Every spring animal science students from universities across the country converge on a state’s dairy industry for the ultimate practical learning experience: the North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge. Since 2002, this program has brought together students, producers, teachers, and industry professionals in an environment designed to incorporate classroom learning with on-farm applications. This year’s contest was held at the University of Georgia campus in Tifton, GA, during March 28-30.
Here at Virginia Tech the dairy science department offers three levels of dairy enterprise management courses that provide students production and business knowledge that would be helpful in operating or consulting for a dairy farm. These classes also tie in to the principal goal of the Dairy Challenge contest, so a team to represent Virginia Tech is chosen each year from students in the advanced management class. After three practice farm visits early in the semester and some tough coaching from Dr. Alex White and Dr. Gonzalo Ferreira, I was chosen as part of this year’s team along with fellow seniors Sarah Baynard, Kate Ciaston, and Sandra Krone.
One of the biggest concerns that a lot of students and parents seem to have during college is how this expensive education is going to pay off in the ‘real world’ after graduation. With the Dairy Challenge experience dairy science students don’t have this worry because we are putting what our professors are teaching every day into practice by talking to producers, visiting farms, and making suggestions. The contest begins with the teams receiving production, management, and financial data on the farm they’ll be evaluating. Thanks to our classes on PCDart, DairyComp 305, and business management, we were able to sort through all of this data to get background information on the farm, develop a sense of how they’re currently performing, and identify any areas we had questions about before visiting the farm the next day. The two hours we’re given to observe everything on the farm goes by quicker than you might think, so it helps to be prepared! Our practice farm visits were especially helpful at this stage of the contest because we knew what we needed to look for to evaluate the farm’s performance: proper milking procedures, how healthy and comfortable the animals were, appropriate facilities, management of the feed center, and more.
Once we had all the farm information, it was up to our team to evaluate the farm’s biggest strengths as well as create a few suggestions to help the operation become more profitable. Here we learned it’s important to prioritize what is the most important to the farm’s goals, what can be implemented easily versus what will make a longer-term return, and the costs of each potential change. We created a presentation to explain our evaluation to a panel of industry personnel, including a farmer, veterinarian, reproduction specialist, nutritionist, and ag lender. Our practice shone through here because we were all able to confidently present on our topics and answer some tough questions from the judges. Because the farm evaluation is real life, there’s no definitive right or wrong answers. However, we had the industry knowledge to back up our evaluation as we worked through our process to provide practical solutions to real problems.
No matter the exact fields we will go into in our careers, the ability to assess and improve a situation is an incredibly valuable skill. To me, this is the best value of competing in Dairy Challenge. A lot of experiences and classes in college work to promote critical thinking, but Dairy Challenge truly applies classroom knowledge to real situations in a way that requires some creativity and practicality. For me and many others, it has been one of the most useful parts of college. If you’re in college now or planning for the future, consider putting Dairy Challenge on your schedule to take a very applicable approach to your education!
Article by Katelyn Allen, DASC '19