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The Youth Leadership Derby give high school students a weekend of learning and leadership opportunities for those interested in a career in ag. Wisconsin State Farmer

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When walking into Lakeshore Technical College next to Wisconsin Farm Discovery Center, a group of students stood around a lifesize model of a cow with the middle of the back lifted out to reveal the cow's reproductive organs. Instructor Craig Lallensack directed students to pull the cow's tail to the left and insert their left arm into the back of the cow. From there he guided them as they learned the anatomy of the bovine reproductive tract.

Students were hesitant, some giggled, but eventually all of the 51 students from 20 schools participating in the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) Youth Leadership Derby on April 6 - 7, took a turn.

Around the corner in a lab, David Verhoef guided students through the process of artificial insemination (AI) using a Bovine Breeder, where students learn how to insert an inseminating tube. In another corner of the lab, preserved reproductive tracts sat on trays, giving students the opportunity to learn more about the basics of AI with actual organs.

Two other labs provided hands-on experience about the mammary glands of cows where students constructed a model of a cow's udder quarter; as well as soil samples where youth focused on soil testing and determined its textural class by feel. 

Earlier that day, the group toured Wisconsin Farm Discovery Center and after the labs, bordered buses to visit LaClare Family Creamery in Fond du Lac County to learn about the "farm to table" operation of goat farm, shop, retail business and cafe. 

It was a weekend packed with learning about the dairy industry and building leadership skills for students ages 15 - 18 who are interested in possible careers in the industry. 

“The Youth Leadership Derby is the perfect way for high school students with a passion, or even just a curiosity, about the dairy industry, to learn more about agribusiness and farming careers and build important leadership skills,” said Shelly Mayer, Executive Director of PDPW and dairy farmer in Slinger.

Mayer said if there is going to be a next generation of dairy farmers, "it's our duty to recruit them and attract them, starting at the high school level," About half of the students attending the derby hail from a farm background while the others do not, Mayer added.

Hands-on career experience

Cindi Wautier, an ag education teacher from Coleman, brought six students to this year's derby, some who are undecided about their career choice, and some who want to become dairy or cattle farmers or veterinarians. 

"I brought them to this event because it is by far the best hands-on, career driven, leadership event in the state," Wautier explained. "The kids get to do teamwork things, public speaking and then they get stuff on dairy science and vet science."

It's the third or fourth visit to the derby for Wautier and her students. 

"I was impressed the first year, and then every year I try to bring more and more students because it is such a great experience," Wautier added. 

For Wautier, the hands-on labs provide an experience that is hard for her to duplicate in her school where she doesn't have much lab potential.

"Having the hands-on experience for the kids with artificial insemination, or the udders, or the uterus, and all the things they provide here is something I am challenged to do in my community," said Wautier. "It leaves an impact. They remember. They talk about it when they get home. They tell their friends. They have that experience or that skill starting to be developed so when they graduate they already have a feel for what is coming."

A couple of Wautier's past students have become dairy farmers and one who is graduating plans to pursue a degree in dairy science. 

Logan Liptak, 16, joined Wautier for his second year at the derby saying each year he learns a different facet of the ag industry. 

"I like that you get to learn a variety of things and it's a lot of hands-on — you can talk about stuff, but you might not (understand) it and then you can go do certain hands-on things and it's so much better," Liptak said. "You learn a lot more, you understand it a lot more. It just makes more sense - and it's just really fun to do."

Liptak lives on a dairy farm in northern Wisconsin where they milk about 100 cows and have about 250 head of cattle. His goal is to go to a technical college and "come back to own and operate the farm."

Living on a farm, Liptak knows "how to do stuff with the cows," but the biology of cows "is so new." He was very interested in learning the basics of AI.

"We do AI, but it's hired out, it's not ourselves," Liptak said. "That's something now that I'd really like to get into and learn more about."

