Making the best on-farm analysis

UW-Madison wins Dairy Challenge

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MADISON, Wis. — In an annual contest emphasizing critical on-farm thinking, the team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison came out on top this year.

The team of four dairy science students took first place at the North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge April 4-6 in Visalia, California.

Nicole Broege of Janesville, Anastasia McCourt of Fond du Lac, Melissa Konkel of Sharon and Luke McCullough of Monroe were coached by Eric Ronk, with support from current and retired faculty and staff in the department of animal and dairy sciences.

“The competition level is extremely high as these students are the best of the best coming from across the U.S. and Canada to compete,” Ronk said. “There are a lot of strong dairy programs and universities represented, and the bar continues to be raised in this contest.”

Dairy Challenge is an applied dairy management competition. Students analyze a farm and present their observations and management recommendations to a panel. Judges include dairy producers, veterinarians, farm finance specialists and agribusiness personnel.

The contest consists of four divisions with eight teams per division. Groups A and B went to River Ranch Dairy in Hanford, California, and groups C and D went to Flint Dairy in Hanford, California.

The UW-Madison team analyzed River Ranch Dairy, which milks 5,600 cows, raises 5,000 youngstock and employs more than 68 people. The UW-Madison students had the highest team score not only on the farm they analyzed but in the entire competition.

“Western dairy farming takes on a whole different look, and it was an incredibly exciting and fun challenge to take what we have learned from our experiences in the Midwest and apply similar concepts in the West,” Konkel said.

Ronk said the team focused its opportunities on feed pile management, feed particle size and calf management. Ronk said the focus on feeding management was key in the judges’ opinion.

“One judge also mentioned our financial impacts were more realistic on the numbers side, as not every opportunity a team suggests will hit the top dollar or milk production increase amount,” he said.

Over 128 students from 32 teams completed the on-farm analysis, with two hours to visit and observe the farm’s operation.

McCullough said their team’s approach was to split up for a majority of the farm visit, planning and mapping out their visit the night before.

“There was a lot of time spent walking since the farm site was spread across over 250 acres,” McCullough said. “We regrouped at the end of the visit to share our findings and make sure all parts of the farm were looked at and notes taken.”

When examining areas of improvement, Broege said recommendations must make sense financially and practically. Teams receive the farm’s data and records the night before visiting the farm, which Broege said allowed them to identify areas they wanted to look at.

After a question-and-answer session with the farm owners and advisers, the student teams developed recommendations for nutrition, reproduction, milking procedures, animal health, cow comfort, and labor and financial management.

A great deal of preparation goes into getting ready for the event.

“This competition encompasses all four years of curriculum and dairy experience for students,” Ronk said. “Our dairy herd management courses and senior capstone class play a critical role in preparing the students.”

At UW-Madison, students enroll in a one-credit course during the spring semester to prepare for Dairy Challenge. Featuring guest speakers each week, the course includes a mock farm audit complete with a panel. Prior to attending the national event, Ronk said most students have competed in a regional event and/or attended the National Dairy Challenge and Academy.

When it comes to implementing suggestions made by the students, Ronk said the hope is that the farms talk over the recommendations with their management team.

“They clearly need to make their own decisions as we are only visiting for a snapshot in time and do not have the full background on everything,” he said.

Broege, who graduated in May, said working with her teammates is what she enjoyed most about the experience.

“We’ve taken years of dairy-related courses together, and it was incredibly rewarding to end my college career with them, utilizing our education and working together,” she said. “Participating in Dairy Challenge helped me understand more fully that no matter what sector of the dairy industry I have a career in, every part of the farm affects the entirety of the operation, as well as that farm’s future.”

McCullough, who also graduated in May, will be attending UW-Madison’s School of Veterinary Medicine to become a large animal veterinarian.

“My participation in Dairy Challenge will benefit me as a veterinarian because I will be able to walk onto a dairy farm and view the farm by the full picture to potentially identify issues affecting animal health,” McCullough said. “The contest also builds teamwork skills and allows participants to use much of the knowledge learned in the classroom in a practical setting.”

Konkel, also a recent graduate, said that even though Dairy Challenge may not directly correlate to her job as an agriculture educator, the contest has shaped the way she thinks and looks at a challenge.

“The ability to critically analyze a given farm or situation and realize what would work best both practically and financially for that farm is a type of critical thinking that can be applied in any field of work,” she said.

Two other UW-Madison students also won awards competing on aggregate teams with teammates from other universities. Brianna Wanek of Cashton was on a winning aggregate team at River Ranch Dairy with students from Delaware Valley University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of New Hampshire.

Zachary Olson of Sturgeon Bay was on a second-place aggregate team at Flint Dairy with students from Alfred State College, Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire.

“Participating in Dairy Challenge provides countless benefits,” said Olson, who grew up on his family’s 60-cow robotic dairy farm. “You build confidence by going on a new dairy farm and assessing weaknesses and strengths while also finding realistic solutions to help improve the dairy. The network that Dairy Challenge exposes you to in the industry is also invaluable.”

Olson will be starting his career as a dairy nutritionist and said these skills will help him to help farmers.

Through Ronk’s work with the students, he said he sees the value gained by those who participate in Dairy Challenge.

“Any student involved in Dairy Challenge can learn lifelong skills, like teamwork, decision making, partial budgeting, presentation and communication skills, networking and more,” Ronk said. “Students who work in the dairy industry gain so much valuable experience throughout the whole process. It is truly a world-class event.”

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