Practicality and passion

Marina Minic, UW-Madison junior enjoying a locally-grown apple from Madison's Late Winter Market. (Molly DeVore/University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Walking along UW-Madison’s lakeshore path, one can sometimes catch a whiff of livestock manure. For some UW students, this will be the extent of their knowledge of UW’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. However, those stock pavilions are helping train students for one of Wisconsin’s largest industries — one that is in crisis

The agriculture industry contributes $88.3 billion to the state’s economy annually, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Wisconsin has made a name for itself as America’s Dairyland. These days that reputation is suffering as milk prices plummet and dairies close. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, there were 8,110 Wisconsin dairy herds in January 2019, down from 10,541 in January 2014.

CALS is working to address this issue by preparing students for the changing industry.

For example, CALS’ Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers has helped new dairy farmers stay afloat by teaching them how to create business plans and keep their costs low.

WSBDF graduate, Andy Jaworski said that the school helped him create his first business plan, which he uses to run his dairy farm. Jaworski said the goal-setting WSBDF requires is important because it adds practicality to the passion for farming many students have.

“A lot of people have this idea of how they’re going to run this farm—it’s going to be all wonderful and kind of all rainbows,” Jaworski said, “but to actually sit down and come up with a business plan… that’s a whole different side.”

Richard Cates, a farmer and former director of WSBDF, said that the school teaches students goal-setting to help them navigate the business side of farming. The school also trains students for the real world by teaching them how to get bank loans and by critiquing their business plans, according to Jaworski.

Current WSBDF director Nadia Alber, said that the school gives students much needed support through connections with mentors and internships. Alber said that these connections are important to “be able to survive” in the agriculture industry. These agricultural networking opportunities are also available through UW’s Collegiate Farm Bureau.

Jessica Wendt, a UW senior majoring in agriculture business management who serves as the Collegiate Farm Bureau president, said that group members attend conferences and tours to learn about the agriculture industry.

These conferences open “different opportunities from seeing different parts of the industry, talking to different people, really starting conversations to find where people are most passionate,” Wendt said.

These mentorships are important because, according to Alber, WSBDF “can’t teach everything in the classroom.” Teaching students about all aspects of agriculture also gives them a wide array of skills and experiences, which, according to Wendt, gives them the tools needed to adjust to a changing industry.

One way UW has helped students adjust is through the teaching of management-intensive rotational grazing. WSBDF was the first school in the country to teach managed grazing, according to the WSBDF website. Farmers utilizing managed grazing divide their open pastures into smaller paddocks; livestock are then moved from paddock-to-paddock. Managed grazing ensures the cattle graze each paddock when the grass is most nutritious and gives the grass time to regrow. Managed grazing cuts farmers’ costs by reducing the need for expensive grain-based feeds.

Cates said that managed grazing makes sense for new farmers because of its low start-up costs and because it gives them a niche in the commodity market.

Cates’ own grass-fed cattle business catered to a market looking for naturally raised beef, and he later taught his students to take advantage of such markets. Jaworski, the WSBDF graduate, said that being grass-fed and certified organic helped him find a good market via the Organic Valley dairy cooperative.

“As I learned about value-added products in the class and that being a strong suit for your business, it was a no-brainer for me to pursue that,” Jaworski said.

Alber said that looking into niche products and markets is an important part of goal-setting because it helps students think through their business plans before they “get in over their head.”

WSBDF and the Collegiate Farm Bureau also work to spread awareness about agriculture and encourage students to enter the industry. While the dairy industry may not be very lucrative currently, according to Jaworski, it is a cyclical business and there are ways for farmers to “stay afloat.” Wendt added that there will always be demand for food and those who produce it. 

Alber said that WSBDF knows how to prepare students to enter the changing industry.

“They’ve come to the right place… but you have to be innovative in a time like this and there is opportunity in crisis,” Alber said, “as long as they have a plan."

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