July 8, 2023 at 8:00 a.m.
A career of educating dairy youth
MADISON, Wis. – Looking back on his 25-year career with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ted Halbach sees a great deal of memories and experiences, all of which he said are a privilege to have been a part of.
“I have enjoyed, without a doubt, all of the roles I have held during my time at UW,” Halbach said. “I cannot speak more positively about my experiences.”
Halbach first came to UW-Madison in 1998, taking on a role that was comprised of outreach as the Extension’s dairy youth specialist and instruction. Halbach took over teaching and dairy-judging coaching duties formerly held by Dr. David P. Dickson.
Later during his tenure, Halbach spent time as the director of the Farm and Industry Short Course program before returning to the dairy science department as a faculty instructor, teaching dairy management courses with a partial Extension appointment.
Halbach will officially retire from his role Sept. 1.
“I have been in the classroom from day one; that is a role I have always enjoyed,” Halbach said. “I had the opportunity to interact with so many talented students and to watch them learn and grow as individuals, in addition to continuing to learn along the way myself.”
Taking on those roles was a career change for Halbach, who had previously operated a 500-cow commercial dairy in Arizona with his father. After his father passed away, Halbach sold the cows rather than committing to the large-scale expansion he knew would be required to continue the dairy. After that decision, Halbach said he was open to a new opportunity.
That opportunity came in the form of a letter from UW-Madison’s Department of Dairy Science, offering him the chance to apply for the position he ultimately filled.
“My wife Sandy is originally from Beloit, … and we wanted (our kids) to grow up with Midwest values like we did,” Halbach said. “To be honest, at first I wondered if I could live in Wisconsin’s weather, but we decided to take the chance and try it. I will tell you, that first December, it snowed so much that there were moments I wondered if I had made the right choice.”
Those few moments of weather-driven trepidation, Halbach said, were the only times he questioned the decision to come north.
For much of his career, Halbach has been closely tied to the long-standing tradition of youth dairy judging in Wisconsin – an activity that he said is near and dear to his own heart.
“Dairy judging is such a great tool to drive the enthusiasm of our youth toward education and careers in the dairy industry,” Halbach said. “There is such camaraderie and the competitive aspect – a chance for a kid to be on a team without having to play a sport.”
Halbach champions the youth dairy judging program because of the value it brings to the member.
“The skill set that dairy judging teaches is just amazing, and I’m not sure there is another activity like it,” Halbach said. “First, there is problem solving – you have this road map of the (Purebred Dairy Cattle Association) Dairy Cow Unified Scorecard, and you need to use that to solve the problem, which is the class of four cows in front of you.”
There are other problem-solving aspects as well.
“Then, you have to make a decision in a set amount of time, and not everyone is good at that,” Halbach said. “There is the oral reasons component that makes the member stand up and defend their placings to someone in an organized and logical manner. Youth will be graduating into a world that values the ability to communicate one’s ideas, and this is practical training to do just that.”
One thing that Halbach said has always impressed him about the dairy-judging culture in Wisconsin is the commitment made at the grassroots level.
“It really takes a village to have a dairy-judging program like we have in Wisconsin,” Halbach said. “There is such an infrastructure of coaches at the county level, willing to work with the kids and build that foundation, laying the groundwork for the skills they will develop. Then you have the kids who become so passionate about what they are doing.”
That grassroots commitment at all levels has paid off.
During Halbach’s time at UW-Madison, 10 Wisconsin 4-H teams hailing from eight counties have claimed the national championship while seven youth have claimed the top individual honors in the contest.
“I am so proud of the number of teams we’ve had win the national 4-H contest over the past 25 years, and it isn’t just the same counties being successful; they have been from all over the state,” Halbach said. “Many of them have had the chance to judge in Europe as a result, and what a great experience for those kids.”
Halbach’s involvement in Wisconsin’s storied tradition of dairy judging was not only felt at the youth level. He coached UW-Madison’s team from 1998 through 2010, claiming national titles in 2002, 2005 and 2010. During that time, two individuals took top contest honors as well.
While he relishes the success he has witnessed in the program, Halbach said he does not leave the position without concerns for the future of not only the youth dairy judging program but also for the dairy industry.
“In 2008, there were 13,962 dairy farms in Wisconsin and 4,414 youth enrolled in the 4-H dairy project; by 2022, those numbers declined to 6,533 dairy farms and 3,037 youth,” Halbach said. “That is a decrease of 53% in the number of dairy herds and a 31% decline in the number of youth enrolled in the 4-H dairy project. The trend in youth dairy project numbers is concerning, but I don’t think we are at a point where we can’t maintain the project’s critical mass.”
Halbach said the dairy industry needs to build enthusiasm and support for high-impact programs targeting youth, propelling them toward both education and careers in the dairy industry to help secure its future in the state.
“I am a strong advocate for youth to pursue a four-year degree,” Halbach said. “Our youth benefit both career-wise and on a personal level from obtaining an undergraduate education. We are also fortunate in Wisconsin to have the educational opportunities we do, and with UW-Madison, we have a flagship university right in our backyard that possesses a world-class dairy education and research program.”
As for the future, Halbach said he plans to stay involved with the industry for which he has a lifelong passion.
“The 25 years I have spent with (UW-Madison) have been terrific, and sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe it,” Halbach said. “I’d say I’ll be semi-retired, maybe with a little different commitment level, but you can bank on me still being around as a volunteer.”
To Submit an Event Sign in first
No calendar events have been scheduled for today.