A lot of jobs in the dairy industry are very specialized in that they require an understanding of the biology of the cow and the unique characteristics of farming. As an industry, we’ve been blessed to have a consistent supply of technical school and university graduates to replace those who are retiring or transition into other fields. Many of these recent grads bring with them advanced technological skills and a unique passion for agriculture. However, we are at a time when the dairy industry can’t take the future availability of our workforce needs for granted.
The vast majority of young people who enter the dairy industry have had some sort of prior “touchpoint” with dairy, whether it was showing a calf at the county fair or visiting a relative that lives on a farm. Young people “catch the bug” from those experiences, and in many cases, they can lead them to pursue related educational and career opportunities.
The consolidation we are seeing in the dairy industry, especially in farm numbers, is also showing up in our traditional youth programs. For example, in 2008 there were 13,962 dairy farms in Wisconsin and 4,414 youth enrolled in the 4-H dairy project. By 2022, those numbers fell to 6,533 dairy farms and 3,037 youth. That is a decrease of 53% in the number of dairy herds and a 31% decline in the number of youth enrolled in the 4-H dairy project.
For me, these numbers are linked because fewer dairy “touchpoints” means fewer impressionable youth getting hooked by their early dairy experience. A decline in 4-H and FFA dairy project numbers is now being felt by our post-secondary programs, which will result in fewer candidates to be herd managers, consultants, and large animal veterinarians.
What can we do as an industry to stem this trend? I believe it starts at the producer level. I am always impressed when I visit a farm and it includes a dedicated area for youth to work with show calves. In many cases, those dairies coordinate with local 4-H clubs to offer managerial animals. Participating youth get to work with calves in a managed environment that leads to the reward of exhibiting at the county fair. Such arrangements not only provide a high impact opportunity for youth, but their enthusiasm can also carry over as a positive vibe to the entire dairy operation.
Beyond directly working with youth, producers can say “yes” when asked to provide cattle for youth workshops and competitions, whether it be for dairy judging or the collegiate level Dairy Challenge. No doubt, volunteering cattle or your dairy for such programs requires time and resources. The effort can be justified by viewing it as an investment in the future.
Over the years, we have become accustomed to the allied dairy industry generously providing essential funding for many of our youth programs. However, producers are often missing from those sponsor lists. I would simply ask that producers be open to those opportunities when they are presented.
Collectively, with a purposeful plan to positively engage youth and support their programming, dairy farmers can make a difference. Of all the industry players, they should be the most invested to ensure the industry’s future supply of a dependable and skilled workforce. As someone who grew up on a farm, it was understood that when a big project arose, it was all hands on deck. To guarantee a next generation for our industry, it requires that same commitment and thinking.