Adopt a Cow program helps kids across Wisconsin learn about dairy in new way

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Adopt a Cow helps elementary-age classrooms pair up with Wisconsin dairy farms to "adopt" a newborn calf for their classroom. This young student is meeting their adopted bovine Sharlamagne at the end of the 2020-21 school year.

Many of us probably had class pets like hamsters or rabbits growing up, but there's a new class pet up for adoption in Wisconsin classrooms: calves.

While the calf won't actually join the classroom in person, the Adopt a Cow program from the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin works to pair dairy farms with primarily elementary-age classrooms and allow the classrooms to "adopt" a calf on the farm. The students receive updates throughout the school year on their calf, which is born sometime in October or November, until the end of the year. At year's end, the farm will host a virtual tour with the classrooms to show them around.

Signups opened Aug. 1 and will close Sep. 15. The application is located on Adopt a Cow is completely free and is also open to after-school programs, libraries and agriculture education centers.

Karen Doster, who is director of school and youth programs at DFW, said the organization works with Discovery Dairy, a nationwide advocacy group, to put the program together. Other big dairy states like Pennsylvania have had success with this program in the past, and Doster said DFW wanted to bring it to Wisconsin in 2019.

Last year was the program's debut year, but plans had to quickly change to accommodate the pandemic's restrictions. Luckily, Adopt a Cow is friendly with virtual classrooms, including homeschooling, and the program was still a hit despite last-minute changes. Total participation in the 2020-21 school year blew away expectations.

"We had a goal before this whole pandemic started (to get) about 75 classrooms and 1,500 students. We thought that would be great for our first year," Doster said. "And because of what was going on ... we ended up with over 1,600 classrooms and 28,000 students. It was really very positive from that standpoint because it could be virtual or in person."

Dorito is a black and white Holstein calf from Synergy Farms in Pulaski, Wis.

Along with updates every other month that include pictures, videos and information on the calf's growth, teachers also give students related lessons in various subjects ranging from math to reading. Plus, students can send emails to the calves (and their farmers) with their thoughts and questions using a dedicated website.

Debbie Burmeister, a fourth-grade teacher at the Neenah Joint School District, said the program was such a great experience for her and her students last year that she signed up as soon as she could for this year. Her classroom adopted Sharlamagne from Synergy Dairy in Pulaski. Creamery Creek Holsteins and Roden Echo Valley Farms also adopted out calves.

"They just made some of their parents get on the Facebook page, they would ask me every day if we got something, what's the update," Burmeister said. "They wanted to take their picture with the cow. I just put the cow's picture up on the big screen so they could take a picture with it. They just were all over it. ... It was really wonderful." 

At the end of the year, the farm actually brought Sharlamagne, along with their other adopted calves Dorito and Seroogy, to University of Wisconsin Discovery Farms so they could meet the kids, parents and teachers in person after spending so much time cultivating virtual relationships. Burmeister said she's planning on taking students on a field trip there later this year to learn more about dairy.

Heather Jauquet feeds Sharlamagne, the brown and white Holstein calf.

Heather Jauquet, who co-owns Synergy Dairy with her husband, said she was "blown away" by the attachment the kids had developed to the three calves despite only seeing them in pictures and videos. She said about 150 people attended the in-person event.

"Honestly, we are completely blown away with the attachment that some of the parents, teachers and kids had developed for these calves. It was quite eye-opening for us," Jauquet said. "There were several kids that came in and took one look at the calf and said, 'Dorito, I love you.' It was reaffirming for us that the program was really working."

Synergy Dairy will be participating again this year, Jauquet said, with new calves due to be born this fall. She said the program is important and meaningful to her because of the way it engages youth to learn about agriculture, especially about the milk they drink every day at lunchtime. Plus, the program doesn't pile on extra work for the farmers – all it takes is some extra attention given and pictures taken of the adopted calves.

Doster said the purpose of the Adopt a Cow program is to establish trust in dairy farms, which has seemed to work so far. She said she enjoys reading all the letters students send in asking questions about the calves and how to take care of them. Plus, teachers and parents sometimes interact with the DFW Facebook page on their students' behalf asking questions. It's a program that goes beyond just the classroom, she said.

"This has been one of my most exciting programs I've worked on because (I like) to see the letters and the comments from the students," Doster said. "'Can you tell Peanut hi for us?' 'Do the cows get cold in the winter?' 'Is it hard to farm?' 'What time does the farmer get up?'  That gives me a lot of joy just because this is also achieving our goal of trying to build that trust in a new and different way."

Seroogy is a Jersey calf and was adopted by more than 500 kids last year.

Burmeister, whose social studies classes focus on Wisconsin history, said this is one of the only programs that effectively engages her students in learning more about the Dairy State. And with Neenah being a mostly suburban area, many kids there aren't too familiar with agriculture, making it a new and unique experience for almost everyone.

"I do have a little boy in my class this year who knows about farming because that's what his mother does, but that's one kid in the entire fourth grade," Burmeister said. "It really is eye-opening because the students only see themselves. The program helps them realize the milk they have at lunch every single day has a process and it doesn't just happen. That's important."

Jauquet said she thinks the program does a great job of making connections with people outside the dairy industry, especially since some dairy farmers can "get in their own little bubble."

"I think it's really easy as farmers to be in our own little bubble every day on the farm. I'm kind of a homebody, and I understand the importance and the need for us to reach out and to open our doors, share our lives and our lifestyle and our processes, but it's not always easy to do that," Jauquet said. "What I loved so much about this program is I felt like it was a really well orchestrated effort to to bridge that gap."