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Students make allied industry connections through NMSU's dairy consortium

CLOVIS, N.M. - When Merel Rodenburg first attended New Mexico State University's Southern Great Plains Dairy Consortium in Clovis in 2010, she expected to get some real technical book knowledge to supplement her studies in animal production. What the University of Arizona senior didn't expect was the intensive hands-on experience she would get - as well as the industry professionals she would connect with.

Mike Hutchins talks with consortium students about the different grains and hays that make up the feed given to dairy cows on farms. Through the six-week course, students visit local dairies and farms on a daily basis to see how producers operate their businesses. (NMSU photo by Audry Olmsted)

"This is a very interactive, people-oriented industry. It's very close knit," Rodenburg, who has just finished the second session of the program, said. "People from all over the country know each other and work with each other. These are the people you get to know, professionals who are in the field now. There are a lot of students in the class now who are really the future of the dairy industry. If you want to go into this field, you are going to have to see these people over and over again, and really build a relationship with them. That is already evident here at this consortium."

NMSU's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences collaborates with Texas A&M and the University of Arizona to draw students from 11 institutions to create the consortium, which provides leadership, support and resources for the development and facilitation of education and research in large herd dairy management.

Those resources and connections are essential to the 52 students who participated this year in the Large Herd Dairy Management program, as many of them are on the cusp of graduating - or have already earned a degree - and are considering their next career moves.

"These students get to know the who's-who in the industry," said Robert Hagevoort, NMSU Extension dairy specialist who is co-coordinator of the consortium. "They get to know the companies that have a vested interest in the future of the industry. They build those relationships. We've seen several of those relationships come to job positions."

Eric Banuelos, who recently graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor's in animal science and a minor in veterinary science, said he has received multiple job offers, but has chosen to hold off on accepting a position for the time being in order to pursue a master's degree in agricultural education.

The graduate said he has maintained a close contact with the students and dairy industry professionals he met through the program. Through this experience, he wants to educate the public on the positive happenings within the dairy industry.

"I want to take away from this program my knowledge and help share it with the people who don't quite understand what is going on in the industry and make it as appealing to the general public as possible," he said.

Kacie Boden, a senior at NMSU, said she knew she wanted to go into veterinary work, focusing on large herd animals, but was not aware of the consortium until a mentor guided her in that direction. Trying to figure out how milk gets from the dairy to the store, and learning how producers can produce the amount of milk to meet the demands of the public, were topics that fascinated Boden, so she decided to sign up.

The self-proclaimed hands-on learner described her first session as "absolutely phenomenal," and said she would definitely be attending next year.

She said her favorite aspect of the program is "being able to go out to the dairies almost every day and meet with the producers and meet with their workers, and be able to see how they operate. We've been able to palpate cows, practice AI, and work with tracts within the lab. The hands-on experience, hands down, is the best part of the program."

The program is comprised of two six-week summer sessions and an internship. Students can earn up to nine credit hours at their home universities by participating. Since the program started four years ago, the number of participants has steadily increased from 18 its first year to the 52 who just completed the summer session.

Hagevoort said that through a survey conducted last year, 17 of the 18 original students are still working within the dairy industry today, while about 16 of the 22 participants in the second year are also working within the allied industry, on the actual dairy or through an internship. The remaining students are finishing their degrees.

"We are starting to see more and more students in the allied industry," he said. "It is really neat to see how they have involved themselves with the industry, how they talk about the program later on in retrospect, looking back on how they've utilized the wide array of information that they've received here in the six weeks."

Mike Hutchins, a former Extension specialist and professor of animal science at the University of Illinois, said his favorite aspect is watching the students grow through the program and ask questions and gain confidence in their knowledge of the dairy industry that they can take with them when they go home.

"I think this is where the action is," he said. "If there is a value I can add to this program and challenge these students and round out their curriculum, I love to do it."

Hagevoort said he would like to see the program continue to grow, which could prove to be a challenge as it is local people in the dairy industry, as well as sponsors who teach the students and take care of them by housing and providing meals. The goal now is to review the program and see what can ben done to accommodate everyone who is interested in participating without jeopardizing the quality of the program.

"That by far is the most important thing - the interaction with the industry, going out to the dairies, the hands-on part - that's the strength of this program. We have to maintain that," Hagevoort said."

Rodenburg, who is now applying for veterinary school, said this is a one-of-a-kind dairy program and encouraged students interested in the dairy industry to take part in this opportunity.

"I've always loved agriculture and been very passionate for the ideals that stand behind agriculture," Rodenburg said. "This was really a merger of those two great things that I really appreciate and really want to be a part of."

But, Banuelos laughed, students need to be prepared to work.

For more information on the Southern Great Plains Dairy Consortium, call Hagevoort at 806-786-3421 or visit http://thedairyconsortium.org/.