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Student-managed farm offers real-life experience

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 30 April 2015
Dairy students

Since learning by doing is one of the best ways to commit something to memory, students at Lakeland College, Vermilion, Alberta, will forever remember the things they’ve learned in their two-year animal science program.

The first year of the program covers basic animal science courses with dairy electives while the second year has more intense courses focused on dairy management, housing, nutrition and hoof trimming.



To complement the classroom work, the college has a dairy farm with a mixed herd of Jerseys and Holsteins. Students manage the farm with help from faculty members and farm staff.

“It is a unique opportunity in Canada, with science and applied training all at one location,” says Blair Dow, dairy instructor at Lakeland.

The students work as a team to make management decisions on the farm. They also have the opportunity to help out with everyday jobs on the dairy such as milking, breeding, hoof trimming and consultant visits.

Each member of the dairy student-managed farm team has a different responsibility. This year’s SMF team includes Jake Vermeer, team leader from Camrose, Alberta; Kristyn Child, finances, Killan, Alberta; Russell Reitsema, herd health, Abbotsford, British Columbia; Mark Sweetnam, nutrition, Morden, Manitoba; and Taylor Wightman, public relations, Davidson, Saskatchewan.

They meet together monthly and have weekly meetings with their own committees. They take a team approach to decision-making and have the power to make any decision on the farm as long as they can reason it out.


Together, this team changed the feed mixing routine based on results from a Penn State shaker box test of the TMR, and it worked to reduce the average days in milk due to poor reproduction by culling cows and synching cows that are taking too long to get bred.

Vermeer reports that in October the herd averaged 212 days in milk with a 31-kilogram-per-cow-per-day average milk production. By March, the herd improved to 165 days in milk and a 36-kilogram milk average.

“It is the same as running a farm but on a smaller scale with more people,” Vermeer says. “We’re being trained to run our own farm.”

In addition, the team has made large strides in public relations, teaching others about the program’s capabilities. Wightman and her team put together a pamphlet and handed it out at Alberta Milk’s Annual General Meeting. They also created a video for Alberta Milk. Another PR move was showing some of the herd’s Jersey calves at the Westerner Championship Dairy Showcase.

Herd improvements and increased public relations are important as the farm receives support from several dairy companies and associations. It has also approached Alberta Milk for a quota lease to improve its facilities.

The farm’s 45-cow herd is milked in a double-three herringbone parlour that was built in the ’80s.


“It is starting to see its wear and tear,” Vermeer says, adding, “The school is giving us a chance to have input.”

The facilities class is working to design a new facility, and students on the SMF team have their own ideas of what they would like to see included in it.

Sweetnam says he would like to be able to walk the perimeter of the barn and have a catwalk over the top of the cows. He’d also like to see a lot of individual pens to make it easier to work with the animals.

Combining a milking parlour with an automatic milking system is Wightman’s wish. That would allow students the opportunity to experience each system.

Reitsema wants a palpation rail. He also suggests composted manure bedding from a screw press and digester so the farm can be economically and environmentally friendly.

In addition to the facility project, team members have learned a lot about day-to-day farm activities.

Sweetnam says he learned to take blood samples from a cow’s tail and the importance of consistency in the TMR.

Vermeer garnered leadership skills and working in a team environment, which will help in managing employees. He also learned how to draft standard operating procedures.

Coming from a commercial dairy, Reitsema learned a lot about genetics and sire selection. He also learned how to better work with other people.

Without having a dairy background, Wightman says she enjoyed learning how to milk cows and read DHIA reports.

In addition to learning a little bit about everything, Child says she liked having to focus on nutrition, as it was a field she hadn’t looked into before.

It was the hands-on experience that attracted many of the team members to attend Lakeland for their dairy education.

Vermeer appreciates the practicality offered in the two-year program. He says the education, in both theory and practice, will set him up for a solid future in agriculture.

This summer, he is traveling to Europe to intern on two farms. Vermeer has also applied for the agricultural business program at Lakeland and at Michigan State University to further his education. He’d like to work on a different farm for a few years and then eventually return home to farm.

Sweetnam completed an internship on a farm this past summer. He enjoys showing and genetics and wants to keep those connections while beginning to take over at his home farm.

Reitsema is eager to return home and apply what he has learned, specifically enhancing the farm’s breeding program. He’d also like to pursue more schooling with a possible opportunity in the Fraser Valley.

Wightman is looking at job opportunities within the industry, while Child plans to return home to her family farm.

Before graduation, the SMF team had to put together a final presentation on their accomplishments and recommendations for the future. This will be shared with the leader of next year’s team, who will also spend some time at the end of the year shadowing current team members and participating in team meetings.

Over the summer, the farm will continue with the protocols set this year and will wait for new direction from next year’s team. Morgan Sangster, the dairy unit coordinator and herdswoman, oversees the farm and provides consistency in working with the students from year to year.

Beyond the SMF team, many of the students are also involved in the dairy club on campus. The club is open to students in all departments who have an interest in dairy.

This spring, the dairy club traveled to Fresno, California, to see dairying in another area of the world.

Reitsema says attending Lakeland has provided him with a lot of opportunities for new experiences, from going to Fresno to showing a calf.

Vermeer adds that the team has been on more than 35 farm tours and attends the Western Canadian Dairy Seminar as part of the program.

“We learn a lot,” he says, adding, “We learn a lot from each other.”

“The beauty of Lakeland is that dairy kids from all over the country come and share their experiences,” Reitsema says.

Coming from different backgrounds and farm sizes, these students push each other and motivate the faculty to stay sharp, Dow says.

He adds, “We are hoping to grow the program with a new facility and continuing education short courses.”

The team would also like to see the program get involved in the North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge to further test their dairy skills.

With multiple opportunities to learn by doing, these students are looking forward to putting their experiences to work in the dairy industry.  PD

The dairy student-managed farm team at Lakeland College gives students a firsthand experience in managing a dairy farm. Team members and their advisers include (front row, left to right) Kristyn Child, Morgan Sangster, Taylor Wightman, Blair Dow, (back row, left to right) Russell Reitsema, Jake Vermeer and Mark Sweetnam. Photo by Karen Lee.

Karen Lee
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