A Herd of Their Own

School trains a new generation of dairy and livestock farmers.

STEVEN DAVIS’S FAMILY HAS A DAIRY FARM, and he’d like to keep it going. Sarah Stodola has had it with office work; she wants a farm lifestyle. Jason Heberlein plans to milk 500 dairy goats. Laura Miller works on a dairy farm and would like to be milking a herd of her own, but she’s worried about the cost of land.

Such are the dreams of students in this year’s Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers, a program of the UW-Madison’s Farm and Industry Short Course that aims to bring new blood into Wisconsin’s best-known industry. Those dreams have a good chance of coming true. Roughly 80 percent of the 14-year-old program’s graduates are actively farming, and about half of those have their own operations.

The school centers around a seminar on pasture-based livestock operations led by Dick Cates, who has raised beef cattle on pasture for more than two decades, and Jennifer Taylor, who graduated from the program in 1995. “We are a training and mentoring program,” says Cates. “Other professions have a way to train new people. Agriculture doesn’t have that, especially for people who are not from farms.”

Most of the 62 students enrolled this year take the seminar along with other courses in the Short Course curriculum. But since not all aspiring farmers can come to campus, more than a third participate via webcast in remote classrooms at six locations across the state.

Topics range from goal setting to business management to designing a low-cost milking parlor. As a final project, each student writes a business plan, which is reviewed by farm management experts.

Working farmers do much of the teaching. On the first day, Mike Klinker, a 2003 WSBDF grad, told the class how he started up on a shoestring, refitting an old barn with salvaged stalls and buying used equipment on a pay-as-you-go basis. “Invest your money in assets that make money,” he advised.

Jennifer Taylor echoed that: “Lease facilities. Beg, borrow or share equipment,” she exhorts the students. “Invest in cows. They generate returns and produce calves to build the herd. They are truly cash cows.”