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More than showing: Tennessee dairyman’s involvement as a youth shapes early career

Erica Louder for Progressive Dairyman Published on 09 June 2017
Matt Mitchell and Sandra with son Ben

This famous, or better yet, infamous Mark Twain quote has been the rallying cry for many an ambitious youth. It goes, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” This was the case for eastern Tennessee dairyman Matt Mitchell.

His time in the classroom, and especially his time out of the classroom, shaped his future in the dairy industry. That, alongside some excellent mentors and supportive family, has made his Rocky Top Holsteins herd one of the foremost in the show arena.

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Though Mitchell’s family history runs deep in dairy, one might argue he is a first-generation dairyman. Both sets of grandparents owned dairies but sold them when he was a kid. Mitchell’s parents continued to work in the industry and encouraged him to show cattle, where he quickly began to shine. As a child, he would show a heifer for two years and sell her when she calved.

At 13, he convinced his dad to keep a heifer. That year, Mitchell’s animals performed well at World Dairy Expo, and he sold them to a dairy in Mexico. Using that money, he renovated his grandfather’s milking parlor.

A year later, the teenager was milking 20 cows, winning at shows across the country and had plans for future renovations to the farm. Those later renovations included building a new pack barn and box stalls to keep his best show cows.

As an active member in the Tennessee Junior Holstein Association, Mitchell built a network of friends in the industry who would prove valuable to his growth.

“Participating in the Junior Holstein Association and attending the national convention allowed me to meet people from all over the country I am still friends with today,” he says. “They are people who share the same passion for the dairy industry as I do.

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That kind of network is important.” Aside from the show ring, programs like the public speaking competition honed Mitchell’s skills and gave him confidence.

Mitchell continued to show and milk his way through high school and into college. He boasts he was easily gone half of the days his senior year of high school. Like Twain, Mitchell was not letting “school” interfere with his education.

Before long, he was traveling the country, showing his animals and fitting animals for other operations. He says in college he spent half his time on the road and the other half in class. While his professors may try to argue that value, there is no doubt Mitchell’s time was well spent.

His passion for the dairy industry has shaped his career. While continuing to own and show cattle, today he is an independent dairy consultant, providing nutrition work for 17,000 dairy cows across the Southeast. The success he has in his career he credits to his time as a youth budding in the industry.

Mitchell says, “Working like I did as a kid gave me a lot of firsthand experience not abundant in the industry today. My clients know that and, I believe, respect my input because of that experience.”

Mitchell gives credit to his parents for serving as mentors and supporting his interests.

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“My parents were by far the biggest influence and support team in my growth and, really, my dad is as much part of this operation as I am,” he says.

Mitchell goes on to say, “You know, it’s hard to pinpoint just one person as a mentor. The people in this industry are the best and hardest-working in the country. I can credit that example as a whole.”

Today, as president of the Tennessee Holstein Association, Mitchell has the opportunity to mentor other youth in the junior association. He sees the value in programs that shaped his life.

With Mitchell’s work as a consultant, his herd is now noticeably smaller, with five to eight cows milking at any time and around 50 total animals. However, the size has not stopped Rocky Top Holsteins from improving the herd. For the last two years, they have had the highest breed age average in the nation for their herd size, and they have numerous All-American Holstein nominations and wins.

Mitchell continues to work with his parents, but it has grown into a larger family affair with his wife, Sandra, son, Ben; and another child on the way. With that in mind, Mitchell says he is not really sure what the future looks like for the dairy, but he wants his children to have the same opportunities he had.

“I want them to be able to work with cows every day,” he says. “Maybe that will mean milking five cows, or maybe it will mean milking 200 cows. Either way, I am excited for the challenge.”

In more ways than one, dairying for Mitchell is as much of a lifestyle as it is a livelihood.  end mark

PHOTO: Matt Mitchell with wife, Sandra, and son, Ben. Photo courtesy Matt Mitchell. 

Erica Louder is a freelance writer based in Idaho.

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