Next generation of UW-Madison dairy nutritionists get real-life experience

Kaine Korzekwa
Now Media Group

Cows in a transition barn need adequate space to lie around and relax as they prepare to have a calf and start producing milk. When in the milking pens, it's stall comfort, quality feed and lots of day lighting that make all the difference. For the calves, they require a well-ventilated, warm, dry area to spend their formative weeks.

Small changes to these areas on a dairy farm can have huge impacts on milk production and cow health. They are issues 13 students in the Department of Dairy Science's recent Purina Dairy Nutrition Experience course, held Jan. 4-9, learned to consider when analyzing a dairy farm. They also learned important networking skills and the ins and outs of a dairy nutrition career as the course took them from their farm audit to the Leading Dairy Producer Conference in the Wisconsin Dells and on trip to St. Louis, MO, to tour the Purina Animal Nutrition Center.

'The idea for this course came about as we brainstormed ways to stimulate student interest in dairy nutrition careers where there is a real demand for graduates. What better way to accomplish this than putting them elbow-to-elbow with people who are professionals in the field,' said Ted Halbach, who coordinated the course in the Department of Dairy Science. 'While internships are great, a company only sees one or two students at a time that way. We wanted to devise a way for a larger pool of students to experience what a career in dairy nutrition could be like.'

Feedback from the students showed that the course was a huge success, inspiring students to consider pursuing careers in dairy nutrition, which they hadn't thought much about before. Sophomore Micheala Slind said the course awakened a passion for calf and heifer nutrition on a dairy farm.

'I didn't really know what to expect going in, but after the course was over I was so glad I experienced what I did,' she said. 'It was really a one-on-one experience with the Purina staff that was so valuable. They also taught us the value of networking and troubleshooting on a farm. It really made me realize that I want to work with farmers on how important calves and their nutrition are for their farms.'

Dairy science chair Kent Weigel said courses like this are essential for students and are part of the department's goal to prepare students for success in animal nutrition.

'This experience will help them be successful regardless of their specific interests or future employers,' he said. 'And by successful, I don't just mean financially. As graduates of the world's top dairy science program, we expect them to become leaders in the dairy industry.'

The six-day course started with a farm audit at United Dreams Dairy near Baraboo. There, students surveyed different aspects of the farm, such as the transition and lactation barns, the calf feed center, the milk center and the feed center.

During the audit the students were looking for ways the owners could increase their efficiency and production, raising profits. Among other solutions, they found ways to improve pen ventilation, stall comfort, and older cows' pregnancy rates, allowing for small, quick changes to result in fast payoffs.

The group then presented their recommendations to the farm owners, Tim Evert and Rick Lehman. Both said it was helpful for the farm to have a fresh pairs of eyes look at their protocols and also helpful for the students to be guided in the project by staff from Purina, an operating division of Land O'Lakes.

'We found the presentations really valuable,' Evert said. 'The students had some really thoughtful ideas when it came to our reproductive protocol and cow comfort. Having our farm be part of the class was our little way of giving back to the industry and university and being proactive on our part to help train possible future dairy nutritionists.'

After the farm audit, the students traveled to the Leading Dairy Producer Conference. There they went to sessions that delved even deeper into dairy nutrition, covering everything from forage quality to breeding techniques and how they fit into the overall health and management of a dairy farm.

The students also learned the importance of networking from the Purina staff, who mentored them at the conference and throughout the course. The students say the staff were a great asset and were always available for questions and career advice, even after the course was over.

'I gained great networking skills by working with Purina's staff, as well as meeting other producers and industry members at the conference,' said sophomore Megan Lauber, who added the course also inspired her to ponder a career in the field. 'This experience has given me a different perspective on cattle nutrition and showed me that there are many different aspects of nutrition.'

Next, the students were off to St. Louis for a tour of the Purina Animal Nutrition Center and even more mentoring from Purina's staff. Countless Purina leaders took time to give presentations to the students or show them around the facilities, such as the Large Animal Metabolism Unit, Heifer Innovation Center and Feed Milling Research Center. They covered topics surrounding all areas of nutrition, investigating the nutrition research process, collecting data on dairy farms, sustainability in agriculture, and how the study of engineering, chemistry and physics all impact dairy nutrition.

Kent Phalen, area sales manager, and Brian Gutenberger, a dairy sales specialist, played a large role in the development and execution of the course. They explain that Purina's investment in the dairy science students is an investment in the future of the field of dairy nutrition.

'The experience was very rewarding for us,' Gutenberger said. 'We were very impressed with what they produced for the United Dreams audit presentation and also all they learned throughout the course. We could tell UW had prepared them well for this course. They were very skilled in problem solving, looking at data, and asking good questions.'

Planning for next year's course has already begun. The organizers will incorporate course feedback and their own observations to make it even more beneficial for the students involved.

Phalen remembers how the partnership between Purina and the Department of Dairy Science began. He, Brian Gutenberger and Bob Prange met with department leaders to discuss how Purina can add value to the university and how the university can add value to Purina. The team created innovations such as the experience course and a Purina Ph.D. Fellowship Program.

'Both Purina and the university are focused on the success of the dairy industry,' Phalen believes. 'We really both share a common vision and the students represent the conduit between our work, the university, and the future of the dairy industry. We share that responsibility in helping them succeed.'