By Bridget O’Meara, Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship
Historically, the family has been the primary institution for providing training, experience and resources to the next generation of dairy farmers. Dairying is a lifestyle as well as a profession that has long been passed down from parents to children. Aspiring dairy farmers not born on a farm have little chance of attaining the skills, knowledge, cattle, equipment and land needed to achieve their dreams. Even for those with related work experience, without managerial skills, investment capital or a farm to inherit, the barriers to ownership are formidable.
At the same time, dairy producers without a willing heir often are forced to sell off their cows and land upon retirement. Because new farmers are not entering the profession at a rate to offset the loss of retiring producers, fewer small and mid-sized farms remain to meet industry needs, and so large confinement operations have expanded.
A New Solution
It doesn’t have to be this way. Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA) is an innovative program based in Wisconsin that aims to diversify and strengthen the dairy industry by creating a new generation of independent and sustainable dairy farmers who can help meet industry needs, restore vital natural resources and repopulate rural communities. Following the well-established educational model for other skilled professions, this formal Apprenticeship in “managed grazing” dairy production combines on-the-job training and mentoring under a Master Dairy Grazier with paid related instruction. Apprentices earn while they learn, becoming Dairy Grazing Apprentices, Journey Dairy Graziers, and finally Master Dairy Graziers themselves on a pathway to independent farm ownership that draws on existing support structure, and places experienced farmers at the center of the educational process.
Established in 2010 by GrassWorks, Inc., a Wisconsin producer organization, and the Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards, Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (BAS-WDWD), with support from USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Beginning Farmers and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), DGA is the first accredited, legally recognized Apprenticeship for farming in the nation.
“Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship is a program created by and for farmers,” said Joseph Tomandl, III, DGA Program Director and third generation dairy farmer. “In Wisconsin, farmers have been experimenting for a while with new educational models, including learning clusters, mentorships, employee training and farm transition. Apprenticeship not only incorporates the best of these efforts but also provides a level of standardization and professionalism that we really need right now.”
While experienced farmers who participate in DGA are at different stages in their careers, they share a commitment to helping the next generation get started. Tomandl himself is a Master Dairy Grazier and has gone through the program with his employee and Apprentice, Clem Miller. As an investment, Tomandl purchased a second farm near his home farm in Medford, Wis., which Miller currently manages with the option to transition into ownership.
Retiring dairy producers and Master Dairy Graziers, Glen and Mary Harder of Rib Lake, Wis., were able to transition out of ownership over a period of three years while their Apprentice, Brandon Probst, developed the managerial skills and equity needed to take over the farm. Through Apprenticeship, Master Dairy Graziers Greg and Wendy Galbraith, who run a grass-based dairy near Wausau, Wis., provided Apprentice Gabrielle Rojas with a solid educational foundation, management experience and equity in cattle that she used to leverage the financing of her own farm.
The Galbraiths view their participation in the DGA as a rewarding responsibility. “It was nice to have help from Gabby, but we didn’t just see her Apprenticeship as a means of acquiring labor,” Greg said. “We had a responsibility to take time to teach her.” “We are happy to have the opportunity to help shape a new generation of dairy farmers who are able to buy their own farm and continue the tradition of family-owned dairies,” Wendy added.
Formal Program Structure
Farmers interested in mentoring a beginning farmer or helping an employee take the next step toward ownership now have a teaching framework and a support system in formal Apprenticeship. The DGA curriculum was created by a committee comprised of veteran dairy farmers, grazing educators, industry representatives and other stakeholders. It is composed of 4,000 paid hours of training over two years (the equivalent of a full-time job). 3,712 of these hours are on-farm employment under the guidance of an approved Master Dairy Grazier. As an Apprentice gains skills and confidence, the Master documents that progress in the comprehensive DGA Training Guide, often referred to as “The Job Book,” which identifies the core competencies required to operate a managed grazing dairy farm. The Job Book provides structure to the mentoring process.
“The teaching structure of the program is very effective,” sad Master Dairy Grazier, Kay Craig. “As producers, we can be more focused on getting the work done than on the reasons behind our decisions. Having benchmarks laid out ahead of time makes us more conscious of the knowledge and skills we use to run the farm and gives us a blueprint for mentoring an Apprentice.”
