UW-Madison dairy science hires former Calumet Co. agent Eric Ronk to teach its short course classes
Eric Ronk smiles as he watches a group of 18- and 19-year-olds peer at a tiny ultrasound monitor, trying to make out hazy images from the ovaries of the cow they’re standing next to. They’re intrigued, but when asked to explain what they are seeing, their answers are a bit tentative. They’ve only been at the UW-Madison’s Farm and Industry Short Course for a few weeks, and there’s a lot to get their heads around.
Ronk can relate. He too is a newcomer, and he has even more to sort out, because he’s in charge.
“It’s crazy and busy, but also a lot of fun, and rewarding to see how quickly they learn,” says Ronk, who was hired in mid-October to teach the UW dairy science department’s four short course classes. When short course isn’t in session, he’ll handle a variety of assignments with the university’s 700-cow dairy operation.
Hiring a full-time short course instructor marks a big change for the dairy science department, says department chair Kent Weigel. Those classes had primarily been taught by faculty—Milo Wiltbank instructed reproduction, Dave Combs handled nutrition and Weigel covered genetics.
“That model was worn out, “Weigel says. “It was 130 years old and it had been worn out for a while.”
The problem was that with recent retirements and tighter budgets, faculty weren’t able to give short course the attention it deserved, he says. Between their research programs, teaching and advising students and doing outreach, the professors were stretched thin.
“We were fitting short course into our spare time and there was no spare time left. You can’t do a good job at spare time activities if you don’t have time to dedicate to them,” Weigel says.
In other words, the short courses classes needed some undivided attention. So the department looked for someone who understood the science of dairying and had the skills to teach it in a form that farmers could apply on their farms.
Ronk fit the bill. He was raised on a Brown Co. dairy farm, earned dairy science degrees (B.S. at UW-Madison and an M.S. at Virginia Tech), and had served three years as UW-Extension agricultural agent in dairy-intensive Calumet County.
“What I’m doing here is a lot like extension work,” Ronk says. “I take information from UW scientists to a farm clientele I meet them in the middle.
“I can’t replace world-renowned researchers like Milo Wiltbank and Dave Combs,” he adds. “My job is to take it from their level and break it down into what the students can bring back to the farm.”
Having one person teach all the dairy classes offers the students more continuity, Ronk points out. “Because I’ll have them in more than one class, I’ll have time to get to know them. In Extension you learn that you need to understand your audience so you can gauge where they’re starting from and build off that.”
Creating a job that paired short course teaching with outreach and research at the UW dairy was partly a logistical move—to create an attractive year-round position—but the two assignments complement each other. Working at dairy facilities at the Arlington and Marshfield Agricultural Research Stations and on campus will help him tailor his teaching to the needs of working farms.
“Being involved in the day-to-day activities of a large dairy operation—living and breathing it—will be huge in helping me teach,” he says. That includes the time he spends giving tours and helping with staff training. “These students need to understand that you’re not just dealing with cows, you’re also dealing with people. ”
And because he’ll be involved in faculty research, he’ll be better able to convey the science that underlies emerging dairy technologies.
“These students will need to understand the science behind what they’re doing on the farm. A lot of people know the protocols but not why we do things that way. But protocols change? There will always be new technologies and new products. The students need the science to decide what to use on their farms. They’ve got to be using those critical thinking skills.”