Berks first-graders enthralled with virtual tour of dairy farm

·5 min read

May 18—The camera zoomed in on the calf hutch, and the Holstein heifer was ready for her closeup, mouthing the human hand extended toward her, but not chomping down.

The first-graders in Emily Zientek's classroom at Lorane Elementary School in Exeter School District giggled, their eyes glued to the big screen in the room where the virtual farm tour was unfolding, courtesy of American Dairy Association North East, and farmer Stacey Copenhaver of Talview Dairy in Lebanon County.

"Calves like to suck on your fingers, but they can't hurt you because they only have teeth on the bottom," explained Copenhaver, 44, who farms with her husband, Brent, 41.

Talview is named for the view of the valley, since "tal" means "valley" in German, reflecting the family's German roots. The 90-acre farm is where Copenhaver grew up, and came back to five years ago with her husband and three children, ages 11-15.

Copenhaver was an elementary school teacher before joining her husband in dairy farming full time. These days, the family milks 250 Holsteins, mostly black and white, along with some red and white.

Zientek's classroom was one of five at Lorane that signed up for the tour, with nearly 100 students joining in. School librarian-teacher Devon Tarewicz organized the virtual field trip as part of the first graders' farm animal research project.

Zientek's first-graders were brimming with questions. First up was finding out that the mom cows are kept separate from their babies to keep the newborns germ-free and so the mothers don't step on the little ones, who weigh 80-100 pound at birth. The moms, on the other hand, weigh 1,500 to 1,800 pounds. That got a lot of oohs and ahhs from the classroom.

The first-graders watched the calves step in and out of their individual plastic hutches, and learned that calves walk on wobbly legs within a few hours of birth.

"My job is to keep them safe," Copenhaver said, showing the large bottle used to feed the calves twice a day. From the bottle, the babies graduate to slurping milk out of a bucket.

And mother's first milk, which is packed with nutrients? That's called colostrum.

In addition to colostrum, the farm tour introduced new vocabulary to students, such as heifer, which means female calf.

"Students were thrilled to be able to participate in a virtual field trip to a dairy farm," Zientek said. "They loved how interactive and educational the tour was.

"There are lots of similarities between human babies and calves," Copenhaver said during the tour.

Holstein cattle are the most prominent of the seven major dairy breeds in the United States, according to holsteinusa.com. On average, a dairy cow has three babies during her lifespan of 6 years, Copenhaver told the students.

"For a cow to produce milk, she has to have a baby," the farmer said.

"Aww, they're so cute," a first-grader in Zientek's classroom murmured.

Then the tour progressed to the parallel milking parlor, where the cows are milked three times a day, giving about 10 gallons of milk per day. In addition to an identifying ear tag, each cow wears a leg band, which is like a Fit Bit and records how much milk she produces and even how much she's eating and how she's feeling.

All of Talview's milk stays in the liquid form, Copenhaver said, adding that shoppers can look for a "42" on the milk jug to be sure the milk comes from a Pennsylvania producer.

"How fast can cows run?" a student asked, which stumped Copenhaver for a moment, but then she guessed 5 to 7 MPH.

As the lights came up in Zientek's classroom, the first-graders were bright-eyed and still full of questions.

"The class has continued to talk about the virtual field trip experience and, of course, the adorable baby cows at the farm," Zientek said.

In an interview on Friday, Copenhaver said, "Being able to experience a farm tour gives them the opportunity to see where their food begins — that it doesn't magically appear on the shelf at the grocery store."

She noted that virtual tours arranged by American Dairy Association have been going on since 2018. Virtual field trips make sense for many practical reasons, sidestepping the cost, time and liability of student travel. The reach of the May 11 tour is staggering.

"As of Monday morning (May 11), we had more than 1,200 classes pre-registered to attend the Talview Dairy's Virtual Farm Tour," said Greg Szklany of American Dairy Association North East. "For the live, interactive tour on Tuesday there were about 11,700 viewers — with about 10,200 of them being students from 478 classrooms."

Students from 49 states and five different countries were represented, he said.

"Farm tours bring two of my passions together — learning and agriculture," Copenhaver said.

Ag education should be mandatory, not elective, said the former fourth- and sixth-grade teacher.

"That's because when we think of our daily needs — clothes, food and medicine — those are all things we rely on, and all of those things require agriculture," the farmer said, noting how you don't have to be a farmer to be involved in agriculture, which is the top industry in Pennsylvania.

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