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At Northeast Iowa Community College, internships and hands-on learning make a world of difference

Alisa Anderson Published on 25 August 2009

Megan Kregel of Guttenberg, Iowa, graduated this spring from Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC) with an associate's degree in dairy science.

When asked what she would change about her education at NICC, she simply said, "Nothing."

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Dairy is Megan's passion, and going to NICC has helped her get a start in the industry. She plans to go on to Iowa State University and double major in dairy science and ag communications. Although she grew up on a dairy, Megan feels that her education at NICC provided invaluable hands-on experience that rounded out her knowledge.

In 2000 NICC's dairy science program partnered with the Northeast Iowa Dairy Foundation (NIDF). The foundation was set up by dairymen to promote the dairy industry and small dairy farmers. NIDF built the Dairy Center, a 200-cow milking and classroom facility, which is used by NICC's dairy science program.

NIDF's goals are focused on supporting and promoting dairy farm families. They provide seminars and continuing education classes, host the Iowa Dairy Story Hour for elementary school children, help young people through the Beginning Farmer Program and provide tours and educational opportunities for visitors. But their collaboration with NICC is perhaps the most important thing they do to promote dairy.

Students can take a variety of classes at the Dairy Center, ranging from business to anatomy and physiology. Katie Steinlage, a pre-vet major, says the animal reproduction class was her favorite.

"Right at the beginning of the class, Doc Harvey told us that this class was not going to be easy because it was a junior-level class at Iowa State. We got to go and breed cows. First he brought in these uteruses from dead cows, and we got to learn how to find our way with the A.I. gun. Then he let us try it with real cows," Katie says.

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Each class has a lab. Amanda Hendrickson, a dairy science major entering her second year, says she really appreciates the labs.

"It has definitely made it easier to understand what was taught in my classes," she says.

Students also have the opportunity to work as part-time employees at the dairy, either giving tours and explaining things to the public, or milking and doing chores. Megan had the opportunity to be employed there.

"I come from a big herd, and I knew a lot coming to NICC, but there are a lot of things you learn while you're here. Every herd does things differently. You learn different procedures and protocols that you can implement, or just begin to understand why things are done differently," Megan says.

The original NICC farm was renovated into the Grazing Center after NIDF built the Dairy Center for the school. Students can work at the Grazing Center and learn techniques to help them get started in the dairy industry.

"It's an example of how someone can get into dairy farming without having a large capital investment. The cows are grazed and the parlor is low-cost," says Kelli Boylen, director of NIDF.

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Students have opportunities to be actively involved in what's going on at the Dairy Center. "We rely on students for everything that goes on," Megan says.

This past year Megan was one of the students on the committee to improve the program's curriculum. Students also help organize and host the Tri-State Dairy Expo where dairy products and dairy cattle are judged, and which is attended by 500 to 600 students every year. Every fall the students put on a sale as a fund-raiser for the school. The faculty and NIDF help the students with these projects, but the students do all the work.

Faculty members play an important role in the students' experience at the Dairy Center.

"College is going to be hard for anybody no matter what your major is," Katie says. "I've learned that if you just go up to the teachers and ask them a question they'll do their best to make sure your question is answered. One great thing about NICC: I'm not just like a number. They actually know my name and say hello to me in the hallway."

As part of a class, NICC's students are required to complete an internship. Amanda completed hers this summer with a dairy equipment supply company in Harmony, Iowa. "It's good that I'm getting on the business side of things. It's a different aspect of the industry, and it's fun to see how other people can be involved in dairy besides just farming," she says.

Two of NIDF's goals are to "retain and grow existing family dairy farms," and to "foster the development of family dairy operations." The Dairy Center does just that through the opportunities provided for students to help them get started in the dairy industry and by giving them a new appreciation for the industry.

"I admire the producers' passion for what they do. I admire the fact that they get up every single day, even if the industry is not doing good. They may not have the best life, but they know what they are doing is making a difference in the world. They're proud of their cows and they're proud of what they produce," Amanda says.

Megan agrees. "They're committed to doing what they do and they love doing what they do. I really respect them for raising their families on the farm. It is one of the most noble things to do," she says. PD

Alisa Anderson
Staff Writer
Progressive Dairyman

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