Last year Liptak was the only male in his group. "This year, I'm definitely a lot more out in the open than last year and I'm talking to a bunch of different people and it's just really helped." 

Mayer said they encourage students to mingle and ask questions during the weekend. As the high school students are thinking about career opportunities or educational opportunities, they are learning about things they've never been told about by their guidance counselors or things their own parents might not know about.

PDPW Foundation backing

Providing an affordable opportunity for exposing students to agricultural careers is possible with the PDPW Foundation underwriting the Youth Leadership Derby, Mayer pointed out. 

Thinking about future generations in the dairy industry is "extremely important" at the Foundation, explained PDPW Executive Director Janet Keller. The foundation is supported not only by dairy producers, but also by industry partners across the state and the nation. While some of the student at the derby may not stay in agriculture, Keller says it’s really important for students to be consumers that understand where their food is produced and what goes into producing dairy products.

"A lot of these people don’t have an opportunity to return to the farm so in that case we are hoping that we can draw some in as career people," said Keller. "We are always needing more employees in agriculture and the dairy industry — everything from engineers to scientists to accountants are part of the dairy  industry."

Some of the PDPW leadership got their start at one of the derbies when they were younger, Keller pointed out. 

"That proves what our hope and our wishes are by supporting this type of activity, that they will grow not only in their knowledge of working with dairy cattle or managing a dairy herd of their own someday, but by becoming leaders in the community," Keller said. 

Training leaders

While agricultural leadership development at PDPW starts with the Youth Leadership Derby, there are opportunities for mentoring and internships as well as the Cornerstone Dairy Academy, an application-based leadership program for college-aged students or people at a crossroads in their dairy career. Additionally, PDPW educational programming provides lifelong learning starting with recruiting youth to professionals managing businesses.

"We realize we are growing leadership skills for rural America," Mayer said.

Interns at PDPW are given their own programs to manage. Sydney Brooks, the communications and public outreach intern, said the internship provided her with a full, well-rounded experience of managing programs from start to finish while working with a "well-versed" team.

"Being able to be part of these programs and learn alongside with the PDPW team has been eye-opening this past nine months," Brooks said. 

Last year Brooks volunteered at the derby. Seeing the derby as a volunteer and as an intern, Brooks was impressed with the different types of hands-on activities, the discovery, the engagement, the leadership roles and the confidence the students leave with after just two days. 

Talking to the students at the derby, Brooks said, "I want to try and engage these high school students to continue on in agriculture education, get them excited about dairy and that the agriculture industry needs them, needs their bright minds and needs their excitement."

Brooks said students are optimistic whether they want to continue their family farm legacy and adapt their farm to how the dairy industry is changing or are involved in FFA or 4-H and have their foot in the door in the ag industry. Brooks believes programs like the derby and the role models on the PDPW staff play "a big role in getting them excited and engaged in dairy." 

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Behind the scenes, fueling that excitement is Tracy Propst who helps coordinate programming. Each year Propst finds a host for the derby where the students can stay overnight in the high school, people to partner with—farmers and tech colleges, "who are open to educating our students about careers in agriculture or leadership or anything like that," Propst said. 

"Lakeshore Technical College was very open to the idea of hosting the students," said Propst. 

Propst arranges speakers like Kaitlyn Riley, Alice in Dairyland, who provided media training, coaching students on how to talk in front of an audience and showing them what it's like to be a public relations representative or a news reporter. 

"I get the fun of creating a program for a couple of days for high school students," Propst said. 

But even though it's fun, they push the students "in a lot of different ways."

"We take them out of their comfort zone. We encourage them to get up and speak in a microphone. We teach them how to shake their hand," Propst explained. "We really do see it’s our responsibility that we are training up the next generation of future leaders, and so we take every opportunity we can to push a little bit of that leadership through the weekend."

Carol Spaeth-Bauer at 262-875-9490 or carol.spaeth-bauer@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at cspaethbauer or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/carol.spaethbauer.

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