The day begins at 6 a.m. for a group of University of Minnesota veterinary students, but there’s no commute to school.

Their campus for two weeks is a 4,500-cow dairy, and within minutes of dressing and snacking, they’re walking down a corridor to a full day of hands-on practical experience: giving cows physical exams, screening them for health problems, doing surgery, injecting antibiotics to treat infections and caring for the sickest of the sick in what amounts to an intensive care unit.

“We’ve got a teaching and, to a limited degree, a research center built right into the middle of somebody else’s business,” said John Fetrow, professor of dairy veterinary medicine at the U and the students’ teacher for this two-week clinical rotation.

Having the access is all the more important for seniors who’ll be entering the workforce next year, he said. Many of them will fill a growing need in rural communities with retiring veterinarians.

Fetrow said the University’s Dairy Education Center is the only one of its kind in the nation, and perhaps anywhere. It offers a variety of two-week and four-week classes for fourth-year vet students, who find their way to New Sweden Dairy in Nicollet County in southern Minnesota.

The center, with dorm rooms, a common kitchen, a lab and wi-fi-equipped classrooms, was designed into the plan for the dairy when it was built in 2008 in a public-private partnership with Davis Family Dairies.

“For us, having a connection with the university, being able to get exposed to the best talent, the best thinking, the most innovative ideas, new technology, products and practices, always helps a business,” said Mitch Davis, managing partner of the family’s dairy system. For its part, the university benefits from being in a real-world business, he said, and seeing what concerns arise and what it takes to make a business successful.

“It’s very synergistic,” Davis said.

The students all have undergraduate degrees and have completed three of four years of veterinary school. Their final year of vet school consists of practical training in various rotations at animal hospitals, clinics and alongside practicing veterinarians. The elective classes depend on whether students are interested more in small animal practice with pets, or large animals such as cows, sheep and horses, or a mix of both.

Elizabeth Spronk, one of six students in the current rotation — all of them women — said she wants to return to northern Iowa where she grew up and begin working in a clinic next year. A number of the vets in the area will soon be retiring, she said, and “there’s not really anybody coming in to replace them.”

Spronk also attended a two-week session on dairy reproduction and calving in the past, and said the center makes great use of her time.

“When we stay here we can actually spend a good amount of time not worrying about driving back and forth,” she said. “And there are so many cows that we get to see a lot more things than we would in a smaller operation.”

The center draws patients from the 10,000 adult milking cows at three Davis dairies in the vicinity, which are also cared for by three full-time veterinarians. The system at any given time also includes several thousand non-milking cows, including calves, heifers and “dry cows” that are pregnant. All of the sick animals and those about to calve are transferred to New Sweden for extra care and treatment.

“For us, it’s a unique and remarkable environment because there are so many naturally occurring possibilities with this many cows,” Fetrow said.

Earlier this week, Fetrow was supervising as students did surgery on two cows. One had recently given birth, but in the process, one of its stomachs had been displaced, filled with gas and moved to the wrong side, blocking its intestines. The procedure involved cutting into the cow’s right side, reaching inside to find the displaced stomach and remove the gas, then pulling it back into the correct position and sewing it down before closing the incision.

Minutes later the students returned the two cows to their pen and started searching for another identified earlier with an eye infection so they could treat it with antibiotic ointment.

After a break for lunch, it was time to visit Pen 99, where cows with the most serious ailments had been taken.

The students gave each animal a physical exam, and determined that one had pneumonia, and two others had multiple problems, including severe lameness and mastitis, or inflammation of the udder caused by a mammary gland infection. Another was injured but was three weeks from calving and had been separated from the herd for closer watch so the calf could be saved, even if the mother needed to be euthanized.

Jill Dowdle, another student, said the training is essential if she expects to be a practicing vet by next year.

“You get very little experience where you actually get to be the doctor, and this is one of the few places where we get to do that,” she said.

Davis said he has hired one graduate from the university’s vet school since the program started, but improving dairy training — not finding employees — has always been the goal. “Wherever they end up, they’re going to have had that practical experience as they’re completing their education, and I think that’s got to be an advantage to the industry.” he said.

For vet student Sadie Sandstrom, learning about how to educate farmers and the public also is important as she learns about animal care and treatment.

“Things can be changed for the better to improve husbandry and the welfare of the animals if we have veterinarians working more closely with farmers,” she said. “It’s better for the cows, it’s better for production and it’s better for the public who is consuming the products.”