Eye-opening dairy farm internship teaches undergraduate student new skills and builds confidence

Mackenzie Austin

Mackenzie Austin, an undergraduate animal sciences student from Pasco, completed a summer internship program at Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman, Oregon, in August 2023. She learned of the program at the CAHNRS Career Fair and Networking Night. Representatives from the farm explained that they are committed to the future of agriculture and offer high-class internship programs in crop farming and sustainable dairy farming to college students and entry-level workers.

Austin applied to the internship program because she wanted to learn more about dairy cows and milk production. The once-aspiring equine veterinarian had discovered a new passion – dairy cows – because of her experiences in AS 101 (Introduction to Animal Sciences) at the WSU Dairy. Although she was worried that her application would not be considered because she did not have farming or livestock experience, she was selected as one of three dairy interns.

“Don’t let the fact that you don’t have the experience stop you from applying. The fact that you are willing to learn shows a lot about you as a person. Push yourself to learn new material and new things from everyone you meet,” Austin said.

Learning the in-and-outs of dairy farming

Austin was paired with a mentor at the farm and was immersed in the day-to-day operation of the dairy. She moved to a different management section every week. In addition, she was given an assignment – determine how to improve calf health and reduce cost. She collected data, recorded observations, and presented her recommendations to the dairy team. Austin said this experience pushed her to ask questions and learn new skills.

One of her favorite rotations was in the maternity pens. She helped with calving, checked colostrum quality, and ensured calves consumed colostrum, which stimulates immune system and intestinal development.

“I loved helping the cows calve and the overall birthing process. It is such an amazing thing watching a calf come into the world!” Austin said.

Austin spent a week at the calf hutches, riding on the bottle trailer, and observed calves for signs of pneumonia. She learned how to move cattle with low-stress techniques, using only her body position and voice.

In the reproduction rotation, she was taught how to recognize cows that were in heat, watched artificial insemination technicians breed cows, learned how to do pregnancy checks, and observed embryo transfers.

During the nutrition rotation, she learned how to inspect the cow’s rations for ingredient consistency and distribution in the feed bunks and learned how to determine the dry matter content of the diet. She even spent a day with a crop specialist, learning about how important it is to time the harvest and curing of alfalfa hay for optimum nutritional value.

In the milking parlors, Austin audited the robots that prepared the teats for the milking machines to ensure that they were effectively cleaning and drying the teats. She said this was an interesting process because the robots were extremely fast.

Favorite management rotation

Austin’s favorite rotation was the time spent in the hospital pen. She learned how to identify and treat animals with pneumonia, ketosis, and displaced abomasums. She treated cows with calcium boluses, learned how to collect blood from the tail vein, and gave cows intravenous fluids.

“It was fun to learn how to tail bleed a cow and I got really good at placing an IV line in the jugular vein,” she said. “I really enjoyed the hospital rotation because I was helping to alleviate an animal’s discomfort.”

At the end of the summer, Austin returned to Pullman with a new enthusiasm for dairy farming and to start her junior year of college with a Threemile Farms-sponsored scholarship.

“The internship at Threemile Farms was an amazing experience! The eye-opening experiences I had there made me realize that my decision to pursue a career in agriculture, dairy farming, or veterinary medicine is right for me,” she said. “The opportunities available at the dairy are numerous and you get as much out of the experience as you put into it. Everyone there was so willing to teach me!”

Career goal

Austin’s current career goal is to become a large-animal veterinarian. She is shadowing a local large-animal veterinarian to learn more about the profession. However, she is also looking into getting some experience in scientific research.

She said, “I am curious about research and want to explore other career options. I may not get into vet school, or I might change my mind. I want to broaden my horizons.”