In addition to on-the-job training, DGA requires 288 hours of paid related instruction that includes formal courses and other educational opportunities. Apprentices who have already completed comparable coursework may receive credit hours toward DGA graduation requirements.
Related instruction consists of:
A) Required core curriculum:
• Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers (WSBDF) at UW-Madison and at distance learning sites throughout Wisconsin.
• Classes in dairy/pasture production and management offered online and in seminar format through the Wisconsin Technical College System.
B) Elective hours, which may include:
• Pasture walks, field days and spring workshops.
• The annual GrassWorks Grazing Conference, the MOSES Organic Farming Conference and other farming conferences.
• Educational events coordinated by support groups in the state.
Related instruction also incorporates peer discussion groups, a Holistic Management seminar and professional development training through BAS-WDWD. In their second year, Apprentices develop a business plan and put together a management team comprised of local professionals who will be crucial to their decision making process. Both Masters and Apprentices receive financial planning services from Cadwallader Consulting, LLC, which is working with the program to develop alternative models of equity building, investment and farm transfer. Because of the comprehensive training and support that the program provides its participants, DGA is an approved vendor for Farm Services Agency’s Financial Management Training Program.
Grazing an Important Component
“Managed grazing itself is one of the best predictors of success for start-up dairy farms,” according to DGA Financial Consultant, Tom Cadwallader. “New farmers are entering the profession at a time when the industry and the country face some real economic and ecological challenges—a well-managed grazing farm is extremely efficient, which will help these farms remain profitable.”
Managed grazing is a sustainable farming method in which cattle are rotated through paddocks of high quality grasses and legumes that are allowed to rest and re-grow. Farms that utilize managed grazing systems require less fossil fuel and fewer off-farm inputs. They also build soil and water resources, protect critical wildlife habitat, and produce value-added milk for consumers and industry. Apprenticeship in “managed grazing” dairy not only gives entry-level farmers the best chance for profitability and success, but also positions them to sell their products for a premium under an organic or grass-fed label.
While success in managed grazing is a common denominator, the 28 farms that have been approved so far as educational sites by DGA represent a wide diversity of dairy operations in the Midwest. Master Dairy Grazier farms range in size from 40 cows to 500 cows; nearly half are currently certified organic or in transition to organic certification; many are seasonal operations; several have diversified operations that include on-farm processing and/or a retail store and a couple use robotic milkers.
“This is a program that recognizes diversity in our industry as a strength, not a liability,” Tomandl said. “We are not interested in taking a cookie-cutter approach here. Every farmer has a unique operation and a personal history that deserves respect and consideration. Our job is to link these experienced farmers, who have so much to offer, with people who really want to farm and then provide the structure they all need to achieve their farming goals.”
Effective Matches are Key
Key to positive outcomes of this process is the match itself. To facilitate more viable matches, DGA has invested significant time and resources into developing a new online application and database system, which is available through their website. Approved Masters can log into the system to search for potential Apprentices seeking placement by area (such as “Southeast WI” or “Central WI” or “Anywhere”) or by key word (such as “Organic” or “Herdsman”). They can browse search results and simply click on a promising candidate to view the entire profile. Apprentice candidates are able to log back into the site to view and edit their profile to keep it current. This type of cloud-based technology improves outcomes and increases program capacity, which will result in more new farmers and more new grazing farms.
Indeed, DGA is well poised to expand throughout Wisconsin—and possibly beyond. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship has officially determined “Dairy Grazier” to be an “Apprenticeable Occupation” and DGA has become the first federally recognized Apprenticeship for farming in the nation, one that could be reproduced in other states.
Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship is accepting applications for Master Dairy Graziers and Dairy Grazing Apprentices. At this time, Master Dairy Grazier applicants must reside in Wisconsin or a neighboring state (several farm sites have already been approved in Minnesota). Apprentice applicants willing to move for placement are welcome from anywhere in the nation. To find out more or apply online visit www.dairygrazingapprenticeship.org.
Bridget O’Meara is the Communications Coordinator for Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship.