A billion-dollar industry with a labor shortage and no training program to speak of?
That’s where New Mexico dairies found themselves a decade ago as land grant universities nationwide – including New Mexico State University, Texas A&M and the University of Arizona – began giving up their costly on-campus dairy farms and resources for academic food production programs dwindled.
Those institutions banded together and founded a six-week summer program in Clovis now in its eighth year: the U.S. Dairy Education & Training Consortium. The industry-sponsored program is held at Clovis Community College, draws students and faculty from all over the country and partners with local dairies for hands-on training.
“Producers were asking, ‘Who can teach my son the business of milking 3,000 cows?’ There are no places that do that and land grant universities are no longer teaching production agriculture,” said Robert Hagevoort, NMSU extension dairy specialist and a founder of the consortium.
“We have 60 commercial herds within 60 minutes of here. The idea was, ‘We’ll teach them in the classroom, and go out in the afternoon and show them how it’s done.’ ”
The number of dairy farms in New Mexico and nationwide has been shrinking as high feed costs and low milk prices squeeze margins, but the number of dairy cows hasn’t declined. Farms have simply gotten bigger, with large operations snapping up smaller ones to generate economies of scale.
The trend toward larger dairies has generated a need for professional managers with the know-how to manage herds that in New Mexico can number in thousands, Hagevoort said.
Dairy farming in New Mexico is still in large part a family affair, although consolidation has been a trend here, too: The number of New Mexico dairies has declined from 180 at its peak in 2003 to 144 today, said Beverly Idsinga, executive director of Dairy Producers of New Mexico, an industry association.
Hagevoort said the herd size has declined from 360,000 head to about 320,000 head over the same time, but has been “fairly consistent” for the past several years.
“We have a labor shortage in agriculture, especially the dairy industry, not only in New Mexico, but throughout the U.S.,” Idsinga said. “They are always in need of highly trained, qualified managers.”
Cody Vander Dussen grew up on his family’s 10,000-cow dairy farm in Clovis, called Rajen Dairy, and studied agriculture business and economics at NMSU. He already knew a lot about dairying by the time he got to college – from feeding a bottle to a calf to farm management – and he also knew he wanted to come home to the family farm.
He took the consortium course in 2011.
“This course was important to me because it gave me the opportunity to see how other farms are set up and managed,” he said. “There are so many ways a dairy can be run, from operations to milking processes. You didn’t get just one narrow view of how your family runs its farm.”
Vander Dussen now looks after a herd of 2,500 at Rajen Dairy and hosts current students for hands-on training.
More than 90 applicants applied this year and 53 students from 23 universities nationwide were accepted, Hagevoort said. The roughly $3,000 per student cost of the program is underwritten by the dairy industry, but students pay their home institutions’ tuition for the course credit they earn.
“There is not a program like this – six weeks with intensive immersion in the industry – anywhere in the country,” Hagevoort said. “They are coming from Kansas and California and Washington state and Wisconsin and Maine, and everywhere.”
This year’s students graduated at the end of June.