Most incredible to me was our visit USU dairy where milking robots and the cows themselves control the milking process. At their leisure, when they decide to, the cows come to the milking stall. Sensors open the gate and the cow enters. Once in the milking stall, the cow gets an edible treat and the robot goes to work washing the udder. The washer looks a bit like a miniature car wash roller. After a double udder scrub the inflations (milkers) are attached. Each quarter of the udder is milked independently so if one quarter is emptied before the rest, that inflation detaches. When the entire udder is emptied, the milker is pulled off and sanitized while the cows udder is treated with a disinfectant. She is then released and the next cow allowed to enter. The entire process is controlled and recorded by a computer that reads a chip in a disk that hangs around the cow’s neck. If a cow comes in too early (just to get a treat) the machine kicks her back out. If a cow does not come in to be milked, the computer sends a message to the herdsman. The computer records the volume, temperature, milk fat, etc… of the cow’s output. The robots run 24/7 and the cows fall into a routine, bringing themselves to milk 2-3 times daily. Blows my mind!
The cow stalls are filled with sand, not straw, as sand is much more inhospitable to microbes and macroinvertebrates. An R2D2 type machine runs down the galley once an hour, pushing hay back into the stalls. Semen from the artificial insemination is screened so that only sperm with X chromosomes are used, which means all the calves are female. (In the dairy industry, female calves are much more valuable, for obvious reasons.) I was awestruck.
We also visited USU’s chocolate factory (yes, there were samples!!) and their spider silk lab. No spiders in the spider silk lab; they don’t need the spiders anymore because they have the genetic code for their proteins. The proteins are produced by transgenic e-coli, alfalfa, silkworms and goats. The silkworms spin the proteins and the goats make them in their milk. They don’t have spiders in the lab but they do have spider silk though and it is amazing. They are making fabrics, films, glues, and venous and arterial catheters with the proteins. The products are amazingly strong, biotic, and unrecognized by the body as foreign. The challenge now is to produce the spider silk proteins in sufficient quantities. Currently it costs about $100/g to refine. A small vial is worth the equivalent of a starter home.
As a part of the class we went to the Gossner cheese factory, a family owned business that specializes in swiss cheese. Tours to the factory have been discontinued but they made a special exception for us. Our teacher asked us to be especially nice and gracious. The boss of the plant welcomed us and asked us not to touch anything. “Especially do not touch the red cord,” he said. “It will shut the operation down and you will hear swear words.”
The tour was fascinating. We started at the process’s beginning, with the truck bay where more than a million lbs of milk are delivered daily. We saw huge tanks where the milk is warmed and the cultures are added. We saw huge tanks where the cheese is pressed and made into large (12 foot by 3 foot by 1 foot) loaves. At the pressing place, we could see the loaf before it was pressed but I could not see the top of the loaf after the pressing process because the loaf was in a bin on a conveyer that was slightly taller than I. Curious about how the pressed loaf looked, I tried to hop (just a little jump) to get a better view. Because I have feeble knees, I swung my arms a little to aid my jump. I did not hop high enough to view the loaf but I did manage to touch the red cord. Yep. I shut down the machinery.
As the room went silent, I realized what I had done. Oh that there had been a hole that would have opened up to swallow me up!!! I felt awful. AWFUL. Fortuitously, they were super gracious about it and were able to return the machines to full activity within minutes but still….. I kept my hands clasped in front of me, fingers intertwined, for the rest of the tour.
Just for the record…..I do not believe in reincarnation. But, if I were to be reincarnated and I had a choice, I would be sincerely tempted to come back as a USU student of Ag Science. And I would NOT touch the red cord!