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Students from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Minnesota replaced their rivalry with camaraderie during the 2015 Badger Dairy Challenge on Oct. 23-24. This was the third annual Badger Dairy Challenge, which brings together industry and university professionals to give students a practical and hands-on learning opportunity.

“My dairy science background really applied directly to the challenge and in particular my herd management classes helped a lot with trying to critique the farm,” says Henry Holdorf, a UW–Madison dairy science student whose team earned a gold ranking, the highest level. “I think that, overall, the Dairy Challenge has been the most valuable thing I’ve done in my two-and-a-half years at Madison, and I think it’s super important to give students this on-farm, real-world experience.”

The students worked in teams of four or five to observe and assess all aspects of two working dairies. They then presented recommendations for improvement to a panel of judges. The teams had to observe the dairy cattle, as well as review past records and ask the dairy manager about the dairy’s history. The Badger Dairy Challenge combined students’ skills from classes, labs, and internships into a real-world activity.

“The department definitely wants to help support activities like this because outside-the-classroom learning opportunities are just as important as their courses,” says dairy science department chair Kent Weigel. “In other words, adding another class to the curriculum is not the solution to every problem. We need a balance of book and lecture learning, laboratories, and outside experiences like Dairy Challenge to give a well-rounded education.”

(Left-right, clockwise) Herd owner, Dan Truttmann, answering questions from Team Guernsey members, Abigail Martin, Courtney McCourt and Anthony Schmitz during the farm portion of the Challenge. Banner photo: (Left-right, clockwise) Team Red and White members, Lee Kloeckner, Justin Siewart, Lizi Endres and Henry Holdorf, evaluate farm records to prepare their presentation.

UW–Madison students also say it was highly valuable for them to compete alongside the students from Minnesota. Holdorf noted it was valuable because students work with diverse groups after they graduate. Lizi Endres, another dairy science undergraduate, said learning to work with other students she had just met helped push her out of her comfort zone.

This year was the first time students from another university have participated in the event. The schools didn’t compete against each other but instead each team was a mix of students from UW–Madison and the University of Minnesota working together.

“Working with students from another university was beneficial not only to myself but to everyone involved,” says Minnesota student Lee Kloeckner. “Each university teaches different styles of evaluating a dairy and communicating our findings and not only was I able to learn some things from the students from UW, but hopefully they were able to learn some things from me and my fellow students as well. I would recommend this to other students at Minnesota.”

The judges and farm managers involved in the event thought it was very beneficial for the students and also themselves. Blue Star Dairy and Truttmann Dairy were the two dairies that volunteered their time for the challenge.

“Not only do the students learn from it, but we can learn from it as well,” says Art Meinholz, the owner and operator at Blue Star Dairy. “Having another 32 sets of eyes looking at the farm and finding ways that we can improve gives us an opportunity not many situations can provide.”

The Badger Dairy Challenge is an initiative of Ted Halbach, a dairy science faculty associate in dairy management. One of the things that makes the event such a great experience for students, he notes, is the opportunity to learn directly from herd owners and event officials. With that in mind, Halbach scheduled extra time at this year’s competition for first-time participants to interact with judges, creating a new mini-mentorship experience for the less experienced students.

“I feel a positive change this year—compared to the last time I participated—was the amount of time the judges spent interacting with the students,” says Adam Ward, a dairy veterinarian at Prairie Veterinary Associates, who served as a judge. “I also find it very rewarding to have the opportunity to teach the students while showcasing how I, and other veterinarians, work to strengthen the dairy industry.”