Two students walk through a freestall barn at Wargo Acres, owned by the Carncross family of Lodi, Wis. The students analyze dairy cattle housing, cow comfort and feed bunk management. They move on to inspect the milking procedure. Finally, they head to the office and evaluate computer records for milk production, herd health, and reproduction.
Though these UW-Madison dairy science students are not yet industry professionals, they are getting hands-on experience in their dairy science capstone seminar course to become future industry leaders.
This farm management course allows dairy science seniors to apply classroom theories to on-farm situations with the guidance of industry specialists and faculty experts.
“The class prepares students for any aspect of the industry through practical applications of nutrition, reproduction, genetics, housing, and economics in a real-world, problem-solving context,” said Dave Combs, professor of dairy cattle nutrition in the university”s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and co-instructor of the course.
The capstone seminar class was introduced into the dairy science curriculum 11 years ago. It has continually evolved to serve as a culmination for students in the dairy science program and prepare students to fulfill industry needs.
“Over time there has been an increased demand for on-farm consulting, so we directed the focus of our class to accomplish that need,” said Combs.
At the beginning of the semester, students are paired and randomly assigned a farm for their troubleshooting project. By the end of the course they are expected to make
suggestions to the dairy producers to improve the farms” efficiency and profitability.
“It”s a perspective from students guided by experts at our university,” Combs said. “The producers appreciate that our students can give them a decision-making tool. From an economic standpoint, it doesn”t cost them anything.”
Craig Carncross, a producer who volunteered his farm for the project last year, said that it was a situation that could only help him by getting some other viewpoints and ideas about his situation.
“We were looking at different directions for our farm to take and were pretty sure we needed to add cows,” Carncross said. “They recommended two different scenarios. One involved milking 125 cows in a parlor built in our old tie stall barn and building a new freestall barn. The other scenario meant milking 300 cows in a new freestall/parlor complex for more debt, but with more gross revenue too.”
In order to make these types of suggestions, the students learn more about their farms by working with the farm consultants to schedule visits outside of class. They use this time to explore the daily operating procedures, housing conditions, cow comfort, and computer records.
“Our semester project began when our producer put in a new flat barn parlor, so we mainly helped him make the parlor as efficient as we could. For our final presentation, we ran five scenarios for him for adding cows, employees, and actually gave him some numbers to show the cost-benefit analysis,” said Pete Rindal, a December 2005 dairy science graduate.
Each pair of students typically has a different management area of focus, but they are all able to see each other”s final presentations at the end of the semester.
“I was really able to learn a lot from my peers, and it was exciting to see all the different approaches they took to help their own specific producer,” Rindal said. “I really liked interacting with the producers and bringing university research to them and allowing them to bounce questions back to us.”
While it is the students” job to interpret farm data and present a proposal for improvement, a variety of faculty assist with teaching the course to help students learn critical industry benchmarks.
Milo Wiltbank, professor of reproductive physiology, is the other co-instructor of the course who helps with reproductive troubleshooting and assists with estrus synchronization recommendations.
Additionally, Jerry Guenther, manager of the campus dairy cattle center, assists with interpreting records from farm management software, such as Dairy Comp and Ag Source.
Other faculty and guest lecturers are brought in to discuss milk quality and dairy housing. Students are also encouraged to contact a variety of industry resources off campus to answer any of their additional questions.
“I got the most out of the class from contacting different people for information on stall sizes, building dimensions, and product prices that I normally wouldn”t have to do,” said Becky Adams, a May 2005 graduate who returned to her family”s 400-cow farm in Eleva, Wis. “The farm we were assigned needed renovations for their dry cows and special needs group, which took some additional research to provide our producer with a few options and financials to go along with them.”
In addition to what she learned in the capstone seminar course, Adams was able to apply her skills and knowledge to her own farm.
“I used what I learned in class to look our farm records to see why we didn”t have the milk production that we wanted. I used my research skills to see where our problems were and how we could improve,” Adams said.
While Adams chose to return to her family”s dairy, Combs said students who have taken the course have gone on to a variety of careers. They are now working as nutrition consultants, bank lenders, A.I. sales representatives, marketing and communications specialists, and farm managers. Others have gone on to graduate school, veterinary school, medical school, and even law school.
“I don”t plan to pursue a career in dairy production right now, but the capstone seminar course really helped with my communication and problem-solving skills,” said Rindal, who plans to attend law school this fall.
Combs and Wiltbank both said they really enjoy the variety of interests and talent that the students bring to the class.