Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

East Coast girl pursues learning opportunity in Southwest

PD Editor Dario Martinez Published on 04 August 2011


The Southern Great Plains Dairy Consortium, where students are able to obtain hands-on experiences in large-herd dairy management, recently completed its fourth summer session. The six-week program, which combines classroom instruction with visits to dairies where students can put into practice what they learn in the classroom, surpassed its attendance from last year with 52 students from 13 universities.



Typically, a majority of the students that participate in the program are from universities in the Southwest. This year, however, Michelle Plotzker, a student from a college in New Jersey, made the trip to Clovis, New Mexico, to attend the program.

“Dairy cattle have always fascinated me, and I wanted to gain more experience with large animals in general, so I started looking for opportunities in the West where the farms are much bigger and dairy science is more widely studied,” Plotzker says. “There aren’t many opportunities to work with dairy cattle in an academic capacity in upstate New York unless you attend a university that has a dairy science program.”

This was one of the factors Plotzker took into consideration when debating whether to attend the program. She adds that because farmland is scarce in the northeastern U.S., farmers need to find a select niche in which to market their milk or some other way to stand out from larger farms in the West.

“I hope to be a part of the group that finds a solution to this problem and the consortium has given me a fantastic base of knowledge to work from in that aspect,” Plotzker says.

Although she didn’t come from a dairy background, Plotzker says her grandparents did have a small farm in upstate New York where they had a 20-cow herd that they milked by hand. She said that although they have a dairy background, she didn’t really have very much hands-on experience with cows.


Plotzker, who is from Fairport, New York, traveled to a more populated region of the state to begin her educational career. She transferred to Stevens Institute of Technology from Stony Brooke University on Long Island after her freshman year, where she was a marine biology major. Stevens Institute of Technology is located in Hoboken, New Jersey, a suburb located just outside of New York City.

“Stevens is a really strong engineering school,” Plotzker says. “I’m actually a history major, and I’m filling my requirements for vet school, so I’m taking a lot of classes with biomedical engineers and chemical biology majors, so they’re some relatively tough classes.”

Although history and pre-veterinary science are two very different majors, Plotzker says that she has always enjoyed history and that humanities have always come easy for her. This has allowed her to devote a lot of her time to the science classes she is required to take.

“I’m basically double-majoring so I can take courses like chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry and biology as well as a full load of history courses,” she says.

Finding an opportunity for herself
Plotzker ventured out to find additional educational opportunities in the West that would fit in with her career goals by establishing contacts at the University of Arizona. She had planned to participate in a research project with Dr. Roy Ax, an animal science professor from the University of Arizona. However, the project was cancelled in early spring because the professor passed away.

She maintained contact with Dr. Robert Collier, another animal science professor at the University of Arizona, who suggested she attend the summer program so that she could still obtain the experience with dairy cattle that she was looking for.


Plotzker applied to the program and was in Clovis, New Mexico, in mid-May, ready to begin her hands-on experience.

“When I first got there, I was a little nervous, and I knew there were going to be a lot of people there that probably knew a lot more than I did,” she says. “I was a little intimidated but excited at the same time to be able to learn about this part of the U.S. economy.”

Plotzker sums up her experience this summer at the Southern Great Plains Dairy Consortium by saying that it helped her understand many of the different aspects of the dairy industry and all of the factors that influence a dairyman’s decisions as to his herd’s health on a daily, monthly and annual basis.

Currently, Plotzker is working full-time at a small animal hospital in upstate New York. Although her official title is kennel attendant, she answers phones, cashes out customers and does any office work that is needed.

When Plotzker isn’t working at the veterinary clinic or busy with schoolwork, she fills in the rest of her time with extra-curricular activities. Michelle is the current vice president of her sorority, Delta Phi Epsilon, and president of the pre-veterinary club, which she founded at Stevens last year. Plotzker is also a member of the equestrian and volleyball teams.

Post-graduation plans
“Pretty much the rest of my life after graduation depends on whether or not I get into vet school this year,” Plotzker says.

Plotzker has made sure to have a post-graduation plan in place for a while now. She has left several options open for herself, always keeping a backup plan in case one falls through. She is currently in the process of applying to vet schools and hopes to someday work as a general practitioner.

In case she is not accepted to a veterinary school right away, she plans to apply to a master’s program in animal endocrinology and biosciences at Rutgers University, where she hopes to take part in performing research in any of several different fields of animal science. If the master’s program option works, she also plans to seek employment at an animal pharmaceutical company at the same time to get more academics and experience under her belt.

“I’ve learned over the past few years that even if you do make plans and you think it is all set, something can always come up and change it,” Plotzker says. “I think if I have a few options, and I know I have to be flexible, then I’ll be happy in one way or another.”

If those plans do not pan out, she is also looking into other options, like working as a cooperative extension agent in the Northeast to spread the word about dairy to urban and suburban areas.

“I feel that many children miss out on learning about the agricultural aspect of our nation’s economy,” Plotzker says. “I would be thrilled to be able to provide these children with access to information about different agricultural industries, including dairy.”

Plotzker is appreciative of the opportunity she had to participate in the program.

Although she hasn’t decided what her plans for next summer are, she says if all works out, she may return to Clovis for a second session.

“The consortium really opened my eyes to how much the dairy industry had changed in the last century and how much it needs to continue to change, especially in the Northeast, in order for farmers to continue to be successful,” Plotzker says. PD

“Dairy cattle have always fascinated me and I wanted to gain more experience with large animals in general, so I started looking for opportunities in the West where the farms are much bigger and dairy science is more widely studied.” Photo courtesy of SGPDC.

Dario Martinez
  • Dario Martinez

  • Assistant Editor
  • Email Dario Martinez