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International students gain dairy experience at USDETC

Bev Berens for Progressive Dairyman Published on 09 September 2016
Jake Coy works in this milking shed daily

From food to culture to the New Mexico heat and the sheer magnitude of the U.S. dairy industry, nothing could really prepare the international students who attended the U.S. Dairy Education Training Consortium (USDETC) in Clovis, New Mexico, for the experience they were about to embark upon this past spring.

In 2007, USDETC opened its doors to the first class of students from Texas A&M, University of Arizona and New Mexico State University. All three schools dispersed herds and shut down university dairy facilities and programs, despite the large census of cow numbers and larger-than-average size herds in the region.

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According to USDETC founder and director, Dr. Michael Tomaszewski, the school is operated through corporate donations and does not charge American students who attend the program. International students pay to attend as they are taking the spot of an American student who may be a future player in the U.S. dairy industry.

All students pay for credits earned through their respective universities. The school can accommodate fifty students per session

Since its inception, the program has grown to embrace students from across the U.S. with a desire to learn the theory and practice of large herd management. Praise for the six-week program that focuses on one critical industry topic weekly has not only spread across the continent, but across oceans, and is beginning to attract a growing number of international students each year.

Jake Coy of New Zealand and Leen Leenaerts of Belgium were two students whose trips to this year’s program included crossing an ocean. Coy is the third Kiwi to attend. Both students found the political and practical end of their experience enlightening, and the contacts and friendships made during their stay will last a lifetime.

Leon Leenaerts of Belgium foound reproduction week most helpful

Leenaerts’ family owns a 220-cow dairy in Meerle, Belgium. Coy grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand, and is the son of a retired builder. Extended family in the dairy industry provided Coy with dairy experience and opportunity.

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Leenaerts and Coy, 22 and 21 years of age respectively, both felt prepared to experience the U.S. dairy industry by reading, researching and talking with professors. However, their preconceived impressions failed to match the enormity of seeing thousands of dairy cattle in a single location.

“I couldn’t believe what I saw when Dr. T. and I were driving up to the consortium,” Coy said. “I thought it was some sort of feedlot; no grass over there and an endless dry lot of cows. I asked him what it was and he said ‘Oh, that’s a dairy.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

Coy is in his fourth year of a degree in ag sciences at Lincoln University. It was during his studies that he really took to his country’s dairy industry and focused much of his education on the subject.

The seasonal grass-based industry in his country is a strong contrast to the confinement operations in the U.S. New Zealand is just entering its spring season, which brings calving, fresh grass and a new milking season.

“Calves will start dropping off in the next week, then followed by four to five weeks of calving, and then the season will begin,” Coy said. “We’ll run 830 head this year, that’s off a 230-hectare milking platform that’s irrigated. We wouldn’t be able to grow grass without irrigation here so water is pretty important. Pivots will be turned on in a couple of months.”

Having spent the previous semester working on a master’s degree at the University of Kentucky, Leenaerts had visited large dairies in Michigan and the Texas Panhandle, so the surprise of seeing huge dairy herds in one location was less shocking. The young Belgian would work up to 30 consecutive days, including weekends, in order to have a full week of time off to visit dairies. “America is a large country and it requires time to get around and see it,” he added.

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Leenaerts completed a bachelor of bioscience engineering in Leuven, Belgium, and is now working on a master’s degree in agricultural business economics at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. His studies have taken him to Indonesia for a research project on lambs, and to University of Kentucky to research the economics of a calving detections system.

He is currently in South Africa researching the preventative costs of mastitis in the country. Acceptance into the USDETC program came as an unexpected, but welcome, surprise.

The end of the European milk quota system didn’t automatically trigger large-scale herd size increases, according to Leenaerts. “We milked about 140 to 160 cows before the quota ended. Now we are milking about 220 cows.

“It is very difficult to expand because land prices are high and feed is expensive. There are much more regulations than here,” he said. “You also can’t expand beyond a certain level because we have a quota on manure that limits how much manure can come from a farm.”

Feeding calves, milking and farm administration are among Leenaerts’ favorite farm chores. He would like to own a farm in the U.S. someday, and his family is open to the possibility.

“Farming for me is not only a business, but also a way of living,” he said. “I don’t think I could do it without a partner, so my future girlfriend, [who] still needs to be found, might help make that decision [where to farm]. It’s a story full of uncertainties.”

“We teach dairy the way it was taught 50 years ago,” Tomaszewski said. “We spend four hours in the classroom, then four hours every day practicing what we learned that day on a farm.” The school takes advantage of, and is welcomed by, several large area dairies who provide cows and hands-on practice five days a week.

The method and the instructors brought both students plenty of challenges and opportunities to pick the brains of leading U.S. dairy researchers, educators and practitioners. Reproduction week was a favorite of both young men. “I never learned so much in one week,” Coy said.

“It’s a short time here in the U.S., and the weekends were short. We crammed a lot of weekend activities like going to the lake and visiting Lubbock into our time,” Coy added.

“The steak in Texas was amazing,” Leenaerts said. Mexican food was Coy’s favorite, but pronouncing the names of Spanish entrees was overwhelming. “I learned how to say fajitas and I ordered it every time we went to a restaurant, which was three or four times a week,” he laughed.

One tradition included sampling Rocky Mountain oysters. Both men bravely tried the local specialty. “Yep, I almost vomited,” Coy laughed. “A couple of us spit them out and ran to the toilet; the others enjoyed them I guess.”

In the end, both young men have a goal of returning to the states to work on large dairies to improve their management skills. With a little luck and a lot of skill, both also hope to eventually attain farm ownership status in the U.S.

“It is interesting to meet all the people from the dairy industry and students with the same interests,” Leenearts said. “I made some very good friends in the U.S. We keep in touch every day.”

“I definitely strongly recommend USDETC program,” Coy said. “From the New Zealand perspective and talking to professors, the things I took away and the friends I made, I give it a five-star rating.”  end mark

Bev Berens is a freelance writer in Holland, Michigan.

PHOTO 1: Double-40 herringbone parlors with swing cups are common in New Zealand milking systems. Jake Coy of Christchurch works in this milking shed daily. Photo provided by Jake Coy.

PHOTO 2: Leen Leenaerts of Belgium found reproduction week to be most valuable. Leenaerts hopes to someday move to the U.S. and own a dairy farm. Photo provided by Leen Leenaerts.

Check out images from Leen Leenaerts’ home farm in Belgium in this slideshow.

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