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Cream of the Crop: Ag and Honors Students Team Up for Olympics, Good Times

Posted by struscott | March 15, 2007

Straw bale tossing, cow pie making (with extra point for realism), a calf relay race and, of course, hand milking were all events in the Ag Olympics held this past December.

Hay bale toss at the 2006 Ag Olympics, sponsored by WSU's Dairy Club; photo courtesy Dairy Club
Hay bale toss at the 2006 Ag Olympics, sponsored by WSU’s Dairy Club. Photo courtesy Jerry Petersen

The 2006 Ag Olympics were organized and sponsored by the WSU Dairy Club at the instigation of Honors Hall residence advisor, Andrew Frei.

“I don’t know how I first got the idea to take my residents to the dairy,” Frei said. “It was probably one of those three-in-the-morning decisions when creative thinking is always at its best. I waited a long time to act on the idea since I was almost certain liability issues would keep us from acting on it. Later in the year, however, I started to think more about it. Providing educational opportunities for residents in my hall is a requirement for my position. None of the programs I’d put on had been anything special or out of the ordinary. None of my residents had been challenged to act outside of their comfort zones.”

So Frei contacted animal science professor and Dairy Club advisor, Larry Fox, and Dairy Club president, Andrea Mouw, who brought Frei’s interest in a dairy-related experience to the Club’s membership. The members began thinking of ways to both educate and have fun with the Honors College students.

“When I first contacted Dr. Fox I was hoping only for a simple overview of the animal science program at WSU and perhaps the chance to milk a cow or two,” Frei said. But what developed was a full day’s worth of events. “In less than a month, they planned and carried out a very successful program with multiple events,” Frei added.

“WSU is known as a cow college,” Frei continued. “People know us. People know our cheese. When a home run is hit in a WSU home game by the visiting team a tape is played of an indignant cow mooing in complaint. None of this changes the fact that, until the Agricultural Olympics, I had never seen a cow on the WSU campus. Dr. Fox and I agreed that it was time for WSU to learn where its cheese comes from.”

It’s the Cheese

“It seems a shame that at university like WSU with such an emphasis on agriculture and animal science, there are students graduating with little or no appreciation of where the cheese in Ferdinand’s comes from,” Frei said.

WSU Creamery, now known as Ferdinand's Ice Cream Shoppe
WSU Creamery, now known as Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe. Photo courtesy WSU Libraries.

Indeed, most people don’t realize that WSU was a pioneer, and remains a leader, incheese research. The WSU Dairy, now called Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe, was founded in 1902. In the 1940s, the Dairy developed a method of canning cheese that is still in use. Also in the ‘40s, Cougar Gold cheese was first made (it’s named after a WSU researcher, N.S. Golding). Cougar Gold regularly wins top honors at international cheese competitions.

No bST?

One of the motivating concerns of Dairy Club members is that most people either don’t know or don’t care about where their food comes from.

“Kids think eggs and bread are dairy products!” said Megan Warner, a club member.

The influence of grocery store layouts, which typically put eggs and bread in proximity with dairy products, is nothing compared to the mass media, though.

“The media is playing on emotions when it comes to bST,” said Katie Harris. Bovine somatotropin or bST, the club members pointed out, is a naturally occurring hormone present in all milk produced by cows.

“We all have to eat,” said Warner, “and we care about what we put in our bodies. So it’s an easy issue to get alarmed about. Mothers are afraid that they’ll be giving their kids milk and it’ll be horrible for them.”

“Consumers want bST-free milk,” said club member Wade McMahan, “and so producers label it that way, but that only reinforces the false message that bST is somehow bad.”

“People have the idea that there’re no hormones in milk,” McMahan added, “and so there’s a misconception that they’re going to be harmed by these supplements which increase milk production.”

McMahan pointed out that boosting milk production seriously affects a dairy’s bottom line. A treated cow can produce an additional ten pounds of milk per day. “Economically, it adds up to about a dollar per day per cow,” said Kelvin Plagerman, a club member and ag business major. “That’s huge!” said club member Betsy Adams. “And the fifteen-cent per hundred weight incentive offered by co-ops to not use bST just isn’t worth it,” he added.

Larry Fox, the Club’s faculty advisor and a professor of animal science, explained: “Just to give you an idea, milk does naturally have hormones. This is true for cow’s milk, and it is true for human milk. The concentration of hormones in mammal’s milk, whether breast or cow milk, is incredibly small. Generally we’re talking about one part per billion. So for every billion drops of milk there’s one drop of hormone. That would be much less than 1 drop in a swimming pool filled with milk. The level of bST in milk is the same as in cows not treated with bST.”

The cow’s body uses the supplemental bST to produce more milk. BST is a protein, is biologically inactive in humans, and is digested just like any other protein in food.

Why Dairy Club?

Dairy Club students hanging out with one of humanity's oldest friends--a cow.
Honors College students hanging out with one of humanity’s oldest friends–a cow. Photo courtesy Jerry Petersen

Besides a basic love of animals and dairying, the students in Dairy Club want the experience because they know it’ll help prepare them for employment after graduation. But members are also very interested in reaching out to young people.

The club’s outreach efforts include an annual Cougar Youth Weekend. Youth from all over the state are invited to come to Pullman to have a dairy experience, including visits to a feed mill, the WSU dairy and vet hospital. The weekend has a lasting effect, said club members: four of them participated when they were younger.

Most who cross paths with these young dairy men and women come away with a new perspective on one of humanity’s oldest friends.

“I think that’s the reason the Ag Olympics was so successful,” Megan Warner said. “It exposed people to things they’d never seen or thought about before.”

“That,” added Wade McMahan, “and it’s just plain fun.”