October 31, 2010
Often, the best way to learn how to do something is to do it. More than 70 Michigan State University students pursuing careers in the dairy industry will take this approach to acquiring hands-on experience during the 12th annual MSU Dairy Challenge.
The MSU Dairy Challenge is an annual contest open to all university students. The contest is separated into two portions, each held on a separate day, and students work together in teams of four to complete each section.
For the first part, contestants go on site to the dairy farm hosting the contest, armed with farm and herd management records. There, they meet with the dairy owners and their employee team who provide a thorough overview of operation practices. From there, the teams evaluate the operation's management practices ranging from feed and nutrition to animal health and from reproduction and genetics to milk production levels and quality. Based on these observations, the teams develop an oral presentation and series of recommendations the operation should consider implementing to improve profitability and productivity. The following week, during the second half of the contest, the teams present their findings and recommendations orally to the farm owners and a panel of judges made up of veterinarians, industry representatives and MSU faculty members. Final contest rankings are determined based on the teams' oral presentations and answers to the judges' questions.
"Dairy Challenge is a way for students to practice the skills they're learning in the classroom, by applying them to a real-life setting," says Miriam Weber-Nielsen, MSU associate professor of animal science and one of several faculty members who plan the contest.
The contest began as a partnership between MSU faculty and Cargill Animal Nutrition. Though students learned about different aspects of farm evaluations and best farming practices in their classes, having opportunities to conduct evaluations on working farms were less frequent. When Matt Budine of Cargill Animal Nutrition approached faculty with the idea of sponsoring an event that would help build a relationship between his company and MSU while providing students with increased employment opportunities and the chance to put their skills to the test, they took him up on his offer.
Since then, the contest has evolved, Weber-Nielsen said. Students have access to many more materials and farm records prior to the event. Also, an instructional session is offered before the contest that walks participants through the steps they will need to complete. This is especially helpful for those students participating in the novice division.
"This year will only be the third year we've offered a novice competition," Weber-Nielsen explains. "While many in our advanced and agricultural technology divisions have extensive course background, our novice competitors may be in their first semester at MSU. The instructional session is a good way to introduce them to the process and improve the learning experience for them."
MSU agribusiness management senior Jolene Talaski, Harbor Beach, competed in the contest last year. The skills she learned through Dairy Challenge helped her in an internship with Land O'Lakes this past summer.
"I think Dairy Challenge helps students identify differences between farms and recognize that what might work for one farm might not work on another," she says. "In my sales internship, I had to work with producers to identify issues and offer solutions. The key, and what Dairy Challenge helped me get better at, is knowing that each operation is unique and helping farmers figure out how to be better in ways that work for them."
Students aren't the only ones learning and growing. Farmers across the state have been generous enough to allow more than 100 students, judges and committee members to visit their farms and receive feedback on improving their operations. Mike Hattis, former herdsman for Tubergen Dairy Farm, Ionia, and graduate of the MSU Institute of Agricultural Technology dairy management program, helped Dennis and Doris Tubergen host students in 2008.
"I think Dairy Challenge is good for the hosting farm because you have lots of students bringing a lot of ideas to the table. They might suggest things that could help your farm become more efficient or profitable," he says. "It's also an opportunity for the owners to show off, so to speak, what they've worked their entire life to create. I'd be proud to have that many people walking around my farm and seeing the technology I've implemented, more efficient practices I'm using and how well I'm taking care of my cows."
Paul Platte hosted the contest in 2009 at his farm in Fowler and actually got to sit in on the student presentations.
"All of the students had really good ideas," he says. "We were able to take bits and pieces from each of the presentations and make some changes around the farm. They were all good recommendations which helped our farm become better in the long run."
The farm visit and evaluation for this year's event will be held December 1 and student presentations will take place December 8.
For more information on the MSU Dairy Challenge, please contact Weber-Nielsen at [email protected].
Sponsors for the MSU Dairy Challenge include ABS Global, ADM Alliance Nutrition, Caledonia Farmers Elevator, Cargill Animal Nutrition, Dairy Farmers of America, Deckerville Veterinary Clinic, Diamond V, Falmouth Cooperative Company Inc., Kalmbach Feeds Inc., Land O'Lakes Purina Feed, Michigan Milk Producers Association, Nobis Agri Service, NorthStar Cooperative Antel Bio, Prince Agri Products Inc. and Vita Plus Corporation. Dr. Roger Mellenberger, Roger and Marjorie Mellenberger Dairy Associates Program Enhancement Fund and the Frederick Pierce Halbert Memorial Endowed Fund provide additional significant support.
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