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Dairy consortium gives students real-world experience

"What are the cows telling you?"

When dairy professionals look at their cows, these are the essential questions they must ask themselves: What does the cow look like? Does the cow have adequate access to food and water? Is the cow in good physical condition? Does the cow have any injuries or appear to be sick? Is the cow behaving normally?

"In order to teach students dairying in today's world, the best way to do it is out on the dairies where things are done in the real world," said Robert Hagevoort, Extension dairy specialist in Clovis for New Mexico State University.

To help prepare the next generation of dairy producers, NMSU has collaborated with Texas A&M and the University of Arizona to draw students from 11 institutions to create the Southern Great Plains Dairy Consortium to provide leadership, support and resources for the development and facilitation of education and research in large herd dairy management.

On the teaching side of the consortium--the Advanced Dairy Herd Management program--students across the country are given an opportunity to expand their dairy industry experience through hands-on training on dairies in the Clovis area. There, experts from participating universities share their knowledge on topics that include dairy management, nutrition, reproduction and animal health, environmental impact and animal welfare issues.

The program is broken down into two six-week sessions and an internship. Hagevoort said for the first two years of the program, they offered just one six-week session starting in May for interested students. As participants expressed greater interest in expanding their dairy knowledge, the more advanced second session was added, as well as the internship.

Students who apply to take part in the teaching program are college sophomores, juniors and seniors intending to supplement their dairy science, animal science or agricultural business degrees. They can earn up to nine hours of credit at their home university by participating in both sessions of the consortium and the internship.

The consortium is coordinated by Michael Tomaszeski, with Texas A&M; Robert J. Collier, with the University of Arizona; and Hagevoort. A typical day during the dairy program sees students gathered in a classroom at Clovis Community College learning various aspects of dairy management. In the afternoon, the students armor themselves with hats, sunglasses and rubber boots and head out to one of the local dairies to put to test what they learned in the classroom. They learn about feed rations, observe cows and look through dairy statistics and records--CSI for dairy, as in Cow Side Investigation.

"It helps the students identify what they are seeing," Hagevoort said. "One of the most important things we are trying to achieve with this class is for the students to connect the knowledge they have (in their heads) with their eyes, their ears and their nose so that they start registering what they are seeing. It is amazing how quickly that starts to connect."

"Without producer participation, the consortium would not happen," Hagevoort added. "If we couldn't go out on dairies, and if they did not allow us to come on their dairies and share information with us, we wouldn't be able to make this program work. It stands and falls by the participation of the producers."

The idea for the dairy consortium was actually born from the producers, who have seen funding and resources for dairy programs diminish in the country over the last several years.

Hagevoort said New Mexico now only has about 160 dairies. Even though the number of dairies and the total number of cows has gone down in the country, the number of cows per dairy and production per cow is up, meaning fewer cows are expected to produce the same amount of milk to feed a growing world population.

Like some other universities in the country, NMSU had to dismantle its dairy and dairy program as budgets got tighter.

With fewer students learning about the dairy industry, the dairy industry itself faces the prospect of dwindling interest and resources, as well as fewer students graduating with the knowledge and skills to take on dairy management.

The dairy consortium was created as a way to keep dairy management alive, in light of institutions and other organizations that do not have the funding, faculty and staff to maintain their own program. Funding for this program is entirely provided through contributions from allied industry, producer trade organizations, dairy promotional organizations, cooperatives and dairymen themselves. Institutions cooperating in the institution besides NMSU include Abilene Christian University, the University of Arizona, Colorado State University, Oklahoma State University, Tarleton University, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, the University of Florida, West Texas A&M University and Washington State University.

"We are extremely appreciative of the allied industry supporting this in the form of scholarships. Even more so, we are excited about the dairy industry supporting it and allowing us to go on these dairies and visit them," Hagevoort said.

Besides providing training and support for students, the program is also a good way to connect the soon-to-be graduates with professionals in the dairy industry who have jobs to fill and who can also give insights into what they look for when hiring. By the time these students graduate from a university, they are ready to enter a career in the dairy industry.

Participation in the Advanced Large Herd Management program has steadily grown in the last three years. Hagevoort said they try to keep the classes fairly small to provide quality individual education for the participants. He said he is hopeful though that as the program continues to grow, they will be able to identify more funding to allow more students and educators to participate. As it stands, NMSU is in the process of developing a dairy minor to help students achieve their goal of a future in dairy management.

"This program has really grown over time," Hagevoort said. "We can draw students from universities where a dairy program is not available or the classes are not filling and still train our next generation of dairymen, our next generation of allied industry people, the people who have an interest in going into the dairy industry. We recently discovered that of the 18 students who participated in the inaugural program in 2008, 17 of them are still involved or employed in the dairy industry in some form or fashion. It is obvious that we are filling that void and the word is getting out and students are really looking at this consortium."

For more information on the dairy consortium, call the NMSU Agricultural Science Center at Clovis at 575-985-2292, or visit http://thedairyconsortium.org and click on the "Teaching" link.




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