Published on 11/30/16

Dairy students learn consulting, networking at Southern Regional Dairy Challenge

By Sharon Dowdy

Georgia dairyman Adam Graft listened carefully as teams of college students gave their educated opinions on how he manages his 3,200-acre Americus, Georgia, dairy farm.

More than 80 students from 15 agricultural colleges across the Southeast visited Graft's farm as part of the annual Southern Regional Dairy Challenge held in Cordele, Georgia, Nov. 13-15. Hosted this year by the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the event is designed to prepare college students for careers in the dairy industry.

Divided into intercollegiate teams, the students toured Graft’s farm, Leatherbrook Holsteins, on Monday, Nov. 14. They then collaborated to develop recommendations on farm management and presented their findings before Graft and a team of dairy industry judges on Tuesday, Nov. 15. Each team gave their recommendations based on nutrition, reproduction, milking procedures, animal health, housing and financial management. They also had to take into consideration the farm operation’s ultimate goal and vision. 

“The students’ recommendations and thoughts are organized into the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats they observe on the farm. In other words, what is the farm doing well and where are there some opportunities for improvement?” said UGA animal and dairy science Assistant Professor Jillian Fain Bohlen.

“They must provide the farmer with an outline of how to improve and what this will ultimately mean to him in the long run, normally for enhanced profitability,” said Bohlen, who hosted and organized this year’s event on behalf of UGA.

A 2000 animal health graduate of UGA’s Department of Animal and Dairy Science, Graft knows the students need to evaluate farm operations in order to learn to be agricultural consultants. After practicing at a dairy in California for four years, Graft returned to Georgia in 2005 to lease a dairy. He and his wife purchased their current 6,000-cow dairy farm in 2008.

Since then, the couple has steadily expanded the farm, adding several freestall barns and a rotary parlor, and increasing acreage from 1,000 acres to 3,200 acres.

“Our dairy is a clean slate for the students to pick through,” Graft said. “I was told to be ready to have really thick skin, and I do. The students had some really valid points. This experience teaches them how to consult on a facility. It’s great to learn in a classroom, but this helps them take it to the next level.”

Following the presentations, the judges evaluated the student team’s recommendations. As a whole, they reminded the students to listen to the farmer and not to evaluate based solely on farm records.

“(Dairy farming) is a way of life and we all enjoy it, but at the end of the day, it’s about the money. Did you bring any dollars to the table? What happens if (the farmer) does this versus this?” said Andy Fielding, a senior dairy technical consultant for Purina Mills and one of this year’s Southern Region Dairy Challenge judges. “If there is a problem, a consultant’s job is to identify what the farmer can do and how he can make money.”

This was CAES student Nathan Webb’s third dairy challenge event. Webb, who plans to earn a doctorate in dairy nutrition and to someday own his own dairy, enjoys meeting and working with dairy science students from other universities.

“It’s surprising how many of these students I run into later at American Dairy Science Association events and the national dairy challenge event,” said Webb, who will be attending the North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge in March 2017.

Bohlen says the regional conference also prepares her students for the North American challenge, which will be held in Visalia, California.

“This was a fantastic opportunity for these students to learn on such a tremendous dairy operation and from the industry professionals at the conference,” Bohlen said.

For more information on studying animal and dairy science at CAES, go to

Sharon Dowdy is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

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