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0907 PD: Studying to perfect his father’s dairy

Published on 31 August 2007

Sitting in a classroom or studying in his dorm room, 19-year-old Luke Vander misses working outdoors. He frequently longs for a 12-hour workday treating cows on his father’s 700-cow dairy in south-central Michigan. But Luke, a sophomore studying animal science at Michigan State University, also knows attending to his university studies is just as important.

“You have the rest of your life to be on the farm,” Vander says. “You’re only going to gain more from going to college.”

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And as much as Luke loves dairying and working for his role model, his father, Van Vander, Luke says he’d tell any other child of a dairy producer or someone interested in working on a dairy as a career the same advice – take a time-out and get a college degree.

“If you’re in an agricultural degree, you’re going to be out touring other farms and doing internships. You’re not going to learn nearly as many things if you stay home,” Luke says.

At 10, Luke emigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands with his mom and dad and two older sisters. When he began school as a fifth grader in the U.S., Luke says he was the only one of his classmates that didn’t speak English as a first language. His elementary school’s all-English environment helped him quickly pick up fluency in his second language.

As he began attending high school, Luke also began working as a relief milker on his father’s dairy. It was his first job on the dairy, as Luke says he never had “any real responsibilities” on his father’s 55-cow dairy in the Netherlands. Luke remembers that after school his friends would go off to soccer, football or track practice while he headed home to work. But Luke says he didn’t mind because as much as he enjoyed playing sports, he liked working on the dairy more. The more responsibilities his father gave him, the more Luke enjoyed being on the dairy. Learning about milking and animal health became Luke’s after-school class.

While in high school, Luke began taking Spanish classes. At the same time, Luke discovered one of his father’s Hispanic employees was trying to learn English. The two began sharing and learning words together. Within a year, Luke says he had learned enough words to be conversational.

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“I couldn’t believe I’d learned so much Spanish,” Luke says.

He continued to take language classes in school and to talk with employees on the dairy until one day during one of the dairy’s all-employee meetings he realized he should be doing more.

Sitting with the other employees and listening to his father give instructions in English and then wait for a paid, non-farm employee to interpret to the others, Luke figured he could do the same task.

“I could understand everything he was saying. I thought, ‘Why are we paying this guy, if I could do it?’”

Now he interprets nearly everyday when he’s at the dairy. It’s a helpful skill that sometimes he forgets the dairy once didn’t have. It’s also helped Luke learn from the experiences of his dairyman father. Luke says when his dad tells him to do something on the dairy, he usually does it without asking many questions. Yet he’s discovered that interpreting has taught him about why his father wants things done a certain way.

For example, recently Luke was helping his father and other employees lay rebar and pour concrete for a new manure treatment system and 700-cow expansion. The rebar process seemed complicated, so Luke suggested to his father a simpler way. His father told him they would do it as they had been doing it, and Luke obeyed without questioning. Later, Luke interpreted the same suggestion to his father from another employee, and his father told the employee they had to do it that way to receive the assistance funding for the project. Luke says he appreciates interpreting for the opportunity to hear his father’s “side notes.”

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Luke says knowing Spanish also makes the working environment more fun. His family and the employees’ families occasionally have barbecues and birthday parties together. In addition, he plays soccer with some of the employees on Sunday.

Although he doesn’t like being indoors all day when at school, Luke says attending college has already started to pay off in small ways for his parent’s dairy.

Luke occasionally calls home after discussing a topic in class or learning about a procedure one of his classmates uses back home. For example, last year Luke called his mom after learning about the importance of slowly re-warming frozen colostrum in class and then discussing a procedure for how to do it with one of his classmates.

When he told his mom, she replaced her previous procedure of rewarming with hot water and began warming their dairy’s colostrum in warm water.

After graduation, Luke hopes to come back to his father’s dairy, but he wouldn’t mind being a herdsman at another dairy, either. If his dream comes true, Luke would like to inherit ownership from his father and continue “perfecting our dairy.” He still says he needs to learn more about the financing and business side of the dairy. Those are subjects he’s studying as part of his degree’s emphasis in ag business.

For other students studying dairy, Luke recommends staying focused on coursework. That’s something he says was difficult to do because he lived within two hours of home and enjoyed going home to work on the dairy.

When Luke returns to school, for sure he will still come home occasionally to relieve his father’s herdsman. Luke enjoys working with the animal health-related aspects of the dairy. He encourages dairy kids to show their parents they are interested in learning more about dairying. That, he says, will lead to them to being given more responsibility, trust and, maybe someday, ownership of the dairy.

“For the future, I hope to do the same job my dad does, which would be filling some big shoes.” PD

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