The MBA of Dairy

The average age of a Wisconsin farmer is over 56 and rising, and the state has been losing around 500 dairy farms per year. It’s no surprise, then, that experts say it’s critical to prepare young people to step into farm roles in order to keep the state’s $88 billion agricultural economy strong into the future.

But making the transition into dairy farming is complicated, and aspiring farmers often don’t have the capital or the experience to take over an established operation.

Enter the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA) program, which is working to address the issue by providing support for young people interested in becoming dairy farmers. Started in 2010, the first-of-its-kind program is administered by the Wisconsin-based nonprofit GrassWorks, Inc., with CALS as a key partner.

Earlier this year, DGA received $750,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The funding will enable organizers to improve and expand the program in Wisconsin, as well as explore the possibility of rolling it out to other dairy states.

“It’s a meat-and-potatoes program that really takes people up to the level where they can own and operate their own dairy,” says DGA director Joe Tomandl. “It’s the MBA of dairy.”

Program participants complete 4,000 hours of paid training over two years, most of it alongside experienced dairy farmers, and work their way up from apprentices to Journey Dairy Graziers and Master Dairy Graziers. Although most of that time is spent in on-the-job training, there’s also a significant requirement for related instruction. That’s where CALS comes in.

As part of the program, apprentices attend a seminar about pasture-based dairy and livestock through the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers (WSBDF), which is co-sponsored by the CALS-based Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and the Farm and Industry Short Course. The seminar involves a 32-hour commitment, which is generally fulfilled through distance education and includes instruction from CALS professors from dairy, animal and soil sciences.

“We believe in the Wisconsin Idea and want to make sure our classes are accessible to people who want more education, but preferably close to where they live and work,” says Nadia Alber, a WSBDF outreach coordinator who helps organize the seminar and also serves on the DGA board.

In 2009, GrassWorks, Inc. turned to WSBDF director Dick Cates PhD’83 for guidance and access to a well-respected educational curriculum to help get the DGA up and running—and the WSBDF team has been involved ever since.

“We were just this little nonprofit with a very small budget trying to compete for a big federal grant,” says Tomandl. “For us, it was important to have UW–Madison as a strategic partner.”

As part of the most recent round of funding, DGA’s partners at CALS will lead an effort to quantify the program’s broader impacts.
“They have already proven that participants are moving along to their own farms after the apprenticeship, so they have an established track record,” says Alber. “This new study will look at some of the program’s other impacts, including economic, environmental and social.”