Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

1408 PD: Education is the foundation to life and industry opportunities

M. Douglas Kenealy Published on 29 September 2008

When asked which student was most likely to be successful at a higher education institution, I selected Student 2.

Though I acknowledge that students proficient at a combination of activities pictured in each of the three choices would be prized recruits for most educational institutions, in today’s fast-paced, competitive career market, students who are solid academicians and continual learners are at the pinnacle of the career and professional school pyramids.



Where do dairy science students come from in 2008?
Some history may be important in a discussion of what makes a successful college student. Though I will use data from Iowa State University, the trends described have been seen across the U. S. in institutions of higher learning in agriculture. Twenty-five years ago, the vast majority of students enrolled in animal science or dairy science majors in the Department of Animal Science at Iowa State University (ISU) were young men from rural backgrounds. Most had extensive experience with at least one large animal species. But the trend for job placement had already begun to swing away from on-farm jobs to the agricultural support industry.

In 1983, approximately 70 percent of the 540 ISU Department of Animal Science students came from farms and approximately 20 percent took jobs back on farms. Dairy science graduates returned to farms at a higher rate of about 50 percent in that era.

In 2008, only 45 percent of our department’s approximately 800 students grew up on a farm, 70 percent of the students are women, and 55 percent of the students are primarily interested in companion animals. Dairy science continues to have more “traditional” rural-based students – 74 percent are women, about 70 percent come from dairy farms and 40 percent return to on-farm employment.

What are the hallmarks of a successful student in a college or university setting?
The predictors for success are the same for dairy science students as for math, genetics or agricultural engineering majors. Dairy science programs today are truly science-based. Dairy students must be prepared in the collegiate classroom in classical studies such as biology, chemistry and statistics so that they can understand the intricacies of such subjects as molecular and population genetics, ruminant nutrition, reproductive physiology or dairy food microbiology that will be critical to success in their careers. Additionally, writing and speaking underpin their ability to succeed in marketing and people management.

Career market opportunities drive the need for students to focus on a solid technical education in the sciences with strong business and communications components.


The opportunity to scale the ladder of career opportunities with an employer or to move from one segment of the employment industry to another is impacted by academic skills and interest in being a lifelong learner. Additionally, many employers encourage good employees who were solid students to complete advanced degrees, such as a masters of business administration, in order for the employee to climb the ladder of success. A solid education is the foundation to life’s opportunities.

A prime example of the need for a strong, but diverse education is one of my first students, Kit Spangler, who began his career managing his family dairy. He soon began supplementing his income as a dairy nutrition consultant because of his university courses in nutrition and dairy management. Then he began night school, while fully employed at both of those careers, and completed a master of science degree in Asian studies. This lead to trips to China for the governor of Iowa and eventually a third career in the international marketing arena. He used every bit of his science education in his dairy management and nutrition consulting work and focused on his business and communication skills in his international work. A critical note at this juncture, Kit stepped completely outside the box and learned to speak, read and write Chinese. A student’s mastery of foreign language, especially Spanish, Russian or Chinese, could add immeasurably to your market value and opportunities.

Don’t dismiss the value of ‘growing up on the farm’ and all the experiences, skills and background that creates for young people. Though experiences on the farm and in the show ring mold a strong work ethic and create valuable life skills, those alone will not make a student successful in collegiate life. Further, gone are the days that university graduates were hired as skilled labor to milk cows and drive tractors. They are important activities all farm-employed graduates will need to do some time during the week, but they are not the reason farm management trainees are hired. They are hired for their technical education and their ability to manage – cows, budgets, people and more. Please note that I said ‘management trainees’, not managers. Whether graduates return home to a 150-cow herd or move across the country to a 3,000-cow herd, there will be a learning and training process before they eventually gain the title of “manager.”

In summary, students who hit the books, enjoy learning and learn to manage their time should be followed by success when they enter their chosen college or university.

“The person who understands that the future of a successful dairy means to look at dairying as a business will be the same person who understands the need for constantly staying abreast of new technology.”
– David Fischer, University of Illinois PD

M. Douglas Kenealy
Dairy Science Professor
Iowa State University