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International dairy experience: WI student has stint on Russian farm

June 16, 2014 | 0 comments


Michelle Belling had a dairy experience unlike most other ag students in Wisconsin. Instead of going on to a local farm after graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, Belling went international and accepted a job working for a company that invested in dairy farms in Russia.

Belling grew up on a Brownsville-area farm and was involved in all aspects of the dairy business. This helped her well in her new responsibilities in Russia, which included working with small farmers, teaching them appropriate ways to manage their herds to increase production and keep cows healthier.

Belling was stationed in the Renga area, about eight hours southeast of Moscow and said there were many differences between the large modern dairies being built by investors and the small village farms.

Village residents gained their knowledge about dairying from working on the former communist-style farms. Their homes were very small and bright colored and they had huge gardens and a fence around every tiny yard.

"The fence not only held chickens in the yard but also somewhat gave them a sense of security since they feared people would rob them," she said.

"Every Russian family has a cow," she added. "They milk in the morning and the evening and take the can of milk to a central location where a truck picks up the cans to take to the processor. Each 'farmer' then walks the cow to a central location where a man takes all the cows up to a pasture between milking.

"So instead of dropping off children at day care in the morning and picking them up at the end of the day, these people drop off their cow and pick her up at the end of the day."

According to Belling, there is now a huge international investment in modern dairy farms.

"They feel there is money to be made," she said. "There are no regulations and no CAFOs, and the land is good."

Getting started

When Belling was graduating from college, she answered a "help wanted" ad from a company seeking people to help manage the 3,600-cow dairy that had been recently built.

When the farm got started, they imported 2,000 heifers, mostly from the U.S.

"They all calved within three months," she said. "You can imagine the chaos that was, especially since they were not equipped to do it, and the heifers were not adequately prepared for calving but instead just got off a ship."

The freestall barn had some headlocks. The hospital barn had a D12 parlor, and the milking barn had an 80-stall rotary parlor.

"My job was to look around the farm, and then teach the workers; I even had to teach the veterinarians," she said. "Unlike the farms here, they did not have nutritionists. The only knowledge any of the workers had was what they learned from the commune farms, but each only knew one particular skill."

Belling talked about the challenges of finding trained employees on the new modern dairy farms because of the way the people have been brought up.

She said younger workers are willing to work, listen and learn, but the older ones, because the only thing they know about farming is what they learned on the communist-style, larger farms, are only interested in getting paid first before they work — and they only know one job. When asked to help out with something, they are quick to reply, "That's not my job."

She contrasted that to the strong work ethic built on U.S. farms.


Belling, of course, had to face some immediate issues.

Mastitis was an issue, partly because of a lack of records.

"Their method of dry-off was to hold the button on all the milkers," she said. "They believed cows couldn't be dried off if there is any milk left in the udder. They didn't have alcohol swabs and just used spit, believing that it had some magical powers."

Vaccines and medications that they did have were not refrigerated. She found antibiotics on hand with dates as old as 1995. Their method of sampling for mastitis was to take a glass jar and strip into it. They tested cows haphazardly and had a somatic cell count of 325,000 to 400,000.

"The problem was they ordered supplies once a month, but they only got about half of what they ordered, so they couldn't treat all the cows they dried off because they didn't have enough," Belling said.

When they administered IVs, they used small bottles, and often the bottles broke when a cow jerked. The glass would then fly forward into the feed. They didn't wash their needles and reused them for a long time.

They also didn't have any halters, so handling cattle was difficult.

"Any time milk left the farm, they had to get lots of signatures," she said. "The owner, veterinarian and lab person all had to sign. Sometimes that was an issue because if the lab person was off, no one else was authorized to do the job. Medicines were locked up, and if she was off when I needed it to treat a cow, I couldn't even get at them."

There were also rules about driving farm equipment. Tractor operators needed a license, and only a licensed skid steer operator could drive the skid steer.

"If I needed to move something and it was the skid steer operator's day off, I couldn't even get into the skid steer to move it," she said. I had to wait until the guy was back to work to do it."

There are also government quotas on cattle removal from the farm. Since they are limited to how many they can sell in a given period of time, often they had to hold on to cows that needed to be culled. That contributed to their high somatic cell count average, too.

The person in charge of the maternity pens was paid according to the number of calves born. As a result, they often pulled calves when it wasn't necessary to do so. Since the calf was born, he was paid, but the cow did not do well.

Along with all these issues, farmers have to deal with corruption in the country and a lack of training and knowledge about animal care and modern dairying methods.

"They do not have an Extension or a Professional Dairy Producers organization, consultants, nutritionists or crop consultants," she said.

During her time in the country, she was able to get the farm started on the Dairy Comp computer program for keeping track of cows. She was also able to get them supplies and create some fresh-cow protocols for them to follow.

Prior to her visit, the veterinarians did not do displaced abomasum surgeries or cesarean sections. They also didn't have foot baths or do foot trimming. Belling and a co-worker from the U.S. were able to help them learn about these things, and she also made improvements in their cropping program in order to put up better forage that will be healthier for the cows and help increase milk production.

Now that Belling completed her work in Russia, she has moved on to do mission work in Africa.

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