With a water bottle in hand and branded shirt, boots, and sunglasses on, Michael Azevedo is out the door to greet the sunshine of the Central Valley of California. His days now consist of visiting farms and discussing ingredients, rations, and management with dairymen — all things he is deeply passionate about.
A friendly conversation greets anyone who meets this young dairy nutritionist. That’s true whether he is speaking in English, Portuguese, or Spanish. It’s also true whether he’s talking about nutritional strategy with a dairyman or his latest grilling adventure with his fiancée, Becky. Passion for what he does basically radiates from his friendly smile and equally quick humor. It’s the kind of personality that an individual gains by living a lot of life in a few short years.
At 29 years old, Michael can certainly say he has done that while being thankful every day for the opportunity he has had to pull himself up by his bootstraps and make a name for himself in dairy.
Twenty feet from the cows
His story starts on a dairy in the Central Valley of California. His parents, Henrique and Maria, are immigrants from Portugal who made the decision to chase their American dream to California where they had family and a few connections. His father fed cows on a dairy for many years, and his mom cleaned houses. Their dream was doing what it took to provide for their children and give them the tools they would need to succeed in the world.
Michael explained that those formative years growing up on the farm are what started his journey toward a career in dairy. “That’s where my passion for dairy started,” he shared. “The calf pens were not even 20 feet from our back door, and I was often out on the farm helping out.”
He started working officially when he was 13 years old, and that first job was not particularly clean and cushy. “I remember working long evenings and late into the night cleaning silage trucks until they were all ready to go back out the next day,” he recalled. During his five years working for a silage custom harvester, Michael advanced to running harvesting equipment and other more technical jobs for the company.
As soon as he graduated high school, he took a job at the local cheese plant — Hilmar Cheese. First, he worked in receiving and later moved into quality assurance and food safety. The work was hard and the hours remained long. The people were what left an impact on Michael.
“Hilmar was a great place to work, and they took care of me. It was actually one of my managers, Ted Dykzuel, that encouraged me to go to college,” he reflected. “When I decided to go, they made my work schedule as flexible as they could. I was able to work a permanent swing shift taking the hours that other people didn’t want to work.”
An opportunity for college
Michael started taking classes at Modesto Junior College and Merced Community College, alternating between locations and classes depending on what aligned best with his work schedule.
“Some days I would start at Merced, drive the hour up to Modesto, catch a class then head straight to the cheese plant to work a long shift,” he explained.
Once he completed his associate’s degree, he transferred to Fresno State University. Michael continued to travel the 1.5 hours back to Hilmar to work at the cheese plant three or four days a week during his junior year of college. Classes and studying occupied the rest of his time.
“It was great for saving money because I was so busy I didn’t have time to spend the money I was making,” he chuckled. “Now, I can’t even imagine how I pulled those kind of hours.”
His ability to do so was probably linked to the incredible work ethic instilled in him by his family. Working for a great company and coordinating with professors who cared likely helped, too. It’s a true testament to the saying, “If there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Back to his passion
During his junior year, Michael opened one of those unassuming emails that college students get on almost a weekly basis.
“It was a summer internship announcement for Elanco. I read it, thought ‘I’m not qualified,’ and then I applied anyway,” he remembered. “The day after I applied for the internship I got a phone call for a local in-person interview at Fresno State for the internship. They interviewed about 10 people at the local level.”
He continued, “Then they called and said, ‘We want to fly you out to Greenfield, Ind., for an in-person interview.’”
He got selected as one of 14 summer interns for Elanco and was based out of Atlanta, Ga.
“It was a really difficult decision for me to accept the internship and leave the really great situation I had at Hilmar, but I wanted to try out the internship and get back to the part of dairy that I was really passionate about----- — working with cows,” he explained.
He also took every opportunity during that summer internship to explore the Southeast. Having never traveled to that part of the country, the cultural experience was really great for him and helped him see the world through different lenses.
“I didn’t spend many weekends in Atlanta, there was too much to see,” he said.
Finding his way home
At Fresno State, Michael was involved in the regional and national North American Dairy Challenge events. From that experience and his summer internship in Atlanta, Michael began to pursue the idea of working in the service industry for dairymen.
“I networked with a lot of people at Dairy Challenge and then continued to network through the school year,” he said. “I liked the idea of being a nutritionist so I talked to several nutritionists in my part of California about what the job entailed.”
At the beginning of his senior year, he had accepted a job with Cargill Animal Nutrition. The position was based in the Central Valley and brought him home, but in a different capacity than growing up on the farm.
He now spends his days on the same turf he grew up on, but a college education and a lot of hard work now allows him to help dairy farmers, managers, and employees optimize diets and improve their farms every day.
The average day for Michael includes visiting farms, planning rations for cows, and analyzing reports and records. He said he most appreciates being on the farms and helping dairymen make decisions that will lead to more profitability.
It’s all come full circle, and he couldn’t be more happy. He’s had to take risks and step out on faith at times, but Michael said that he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Everything just fell into place for me,” he explained. “I know it took hard work, too, but now I get to do something I’m passionate about every day.”