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Literally a "hands-on" contest. University of Idaho team members Adam Beard, Brandy Janicek and Christine Basel assess forage quality during the 2005 North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge. Their four-member team, which also included Dan Richardson, received a Platinum second place rating at the contest.
It's not fun and games in this "milking parlor." College students get a taste of the real world, and dairy companies get to mingle with potential new hires and display their wares when the North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge (NAIDC) comes to campus. The annual dairy operation judging contest has quickly become a breeding ground for fresh opportunities for education and many areas of the industry.

"The NAIDC challenges dairy science students to apply theory and learning to actual dairy operations while working as part of a team," says Stanley Bird, NAIDC steering committee member with Imagination Unlimited Consulting Group, New Brighton, Minn.

The NAIDC, which enters its fifth year in 2006, is designed to provide opportunities for primarily juniors and seniors to compete at the national level and underclassmen to participate regionally. As new technology enters the industry, it also becomes part of the Challenge. About 200 students per year take part in the program around the country, competing and networking with dairy industry leaders during the events.

During the first day of the national competition, for example, each four-person team from participating universities receives actual information about two or three dairies, including production and farm management data. Following an on-site operation evaluation, teams develop a comprehensive program, including recommendations for nutrition, reproduction, milking procedures, animal health, housing and financial management.

On day two, team members present recommendations and field questions from a panel of qualified industry judges. The presentations are evaluated and winners named based on the analysis and recommendations. Some students return to the classroom to hone skills for next year's competition. Others enter the workforce better prepared for the industry.

"The Dairy Challenge has been well received by students and colleges. After four years, we have maxed out entries for our two-day events," says Don Rogers, First Pioneer Farm Credit, Enfield, Conn., who helps organize the Northeast Regional Dairy Challenge.


"The NAIDC started because there were gaps between what was being taught and what needed to be taught," says Rogers, who sat on the NAIDC steering committee and has served as a judge. "The competition quickly has become popular because agricultural colleges increasingly need help in generating support for innovative teaching programs."

In addition, Rogers says, "Dollars and staff are shrinking, which requires different approaches to teaching. At the same time, animal science students need to understand the economics of dairying and see that the industry is a positive place to make a difference. We need a new generation of large animal veterinarians, dairy herd managers and feed nutrition consultants, as well as agricultural loan officers and other professionals."

Miriam Weber Nielsen, associate professor at Michigan State University and current NAIDC chair, adds that participation has increased dramatically, from 13 universities in 2002 to 27 universities in 2005.

"University faculty see the tremendous value of the Dairy Challenge as a culminating experience in student education in dairy management. Because the NAIDC significantly defrays the costs for universities to travel to and participate in the Dairy Challenge, we can provide a great learning experience and networking opportunity for our students in spite of reduced teaching budgets."

David Thorbahn, general manager for Select Sires, Plain City, Ohio, and founding chairman of the NAIDC, says the program helps students develop individual problem-solving skills. "The program gives students the motivation to study and work with other students and industry representatives, in part because this is a fun approach to learning," he says. "Students tell us the Dairy Challenge is one of the most valuable experiences they get outside the classroom. Some even return to help with the contest."

Thorbahn says some university team coaches conduct their own contests to see which students will get to compete in the Challenge each year. "Educators also get to interact with other university instructors and share ideas," he adds. "Some have added courses and changed curriculum to better prepare students based on feedback and results from the Challenge. It has even become a student recruitment tool in some cases."

Dave Selner, professional dairy consultant, Shawano, Wisc., and founding member of the NAIDC, has similar views. "This is an all-encompassing experience for students that combines the classroom with practical experience," he says. "The university gains awareness of whether or not their program is relevant, or if changes need to be made. The dairy operations involved get to listen to several opinions of how they can improve their herd but also the opportunity to work with students and give back to the industry. And allied dairy industry companies ultimately get better-prepared employees."


Companies that choose to sponsor the national competition or the newer regional events get several opportunities to market and position their businesses with students. Not only do companies have the chance to network with students, many provide judges for the competition, exhibit during the event and interact with others involved with the contest.

"The sponsor firms have a strong appreciation for the contest's place in keeping students up-to-date on the dairy industry while encouraging participants to remain within the industry. Several sponsors actively recruit employees at the competition," says Bird.

"Farm Credit has taken a very active interest in the Dairy Challenge. We believe NAIDC, in creating an exciting educational experience, shows college students that the dairy industry is a vital career," says Rogers. "Farm Credit is one of the biggest sponsors of both regional and national programs because when you can reach this many students, it is a 'no-brainer.' It is not difficult to get other industry sponsors to support the program with money and staff, either. We all see a need to serve agriculture."

Chad Staudinger, a past student participant from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, noted following a competition, "The contest was of great benefit to me from an educational standpoint because I learned how important it was to work as a team to be successful in dairy consulting. ... Interaction with sponsors was another perk of attending the contest. During the entire contest we were surrounded by industry representatives and had ample time to discuss our future careers. Some companies explained career opportunities to us and how we can pursue them if we are interested."

"Companies that get involved with the NAIDC get to interact with students outside of a campus interview," says Selner. "You get to evaluate young people as employees and see how they communicate, perform as team players, work with time constraints and more. You can look at the skill sets that are hard to evaluate any other way."


The NAIDC, which conducts regional contests in the Northeast and Midwest already, will add a third regional contest in Merced, Calif., next year. Regional competitions place students from different universities on teams together, and give NAIDC coordinators a chance to get more students involved.

"The Dairy Challenge has made a big impact with its expansion. We are reaching more students, and we are reaching small programs as well as large ones," says Rogers.

He notes that a lot of animal science programs are changing and cover more topics today. "More freshmen entering animal science are women, and many of these students have varied animal interests outside of dairy," says Rogers. "By offering the Challenge, we may attract more animal science majors to dairy and get more applicants for jobs."

"The future of the dairy industry is in the quality of employees companies can recruit. The Dairy Challenge has a positive image impact and provides companies with brand value," says Thorbahn. "With the practical nature of the contest, students have more opportunities to observe, imitate and repeat what they learn. These are the brightest and best students out there, and that gives us a good outlook for the future."

For more information or to get involved, visit AM

Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer based in Edwardsville, Ill.

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