May 6 2014 06:58 AM

The Smith-Lever Act was signed into law on May 8, 1914, and the Cooperative Extension Service was born.

This Thursday, the Cooperative Extension System turns 100 years old. President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation a century ago, on May 8, 1914, that extended the land-grant university concept beyond college campuses to reach communities across the United States.

That legislation, known as the Smith-Lever Act, created the Cooperative Extension System (CES) as a partnership between federal, state and county governments. The act's stated purpose was "… to aid in diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture, home economics and rural energy, and to encourage the application of the same, there may be continued or inaugurated in connection with the college or colleges in each State, Territory, or possession…"

Congress originally designed the extension system to address rural, agricultural issues. At that time, 50 percent of the population lived in rural areas and 30 percent of the workforce was engaged in farming. Cooperative Extension helped livestock and crop producers become more profitable and more efficient on their farms as agriculture continued to evolve.

Today, just 17 percent of Americans live in rural areas, but extension still plays a role in the lives of rural, urban and suburban citizens. With almost 2,900 offices, the Cooperative Extension Service brings information and education in the areas of youth development, agriculture, natural resources, family and consumer sciences, and community and economic development to people across the nation.

Just as Cooperative Extension has changed over the past 100 years, so has the dairy industry. Back in 1914, 5.14 million farms reported having milk cows. Average herd size was 3.3 cows, and each of the nation's 19.5 million milk cows produced around 4,000 pounds of milk per year. Today, America's 9.2 million cows live on 46,960 farms and produce an average of 21,822 pounds of milk per year.
Abby blog footerThe author is an associate editor and covers animal health, dairy housing and equipment, and nutrient management. She grew up on a dairy farm near Plymouth, Wis., and previously served as a University of Wisconsin agricultural extension agent. She received a master's degree from North Carolina State University and a bachelor's from University of Wisconsin-Madison.