Dairy farm sparks an interest in genetics

By Rachel Florman

Sarah Ellingwood

Photo by Rachel Florman

Sarah Ellingwood, a sophomore animal sciences major from Lizton, Ind., helps care for more than 200 cattle at the Purdue University Dairy Research and Education Center. ​Full-size image (411 KB)

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On a beautiful fall day, Sarah Ellingwood swung gracefully over and under the maze of gates and fences as she went about her work in the Animal Sciences Research and Education Center Dairy Unit.

The sophomore animal sciences major from Lizton, Ind., stopped occasionally to greet a lingering cow or pet an outstretched nose before moving busily about her chores. She always made time for her favorite cow, a gigantic brown Swiss called Moose.

"She's just so sweet," Ellingwood laughed as she cradled Moose's head. "It's just the little things about working with her and this farm that just make my day."

The center where Ellingwood works is a working dairy farm that researches animal behavior and nutrition and explores ways to produce quality livestock. Ellingwood said the work has given her insight in the industry and a greater love for the animals.

"Some of the cows here are more than 5 years old," Ellingwood said. "I love how they can become used to the system and work with you in the job. You don't find that in every part of agriculture."

Although she looks like she's been around dairy cattle her whole life, Ellingwood started working with them only a few months ago. She said she enjoys the work so much that she's considering whether it should be her profession. She is thinking seriously about genetics.

"I really think you can see God through genetics," she said. "It's something that I can't see myself getting bored with or getting used to. It blows my mind every day."

Ellingwood learned about the dairy farm in a class. She was intrigued and applied for her summer position.

Today, she helps care for more than 200 cattle. She cleans stalls, feeds the animals and milks the cows. In addition to producing milk, the cows are used in classes and to help students study diverse animal health issues such as alternative feed sources and behavior.

Ellingwood said the farm managers care deeply about their animals.

"I think the managers and employees at Purdue dairy know more about the health of each cow in the herd than they do about their own personal health," Ellingwood said. "It's crucial for farmers to make sure their animals are happy and healthy, because if they're not, that animal won't produce the best amount or quality of milk."

Ellingwood also earned class credit by researching the effects of artificial insemination on the dairy industry. By doing so, she explored some job options within her field.

"I want to reaffirm that I really want a career in dairy," she said.

For her project, Ellingwood researched various artificial insemination methods and interviewed dairy farmers and veterinarians. She wanted to learn how dairy breeding affects farmers and consumers. Her goal was to create a presentation to educate consumers who don't have an agricultural background.

"Many people who are consumers of dairy don't have any clue about what goes on in the industry," Ellingwood said. "Now, more than ever, people go to the store and never think about how their eggs and milk got on the shelf. If people knew the facts behind why farmers raise their animals the way they do, they wouldn't be so hesitant to purchase animal products."

Facility home to many fields of research

Purdue's Animal Science Research and Education Center is a 1,500-acre farm that provides opportunities for students and scientists to conduct research.

The facility is home to several units, including dairy (where Sarah Ellingwood works), aquaculture (where Jake Bledsoe works), beef, poultry, sheep, swine and others. Many disciplines conduct work at the site, including the Departments of Animal Sciences, Forestry and Natural Resources, Agricultural and Biological Engineering and Agronomy.

Part-time students work a combined 500 hours per week across many units, according to the center's website. That represents a lot of practical, hands-on experience.​