Anuj Modi was nervous when he arrived for the first day of his summer internship at the Marshfield Agricultural Research Station. The 20-year-old UW-Madison freshman could have been back home with friends and family in Bikaner, India. Instead, he was on the other side of the world, tasked with helping care for a large herd of dairy cattle. It was the first job he had ever had.
He’d never milked a single cow.
“Before my internship, a cow was just like any other animal – like a horse or a camel,” he recalls. “I didn’t know anything about cows or dairy farming.”
But that doesn’t mean Anuj didn’t know a thing or two about the dairy industry. His grandfather got the family into the business more than forty years ago. His father helped carry on the legacy and Anuj is now hoping to take the Modi family dairy business into its third generation. Today, Lotus Dairy has three processing plants in Rajastahn, India’s largest state. They process one million liters of milk a day, selling it to clients like Nestle and Mother Dairy, a subsidiary of India’s National Dairy Development Board.
Considering this, the fact that it took a move to Wisconsin to acquaint Anuj with a cow may sound strange. But there are very few modern dairy farms in India. The cow enjoys sacred status in the Hindu faith and legal protection in many Indian states, which means managing a large herd and culling cows that are sick or not producing is often out of the question.
In addition to political and religious considerations, having a small herd is simply a way of life for many. “People in rural areas keep four or five cows in their backyard and they sell the milk to people like Lotus,” Modi says. “We collect milk mainly from villages. We have chilling centers in eighty locations across our state, and the number of people bringing us milk is high, close to thirty-five or forty thousand.”
This arrangement is so common in India, that it makes it the world’s leading producer of milk. And it’s not even close. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, “Dairy: World Markets and Trade,” released this July, India has 48 million dairy cows, up from 38 million only five years ago. Brazil, the next closest country, has half as many. There are only 9.2 million in the U.S.
Combine that level of supply with a modernizing industry that is making milk production and processing more efficient, and you have the beginning of a boom. International developments like these, says Kent Weigel, chair of the Department of Dairy Sciences at UW-Madison, are being felt here on campus.
“As the dairy farms and milk processing plants in countries like India, China, and Pakistan expand and modernize,” he says, “they import supplies, equipment, and expertise from North America. And they build relationships, which lead to sending the next generation to study abroad.”
Weigel says the resulting influx of international students is beneficial to the department. They provide existing students with a new and global perspective regarding dairy farming and life, in general, in other countries. And, he says, “They extend Dairy Science’s reach and impact well beyond the borders of Wisconsin – influencing dairy production systems on other continents and building a global alumni base.”
Weigel expects to see more students like Modi on campus in the future and notes there are already several with similar backgrounds currently enrolled in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences who will “contribute greatly to their family businesses by studying dairy science, food science, agribusiness management, or related fields at UW-Madison.”
Modi is the first person in his family to study abroad and says he can’t imagine a better place than Wisconsin to get the education and experience he will need to expand the business his grandfather started. It’s the next best thing, he says, to growing up on a dairy farm. Besides the top-ranked education, opportunities like last summer’s internship are invaluable.
Nancy Esser, superintendent of the UW’s Marshfield Agricultural Research Station agrees. When he arrived for day one of his summer internship, she recalls, “Anuj simply had no knowledge or basic skills with animal handling.” While the nuances of moving and caring for cattle are “not quickly learned,” Esser says, Modi is “very driven to learn new things, not afraid to get dirty, and thirsts for a challenge.” The result was an internship that gave Modi the experience and skills to confidently pursue his place in the family business.
In addition to the basics of managing a herd, Modi was able to visit nearby farms and dairy operations, help out with research projects in the station’s lab, and even learn to drive skid loaders and tractors.
All of this in his first semester away from home.
Modi credits Dairy Science faculty and staff for making his first year in Wisconsin so successful. That, he says, and a healthy dose of “luck.”
“I applied to a lot of U.S. dairy programs,” he recalls. “At that time I didn’t know that Wisconsin was ‘the cheese state.’ I just wanted to do it, I don’t know why. Then I got admitted to the UW and looked it up on the Internet and saw their rankings and prestige.”
That luck, and a lot of hard work, will help Modi find his place in the future of the global dairy industry, even if no one’s quite sure what that future will look like.
“Right now the dairy industry in India is pretty unorganized,” he says. “But, more and more, people are getting interested in it and, maybe in 20 years, India’s dairy industry will be booming.”
If it is, Modi’s time in Wisconsin will have prepared him perfectly to take advantage.
If it is, he will probably have played a role in helping it get there.
By Adam Hinterthuer