Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

0509 PD: Experience the challenge, the North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge

Published on 13 March 2009

No matter the industry, experience is crucial.

An investor with a proven record of doing his homework and making sound decisions will be chosen ahead of someone that has never set up a portfolio. A heart surgeon that has performed 100 heart surgeries will be more trusted than a surgeon performing her first surgery. Experience is just as valuable in the dairy industry too. Dairies rely on experience to treat and breed cows. They choose sires for their proven genetics. They choose managers and leaders for experience too.



Candidates with proven experience are usually promoted or hired over someone that has little real-life experience. This was evident in the responses Progressive Dairyman gathered last year when we asked which of three dairy students would be more likely to succeed. Most of the respondents said having some industry experience before entering a dairy career was very important to future success. The biggest question is: Where do you get the experience? If people with experience get hired, how can you get a foot in the door? How can you prove you are capable of turning what you learned in school into value for your employer?

Good experience has been on the mind of industry professionals for quite some time. In 2001, a small group of dairy owners and professionals gathered after a convention to talk about ways to improve the industry and the quality of experience students were receiving in their universities. Select Sires CEO David Thorbahn was a part of that group. He told the others of his desire to see students learning in an environment similar to the one he experienced while an MBA student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Thorbahn’s class would study a local business or use a Harvard case study to analyze their business model and then present the findings in front of the class every two weeks.

“The competitive nature of the class made it so that every time we did a case study, each team would say, ‘I am going to try harder next time to one-up the other teams,’” recalls Thorbahn. “I said, ‘We need that in the dairy industry.’ I explained that whole process to Linda [Hodorff] and her response was, ‘Well, when do we get started?’”

Thorbahn, Hodorff and others contacted Matt Budine, who was with Cargill Animal Nutrition. Budine was already assisting faculty at Michigan State in developing a similar program. They added him and many other industry leaders to their newly formed steering committee, and by April 2002 The North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge (NAIDC) was born.

Like Thorbahn’s MBA class, the competition is designed to give fourth-year students an opportunity to work as a team and compete against other students across the country in evaluating a dairy in order to come up with ways to improve overall profitability while trying to meet the goals of the owner. The competition challenges students to dig deeper and find applications for classroom teaching. It pushes educators to provide a curriculum that will facilitate problem-solving and raise the bar of expectation for preparing students to enter the industry.


“One of the unique things about the NAIDC is that it involves not only dairy producers but agribusiness and the academic side of dairy training,” says Hodorff, who has been dairying with her husband in Wisconsin for more than 25 years. “I think the original goals of the Dairy Challenge were to benefit each of those segments. Dairy producers are looking for well-trained students who are coming out of our universities to either work on our farms or to work in industry and be advisers to us. I think agribusiness is looking for people to be potential employees who are going to be well-trained and savvy in our industries, and universities want curriculums that are relevant and progressively addressing future needs.”

The NAIDC is in its eighth year and has more than doubled in size since the contest began, going from 56 to 128 contestants. Thirty-two teams, consisting of four members each, are assigned to one of four dairies with a maximum of eight teams per dairy. Since teams are limited to only four students from each school, each participating program has to choose a select few to represent their program at a national level. This year’s competition will be held in Syracuse, New York, making it the sixth state to host the competition. Last year, 26 of the 50 states had a college or university participate in the competition and the University of Guelph from Canada also had a team.

Under the current system, only 32 teams can participate in the national competition, but with the increase in number of contestants has come an increase in the number of competitions. There are four regional competitions that are set up similar to the national competition. The regional and national challenges are very similar, in that teams have one day to become as familiar with the host dairy, its records and the owner as possible and then present a plan of action to a panel of judges, which is usually made up of industry professionals and respected consultants. The main difference at the regional challenge is the teams are mixed among participating universities, forcing students to work with people they haven’t met before. The regional challenges are used by schools as a training ground for the national contest. The regionals are less competitive and are more educational in nature; instead of university teams, teams are aggregate, formed by skill assessment scores. Regional teams are more balanced, and the event encourages communication and team building. This year, 274 students participated in the regional competitions.

At the national challenge, universities only bring four senior students to represent their school. These students get to go up against the best in the country and put everything they have learned to the test. They get to experience real-world problems with real-world data.

“I’ve heard a number of students say that this contest is one of the first chances for them to bring everything all together,” says Hodorff, who served a three-year term on the NAIDC board. “In college you take individual classes in nutrition, finances, etc., and this is a real-life opportunity to put it all together in a real-world setting. In a college setting you have all the data, but when you go to a dairy you probably don’t have all the data. In a perfect world, you would like to have all the data, but you go with what you have and make the best decisions with what you have.”

While the students get experience, allied industry partners, university dairy programs and dairy producers also benefit. Getting involved can mean anything from sponsorships to hosting tours to being one of the many volunteers that it takes to make the program run.


“The real advantage to the industry is two-fold. The first is to participate with universities to encourage the development of their students. Second, it’s an opportunity to actually visually work with and identify outstanding students for recruiting. There is a huge recruiting benefit that is involved with this,” says Thorbahn, who served as the first chairman of the NAIDC committee. “Companies should become involved, either by being a sponsor or by encouraging employees to become committee members on a regional or national level, but you don’t have to be a committee member to contribute. There are large armies of volunteers behind the scenes that make this a successful event.”

The 2009 event is right around the corner, but it’s not to late to contact the NAIDC to find out how you can help out in the next regional challenge or at the 2010 national contest that will take place in Visalia, California. PD

Ryan Curtis
Assistant Editor
Progressive Dairyman