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The People Behind The Dairy Challenge

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It’s been nearly a decade since I first started working with the Dairy Challenge. Even though ten years have gone by, I still find myself getting swept up in the excitement that seems to overtake the students and participating producers.

What started out with seven schools and many hopes and dreams has grown to a 32-school program (with additional schools in Canada). The Dairy Challenge has proven year after year to be an integral tool to help students gain a real-world understanding of the operation and success of the modern dairy. Sometimes, there are things these students can’t learn in a classroom -- they have to see the whole picture for themselves.

What is the Dairy Challenge?

When people ask me exactly what the Dairy Challenge is, I describe it as one of the best hands-on educational programs, but it’s so much more. It’s a chance for some of the top dairy science school’s students to put to work all of the knowledge they’ve gained over the course of their education. It’s an opportunity to meet new people and open themselves up to new ideas and ways of doing things. It’s also a stepping stone to a successful career in the dairy industry.

Today’s dairymen face more challenges than they ever have before. The growing demand for high-quality dairy has many producers looking to increase yield while maximizing their dollar. This is where the Dairy Challenge allows the students to shine. Their knowledge of modern practices, including the use of herd management software, allows them to make fiscally and strategically wise recommendations when interfacing with dairymen.

I’m often asked if the program is well-received by dairymen and operations that participate. One particular example that stands out in my mind is a dairyman that volunteered to have his operation assessed by the students and judges. They advised he change his milking setup to increase efficiency. He took the recommendations under advisement and built a 62-stall carousel milking parlor. When I learned he’d made the changes proposed by the Dairy Challenge participants, he was delighted to share that he was seeing greater efficiency and very appreciative of the recommendation. This dairyman continued to participate in the regional and national contest as a judge and contest herd.

The Individuals Behind The Scenes

As the Sales and Customer Service rep for Amelicor, I’ve had the opportunity to work side-by-side with many of these students. Our software, DHI-Plus, is used for education and management purposes at Cal-Poly, Fresno State University and Utah State University to help students become familiar with using herd management software, on their own dairies or consulting with dairymen once they’ve graduated from the dairy science program.

Another of the exciting aspects is the incredible backing this program has. Major players in the dairy industry, such as Farm Credit, Cargill, Merck, and Select Sires, have stepped up to the plate for many years. There are well over 50 organizations providing sponsor funding for both the regional and national contest. Each time I learn of one of our dairy science students going to work for a Dairy Challenge sponsor, I can’t help but feel proud to be a part of a program that is not only providing hands-on experience but is also giving the participants a chance to work with some of the top agricultural companies in the country.

Many dairy science programs involved in the Dairy Challenge now offer a class dedicated to preparation for the Challenge. All of the participating schools take the students on field trips to different dairies and herds to learn how to evaluate them. So they get some practical experience that way too.

Of course, you have to commend the professors and other instructors that make the Dairy Challenge possible for these students. I was impressed to hear Kyle Thompson (professor at Fresno State) has a Dairy Challenge class for both the fall and spring semesters.

As a Dairy Challenge alumni, he is able to provide a unique perspective for his students. During a recent conversation, he shared his experience with the Dairy Challenge as both a student and a professor. “We have a team going this year. I did the Dairy Challenge in undergrad and I participated in the first Western Regional competition here in California under Dr. Robinson.” He went on to outline his approach as the coach of the team,” As a professor and coach I really try to emphasize to the students what Dr. Robinson tried to emphasize with us. Yes, you want to do well in the competition, but this will set you up for your entire career. This is a great learning opportunity and can basically summarize your entire dairy science program, from the start as a freshman, all the way through to the senior year, taking all that knowledge and applying it in a competition-type setting. It’s a really wonderful experience.”

I also want to mention Justin Jenson at Utah State University. He is one of those quiet leaders that I have a ton of respect for. I didn’t realize how much he has developed the Dairy Challenge from their Dairy Science Club. He’s been involved with the Dairy Challenge for around six or seven years. During that time he has developed a strong team and made the Dairy Challenge the central activity of their club.

In a recent interview with Justin, he had great things to say about the success of their students that participate in the Dairy Challenge. “Their ability and desire to be involved in extracurricular activities really shows. They all seem to be quite successful in whatever they pursue after that. So, graduate school, vet school, industry internships or just going to work in the industry.

“You know, we have nearly one-hundred percent placement rate on these Dairy Challenge students. It’s not necessarily direct cause and effect, but those type of students that put themselves out there with the participation in Dairy Challenge -- that’s a feather in their cap. They’re very successful at going places and doing things. That’s the four areas that our students go -- they either go to vet school, or they go to graduate school and work on a master’s degree or PhD, they go to work for industry. If they’re looking to go to work for industry, almost all of them who are looking to do that have got an internship or a job because of the contacts they made at Dairy Challenge.”

It’s obvious to me that all of us involved are doing so because we really believe in this program and the students that are participating.

Why I Stay Involved

So far as what keeps me going and excited about this program, it’s what the dairymen as well as the students get from the program. I have never run across a dairyman that says he has regretted participating. And that goes for the students, too. And when I have a dairyman that asks me how they can participate again, that is the icing on the cake. That’s what keeps me going and excited about the program.

The dairymen see this as a very valuable hands-on learning tool for themselves and so do the students. The dairies use these suggestions, from the students and judges panels, to make future changes on their operations. We want this to be a positive experience for everyone.

This post is part 2 of a 3 part series on the Dairy Challenge. The 14th Annual Western Dairy Challenge was held in Ogden, Utah, Feb. 21-23, with 52 students from seven universities that made up 12 teams.