Both students and dairies win with new Badger Dairy Challenge

Written by Adam Hinterthuer, freelance writer for CALS

Four women dressed in business attire stood at the head of a conference table, backlit by the glow of charts projected on a screen behind them. Fiddling with their notes, they waited for the verdict of the industry professionals that had just heard their presentation.

A week earlier, Cara Biely, Carrie Warmka, Cassie Endres and Laura Finley, all undergraduates in the UW-Madison Department of Dairy Science, had toured Statz Brothers Farms in Sun Prairie. For two hours, they’d observed the dairy in action, taking notes on everything from the milking schedules of the farm’s 3,000 cows, to several months of financial statements. During the tour, they’d identified a problem: The farm was overcrowded. The Statz Brothers’ cows were in excellent health, but the dairy was missing out on optimal milk production while it waited for new facilities to be completed to ease the crowding problem.

“Overcrowding has an affect on milk production,” Cara Biely had noted in her report to the judges. “Transition cows could go through the parlor three times a day with all of the other ones making it through twice.” If the dairy could find a way to up production by even a couple of pounds per cow, she said, “The money is going to add up quickly.”

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Now, Biely waited with the rest of her team to hear what the judges, consisting of a dairy farmer, veterinarian, nutritionist, and financial specialist thought of their recommendations.

It was part of the first-annual Badger Dairy Challenge, and it turned out to be an invaluable event not just for the students but, potentially, for Statz Brothers Farms.

A little over a decade ago, the North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge appeared on the dairy competition scene.  Where traditional dairy judging recognized talent in appraising and evaluating individual cows, Dairy Challenge was created to focus on the science and business of managing entire herds.  Teams tour a farm and then prepare a report assessing management categories such as reproduction, nutrition, milking, and farm financials.

The events have become extremely popular, says dairy management instructor, Ted Halbach.

“There are now thirty-two schools that compete at the national level of Dairy Challenge,” Halbach says. “It’s overtaken dairy cattle judging as far as the number of universities that compete in their national contest.” While UW students have done really well in them, he says, those participants have all come out of Dairy Science 535, a course that seniors don’t take until spring semester.

In an attempt to introduce students to the competition well before the final semester of their undergraduate careers, Halbach organized the Badger Dairy Challenge. “We’re trying to build a culture of enthusiasm for the event among our undergraduates,” he says.  “I think a lack of familiarity with the contest has made some students timid when it comes to competing at the regional and national levels.  We want them to gain confidence in their abilities by first experiencing the event format with their peers.”

If the inaugural Badger Dairy Challenge was any indication, Halbach is succeeding in this goal. While 12 upperclassmen divided into three teams for the “Legends” division, twice as many freshmen participated in the “Leaders” bracket. Megan Opperman, one of those freshmen, says the decision was easy.

“We heard about it in our animal sciences class and I thought it would be really fun to do with my friends,” she says. “I also thought it was a really good opportunity and something that employers are going to be looking for [on my resume].”

Opperman, a first-year student from Rockford, Illinois, hopes to work in the dairy industry in either genetics or nutrition. Her participation in dairy challenges will, indeed, help her get there, says Molly Sloan, global skills development specialist for Alta Genetics. Seven years ago, Sloan was a UW-Madison student competing in regional and national dairy challenges. Today, she attends the events in search of potential employees. “When I look to hire interns or full time employees, one of the first things I look for on a resume is Dairy Challenge experience and exposure. [It’s] the single-best event available to students to prepare them for realistic situations they will face in the dairy business,” she says.

Sloan served as a judge at the Badger Dairy Challenge and says she was impressed by how students took what they’d seen on their farm visits and used it to identify limitations for profitability and production.

Limitations are is exactly what Cara, Carrie, Cassie and Laura had done in their assessment of Statz Brothers Farms.

Adam Ward, who is a veterinarian in the practice that services the Statz herd, was a judge in the room during their presentation. He says the women identified an issue the dairy was already wrestling with, but he never expected to uncover a potential solution during what was supposed to be a training exercise for undergrads.

Yet, as the judges deliberated, an idea emerged to tweak the milking schedule and see if they could push peak milk up in one group of cows. Ward took the idea back to the farm and says, “They were keen to try it, so we decided to implement it. We won’t know if it did anything for a few months, but it’s kind of cool that this educational event led to a real-world change.” It’s especially when the change could potentially net Statz Brothers Farms thousands more in annual profits.

For Ward, it confirms how useful dairy challenges are in training students for a future in the industry. Where cow judging rewards a singular and specialized level of knowledge that’s often cultivated from a young age, dairy challenges open the doors for broader participation in all levels of management.

“Maybe someone knows nothing about cows,” he says, “but they are a finance person or business person and can provide some input into the financials of a farm. They may not know a bunker from a silo, but they’re still a valuable member of your team.”

The report from Cara Biely’s team netted `a second-place finish. But, more important than the ranking, it solidified their interest in their chosen field. If the dairy challenge is any indication of what a career in the industry is like, Biely says, sign her up. “If you like it, you like it,” she says. “It kind of gets in your blood and that’s the only thing you want to do.”

A high-resolution version of the above photo is available at: http://flic.kr/p/irTiT2