sheila sobchik

In the predawn hours of the morning with only the stars to light her way through the eerie silence of Cheda Ranch, Kate Rector heads to the dairy in her stocking feet. She pulls a pair of knee-high, rubber boots from the trunk of her car and looks down at her watch. It’s 3:30 a.m. and time to milk the cows.

She first flushes water out of the pipes, then sets up the equipment and turns on the radio. The first few cows saunter in, their bulging udders causing them to walk bowlegged.

“Come on ladies. Come on ladies,” agriculture science freshman Rector says, her ponytail flying.

The rest of the herd files into the milking parlor. A small, tan Jersey cow looks around and attempts to head out. Rector turns her around and gently taps her on the rump.

“Come on ladies. This way,” Rector repeats with no impatience.

With nimble fingers, she cleans the teats of the first row of cows and dips them in a sterile iodine solution. Then she attaches a vacuum suction milking apparatus to each teat.

In a world that seems far removed from that of most Cal Poly students, residents of the Cheda Ranch and dairy dorms regularly rise hours before the sun. They schedule their classes around the requirements of the dairy and sheep units.

At Cheda Ranch, seven students are divided between two cabins. Students have their own rooms and share kitchens, living rooms and laundry facilities.

At the dairy, one student resides in an apartment located in the barn and two students live in a nearby trailer. Someone must be available 24 hours a day.

They sign a contract to work 30 free hours per month. In compensation, they are charged approximately $750 in rent per quarter and are not required to purchase dining plans. They earn wages for extra hours of work, said Jay Wheeler, herd manager.

“When you’re a dairyman, it’s like having a new baby. If something happens in the middle of the night, someone has to be there,” Wheeler said. “I have a fantastic crew this year.”

Even though the dairy works with a skeleton crew on Christmas, Thanksgiving and during spring break, workers are required to commit to working through one of the university’s holiday breaks.

The herd consists of 213 milking cows. The dairy employs around 26 part-time student employees while providing a practical lab for dairy science students.

Cal Poly has one of the largest dairy science departments in the United States. There are currently 125 undergraduates and 18 graduate students studying husbandry and processing related topics.

“This is a unique place,” said Leanne Bearning, a dairy science professor. “It is an important opportunity for students to get hands-on exposure.”

Back in the milking parlor, the milking machine goes sounds more like a heart monitor than an electronic milk extractor as milk rushes through the rubber tubing. An electronic instrument monitors the amount of milk extracted from each cow and displays the quickly growing numbers on black digital screens.

“The Jerseys produce around 20 to 30 pounds of milk each,” Rector says. “It takes 8.6 pounds to produce a gallon of milk.”

The milking apparatuses automatically detach from the teats and fall away from the heifers’ udders when finished.

Rector opens the automatic gate by pressing a round green button on the wall. The first row of cows, their udders hanging like half-empty, wrinkled sacks, file out. She shuts the gate and then herds another group of cows up to the milking machine.

Back in her hometown of Hilmar Calif., Rector’s father is a herdsman, where he manages a large dairy. This is the lifestyle she is accustomed to.

“We are a nice group of girls (living at Cheda Ranch),” Rector says. “We have a lot of fun.”

Pick up Thursday’s edition for the final part of this two-part series on Cal Poly’s dairy program.

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