount County on a herd of holsteins has the potential to affect how dairies operate nationwide.

The University of Tennessee manages the Little River Animal and Environmental Unit located off Ellejoy Road near Heritage High School, part of the university’s East Tennessee Ag Research and Education Center.

There are 150 dairy cows in the herd that was started back in 2011. Charlie Young, a native of McMinn County, is the manager.

The average herd in Tennessee is less than 100, Young said. Here at this Blount County farm, there is the potential to grow to 200 by early next year. That’s growth from the inside, not from purchasing any new cows.

What we can learn

“The purpose of this operation is to facilitate research and teaching for the university,” Young said. “We work closely with the Department of Animal Science and also with the College of Veterinary Medicine. We do research with both of those entities.”

That research includes the study of the animals and how they react to their environment. These cows are housed and bedded in sand to reduce infections, Young pointed out. Other studies look at other ways to reduce infections, the best treatment options, vaccinations, reproduction, the affects of ticks and mosquitoes, and how to increase milk production.

On Thursday, the Leadership Blount Class of 2016 toured the facility along with a group of students interested in learning more about the use of artificial insemination of cows.

“Artificial insemination is used extensively in the dairy industry,” explained Dr. Bobby Simpson, director of the East Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center. He said there are no mature bulls at this site. “It is all by artificial insemination.”

Who lives here

Only lactating animals are housed at this location, but UT does have other herds in its research facilities across the state. In most cases, the female calves that are born here stay while the male calves have been mostly sold to anybody who wants them. But due to research involving them, they are also being kept as well.

Because of the technology of the day, Young knows the milk production of every cow, her activity over the last 12 hours, and even who was first into the milking parlor. Pretty much everything these cows do is monitored.

That is necessary, Young said, because providing a raw food product is serious business. He tests his milk before it is ever loaded onto transport trucks and it’s tested again when it arrives at its destination.

“This is the most heavily regulated raw food product in the country,” the manager said.

From cow to our refrigerators

Most of the milk from this Blount County farm ends up in the Weigel’s chain of stores. As for which brand tastes best, Young said it’s all the same.

“I am a firm believer that milk is milk,” he said. “It’s regulated and processed in the same way.”

The herd here is milked twice a day. They are holsteins because 93 percent of the dairy population in this country is that breed. The research and teaching you do becomes relevant when its the same cow as other herds, Young explained.

Milk production varies widely from herd to herd and within a herd, Simpson explained. Factors that include genetics, nutrition, stage of lactation and milking process all play a role. A general estimate is one cow will average 80 pounds of milk per day that will total 24,000 pounds of milk per year.

Another side of farming

Susan Keller grew crops on this UT land but also has 800 acres she farms with her husband, John and son, Sam. Susan’s family, the Hitches, have owned land here in Blount County for more than 100 years.

“Sam, our son, is the sixth generation farmer here,” she said, as she gave a tour of the farm where Sam lives and works. Susan and John’s farm is located on East Brown School Road. Sam is the fourth generation to farm it, Susan said.

This family has learned to adapt to survive. They know do what is called added-value farming. They make small bales of hay and construct cornstalk bundles and sell them to Wal-Mart and other stores each fall. It has been a way to make money with a little creativity.

The Kellers are mainly row crop farmers, growing corn, wheat, soybeans and rye. They have beef cattle as well.

The hardships they face are the same as their ancestors: the unpredictability of the weather, a reduced labor force, moving equipment from one place to another and the shrinking of available land.

“The land is the most precious thing,” Susan said. “If we were artists, we would need a canvas to paint on. We have to have the land.”

An important industry

Simpson said the research being done at the Blount County farm is important for the dairy industry moving forward. It’s also important to educate the generations coming up about agriculture as a whole.

“Each generations gets farther removed from agriculture and doesn’t know where their food comes from,” he said. Its importance can be understood when you realize it’s a $3.5 billion a year industry here in Tennessee.

Blount County used to have hundreds of dairies, many that bottled their own products.

Today, there are four dairies in this county.

Roughly 1 percent of the population here is in agriculture. That means there are about 1,000 farms here totaling a little over 100,000 acres. The average size is 103 acres. That’s according to the latest Census of Agriculture, done in 2012.

There are Heritage High School graduates like Tate Walker, Taylor Hutsell and Jacob Tallent working at this research facility and visitors come from all over to learn more about its findings in the area of animal behavior and the environment. Simpson said it’s like a field laboratory.