The dairy farms at Penn State’s Dairy Complex are a cornerstone in the Penn State community and have been for years. Through the pandemic, the farms have seen minimal impacts.

With a herd size of around 500 cows, the dairy farms supply Penn State’s Berkey Creamery with milk for its ice cream. Penn State students can get a taste — literally — of what the farms have to offer since its milk also supplies the many dining halls across campus.

The farms employ up to nine full-time workers and around 20 students every semester, according to Nadine Houck, co-manager of Penn State Dairy Farms. Employees are responsible for milking, cleaning stalls and taking care of young calves. Student employees enjoy hands-on experience and access to living quarters, which attracts many — like Johnna Calvert.

PSU Dairy Farm - Young Calves

Young calves rest in the Penn State Dairy Complex on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in University Park, Pa.

Calvert (senior-animal science) has worked at the farms since January 2020. When the coronavirus hit Penn State and mitigation restrictions began, Penn State Dairy Farms stood vigilant, according to Calvert, because she saw very little change in her work aside from some employees leaving.

Travis Edwards, co-manager of Penn State Dairy Farms, said the employees have kept doing their normal activities the “same as always from lockdown on.”

“There has to be somebody here 365 days a year, twice a day to milk the cows,” Edwards said. “We stayed open and we stayed operational as we normally do, thanks in a large part to our employees and also our students who stayed on and stayed here through the shut down.”

PSU Dairy Farm - Cow Barn

The main cow barn houses most of the adult cows in the Penn State Dairy Complex on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in University Park, Pa.

However, the farms faced some minor setbacks but were able to continue operations, according to Houck.

“We saw a decrease [in workers],” Houck said. “Enough of them stayed so that we could get done what we needed to get done.”

Calvert said she believes the student workers stepped up in a time of need when full-time employees weren’t able to be there.

“When the pandemic hit, there were a couple full-time guys who had to take time off for family concerns,” Calvert said. “We were worried about being most careful because of them. We didn’t want to spread [coronavirus] to them or their families.”

PSU Dairy Farm - Baby Calf

A three day old baby calf rests in the Penn State Dairy Complex on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in University Park, Pa.

Edwards and Houck said work at the dairy farms has been largely unaffected because the workplace is outdoors and naturally distanced. A few employees contracted the virus, but it didn’t spread among the staff, according to Edwards.

Edwards said the farms developed emergency planning in case a large amount of the workforce would be hit simultaneously by the coronavirus. However, they never had to utilize it.

“What we were worried about in the beginning was most of our crew being taken out all at once,” Edwards said. “Fortunately, that didn’t seem to happen.”

PSU Dairy Farm - Cow 3

A cow waits for food in the Penn State Dairy Complex on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in University Park, Pa.

Edwards said many of the dairy’s workers are now being vaccinated, and he expects the farms to continue working well into the future.

The dairy farms are still hiring students for the summer semester, and Houck said she isn’t worried about further impact from the coronavirus.

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