Members of the UW–Madison Dairy Challenge team carried on a Badger tradition with a top-tier finish at the North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge national contest held the first weekend in April in northeast Wisconsin.

The four-member team of Gaelan Combs, Josh Gerbitz, Colin Uecker and Billy Zeimet, coached by Ted Halbach, a dairy management instructor in UW–Madison’s Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences, placed ahead of five other collegiate teams in their bracket.  Dairy Challenge is a case-study competition in which students analyze the key management areas of a commercial dairy farm.

The students, all dairy science majors, visited Soaring Eagle Dairy near Newton, Wis., where they examined the dairy’s financial and production records and observed farm operations before developing recommendations for nutrition, reproduction, milking procedures, animal health, cow comfort, labor and financial management. A five-person panel consisting of a dairy producer, veterinarian, finance specialist and agribusiness personnel judged their recommendations and selected the top teams.

UW–Madison has placed either first or second in the last six contests. Due to the pandemic, the contest that was scheduled for Green Bay in 2020 was canceled and ultimately rescheduled for 2022. The 2021 contest was held virtually, so this year’s competition marked the first time teams have visited farms since 2019.

Dairy Challenge is a unique competition where dairy students work as a team and apply their college coursework to evaluate and provide solutions for an operating dairy farm. This year’s contest included 22 universities, whose four-person teams competed for awards based on the quality of their farm analysis and appropriate solutions.

Halbach said the teams received the farm’s records on Thursday night, visited the farm for two hours on Friday and then had five hours to put together a presentation that laid out opportunities for improvement on the farm.

Team members admitted it can be a bit awkward for 21- or 22-year-old college students to be making recommendations to seasoned dairy farmers but said the host dairies offer their operations willingly to see what the students think could make their farms more efficient and profitable.

“I live on a dairy farm, so from my perspective, you take so much pride in your farm that it’s really tough to have someone come in and say, ‘You need to do this better,’” Zeimet said. “[So] I just really appreciate the opportunity to go in there and look at these people’s farms the way we do. But I think everybody gets something out of it.”

Uecker said the producers open up their farms with the attitude that the students might bring new ideas to their operation.

“It gives the producer an opportunity to step back and have a fresh set of eyes and a different mindset or approach to some things they are doing,” he said. “It’s always good to bring new ideas onto any business.”

Gerbitz said progressive farmers are eager to participate in the event because of the program’s positive reputation.

“A part of this process has been developing our presentation skills through our classes. You start by saying this is being done well on the farm and this could be a little better. I think it’s something that all of us are going to have to do throughout our professional careers,” he said. “And maybe there’s a solution we can bring that they might not have thought of before.”

Combs said the team practiced in advance on Madison-area farms and used knowledge gained in classes through their four-year college careers to prepare for the competition.

“It was fun to work with these guys,” Combs said of the Dairy Challenge team. “It’s reassuring that your four years of education went to something productive.”    

“I think we really gain teamwork and conflict resolution skills out of this experience,” Zeimet said. “You’re under this really tight deadline and you might not all agree on what to prioritize. You really have to trust your teammates to identify the opportunities on the farm.” 

In advance of the competition, team members divvied up responsibilities for digging into the farm records and making observations while on the farm. Halbach said the team has to demonstrate to the judges that it has a thorough understanding of each of the farm’s management areas even if their recommendations might not target each of them.

The team’s final recommendations focused primarily on adjusting the diet for dry cows, as well as some suggestions regarding pen stocking density.

Over its 20-year history, Dairy Challenge has helped more than 10,000 students prepare for careers in the dairy industry.

“Dairy Challenge has greatly influenced how dairy management is taught at the university level all across the country,” Halbach said. “The contest has great sponsorship support because these companies have an opportunity to recruit young people trained to go into their disciplines.”

Each student on the first-place teams received a $200 scholarship. Other first-place teams in the respective brackets were the University of Minnesota, Michigan State University, and California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

Other host farms for the competition included Strutz Farm Inc., Two Rivers, Wis.; Brickstead Dairy, Greenleaf, Wis.; and Collins Dairy, Greenleaf, Wis.

Gerbitz and Uecker have landed jobs in the artificial insemination industry after they graduate in May, while Combs will continue his studies in a graduate-level animal-health program at Iowa State University, and Zeimet plans to work into a partnership role on a dairy farm near Deerfield.

Many contributing factors helped lead to the team’s success, notes Halbach. “It takes a village – including practice farms, faculty and industry professionals –  to provide the mentorship and resources necessary for our students to achieve this level of success. I can’t thank these individuals enough.”

Read the full press release here