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Dairy Leaders of Tomorrow: Bringing farms to the classroom

Holly Drankhan Published on 11 September 2014

dairy leaders of tomorrow

Time and again, statistics have demonstrated the success rate of learning languages at an early age. One Pennsylvania-based education program is adapting this strategy to help the next generation become fluent in a language not conventionally taught in the classroom – the vernacular of the dairy industry.

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The Center for Dairy Excellence (CDE) is a non-profit organization formed in 2004 to help ensure the viability of the state’s dairy industry, the largest sector of its agricultural economy.

In 2010, the center identified the importance of educating the next generation about dairy business management in order to keep this profitable industry flourishing. Thus, they established the charitable CDE Foundation and in fall 2012 launched their pilot program, Dairy Leaders of Tomorrow (DLT).

“The intent of the program is to better prepare today’s young dairy enthusiasts with important skills that will help them succeed in a career in dairy production,” explains Emily Yeiser, dairy initiatives manager for CDE.

“We hope this additional exposure to the dairy industry will also inspire students who may not have considered a career in dairy before the curriculum to explore the opportunities further. It’s a wonderful industry with a ton of potential, and DLT will help us to share that story with the next generation.”

The program offers free online courses accessible to students and teachers throughout the school year. Each participant must first complete the Introduction to the Dairy Industry course, with lessons focusing on the components of milk, the importance of record-keeping, organization of facilities, trends in the industry and best management practices.

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Upon completion, a student may then pursue either a single or dual certification in Dairy Herd Management and Dairy Business Management, each unit consisting of eight to 10 lessons.

Each lesson utilizes links to expert industry websites with up-to-date information on a variety of topics from new technology to product export statistics and government regulations.

Videos and audio as well as field trips expose students to the variety of management practices used by different producers. In the program’s first year, a tour invited students to visit a robotic dairy, a 2,000-cow dairy and a 100-cow tiestall facility, learning about the progress each has made in developing a successful system.

“Our hope is that the students get to see there are a variety of ways to dairy and be successful,” Yeiser says. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but it is critical to see dairy as a business in order to be successful. It also exposes the students to other career opportunities available in the industry. You don’t just have to own a farm to be involved in the dairy industry.”

This is exactly the lesson that Nathan Sherman, a home-school participant and DLT Student of the Month for March and April, took from his tour of Kulp Family Dairy, LLC and DD Drycreek Dairy in Martinsburg, Pennsylvania, this past spring.

dairy leaders of tomorrowWhile Sherman grew up on a family-operated dairy of 100 cows, he says that the opportunity provided insight into the management of larger dairies where he may one day work.

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Nathan’s mother, Kelly Sherman, adds that the inquisitive nature promoted by the program does not end when her son returns home from a field trip or signs out of his online account.

“The program has explained a lot of the ‘why’ regarding our practices here but also has challenged [Nathan] and us to re-evaluate some practices,” she says regarding their family dairy. “Many family discussions have followed certain lessons.

A few I recall are de-horning, cow handling and nutrition. This program took what Nathan was already doing on a daily basis to a higher level of understanding, not just doing it because that’s how we do it.”

For first-year teacher Darla Romberger, the program’s biggest draw is its flexibility. She has been able to adapt the lessons into her agriculture curriculum at Cumberland Valley High School, offering select topics to 40 students who have identified an interest in animal science and wish to specialize in this area.

Romberger’s students seem to value the ability to apply concepts from other classes in relevant, real-world situations such as milk pricing rather than simply memorizing facts. In the areas of product processing and labeling, the educator has found the candid information especially valuable for young consumers and future industry contributors.

“Just being a teacher this past year made me realize how much misinformation is out there and that once kids know the facts, they go around and correct their peers,” reflects Romberger. “Just a little bit of knowledge can go a long way to help promotion efforts and a recognition and appreciation for the industry as a whole.”

To date, 50 schools from 10 states, including the majority of the Northeast, utilize the program’s resources. DLT has 800 enrolled students, including both individuals from an agricultural background and those from urban areas as well as those enrolled in both public and home-based institutions.

Yeiser looks forward to certifying the first class of Dairy Leaders of Tomorrow in the 2014-2015 school year. She also aims to launch a more extensive website and have the enrollment surpass 2,000 students.

With input from teachers like Romberger, the program may also consider adding a database of local producers that could visit classrooms as well as holding conferences to allow educators using DLT to connect. Those involved in this collaborative learning venture hope future developments will continue to close the educational gap in the dairy industry.

“I think it broadens their horizons and makes them aware of what is really going on in their communities,” Romberger says of her DLT students. “Maybe you drive past this barn every day and you just think it is a red barn with black-and-white cows out in front.

This gives you an appreciation for the impact that the dairy industry has in your local community, for keeping food prices low and knowing the source of your agricultural products.” PD

For more information about the program or how to enroll a student, visit the Dairy Leaders of Tomorrow website.

Holly Drankhan is a senior at Michigan State University with plans to attend vet school. She is a 2014 Progressive Dairyman editorial intern.

Photos courtesy of Center for Dairy Excellence.

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