The Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy Farmers Program - the First Ten Years: A Graduate Follow-up Survey and Beginning Dairy Farmer Case Studies

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2005: $55,700.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Richard Cates
UW-Madison Center for Integrated Ag. Systems

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn, soybeans, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Additional Plants: native plants
  • Animals: bovine, poultry, goats, sheep
  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, housing, parasite control, feed formulation, feed rations, manure management, mineral supplements, grazing - multispecies, pasture fertility, pasture renovation, preventive practices, grazing - rotational, stockpiled forages, watering systems, winter forage
  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, display, farmer to farmer, mentoring, networking, on-farm/ranch research, technical assistance
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, cooperatives, marketing management, agricultural finance, market study, risk management, value added
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, habitat enhancement, riverbank protection, soil stabilization, wildlife
  • Pest Management: biological control, chemical control, cultural control, physical control, prevention, mulching - vegetative
  • Soil Management: green manures, composting, organic matter, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: infrastructure analysis, new business opportunities, partnerships, analysis of personal/family life, employment opportunities, social capital, social networks


    A 7-page survey and selective in-depth interviews of ten years (1996-2006, inclusive) of graduates from the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers (WSBDF) showed that the vast majority had entered farming careers, over a third of farmer graduates owned their own farms, and satisfaction with the quality and value of the WSBDF training program was very high. Farmer graduates overcame obstacles such as little equity and difficulty finding a farm to lease or purchase in order to be successful.

    To view appendices and tables associated with this report, contact the NCR-SARE office at


    In our 1995 SARE grant project proposal which was the sole funding source for the first two years of the new Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy Farmers (WSBDF) we wrote: The practical experiment proposed (the development of the WSBDF) seeks to address a key dilemma associated with the structure of agriculture throughout the North Central Region: a serious decline over the past decades in the rate of entry of new farmers (Gale and Henderson, 1991). That trend continues; UW PATS research found that in each year from 1992 to 1997, 1860 WI farmers left dairying while only 344 started dairy farming (Buttel, et al., 1999).

    This SARE project (2005-2008) allowed us to obtain a thorough and accurate understanding of the numbers of graduates farming and the successful and unsuccessful pathways our graduates used to start farming. This project helped us to gather important and timely information from the graduates which will allow us to make the program more pertinent and effective; and, most importantly, this project provided us with the kind of information, experiences, and lessons that we can share with a broader audience across the NCR. We believe that successful pathways to farm entry, as well as roadblocks and hurdles to entry are similar across the entire NCR. What we have learned and documented through this timely project will be extremely useful in the development of similar beginning farmer educational efforts and policy to foster and enhance beginning farmer success across the NCR.

    Our project contributes to NCR-SARE desired outcomes by fostering a next generation of farmers in pasture-based dairying who have a chance to be profitable and environmentally conscious, while maintaining a desirable quality of life and helping to sustain a vibrant rural community. This project complemented and significantly enhanced PATS benchmark-survey research into general dairy farmer entry, as well as organic, value-added and grazing adoption research (Personal communication, Brad Barham, UW PATS).

    Literature Review

    One of the hallmarks of the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy & Livestock Farmers (‘Livestock’ was added in 2006, but the WSBDF acronym remained the same) is that it brings together experienced farmers, agribusiness leaders, university research and extension specialists and eager new dairy farmers in a structured and complete learning environment within the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Founded in cooperation with farmers and university extension faculty, the School sought to bring new farmers into the dairy sector through the use of sustainable, low input, reduced-cost managed grazing (pasture-based) practices (SARE LNC95-088). Combining educational opportunities with on-farm tours and extensive farm internships for those needing practical experience, the program has grown a large and committed base of mentor farmers, farmer graduates and agricultural community members.

    With continuing funding, including SARE project LNC97-115, the WSBDF has been able to reach students both far and near using distance education in addition to classroom instruction. The Pasture-based Dairy/Livestock Seminar brings in farmers, extension agents and many business and research professionals to share the specific practices and strategies that entering farmers will likely find most useful. In addition, the School’s director, Richard Cates and associate director, Jennifer Taylor, have shared the mission and design of the program with other interested producer and educator groups across the country for the now thirteen years of its existence and growth.

    The Beginning Farmer Sustainable Agriculture Project (SARE project LNC93-059) organized groups of farmers in the early 1990’s to discuss holistic and alternative farming practices and to attend workshops and courses sponsored by the project staff. Data was also collected on the start up strategies of a dozen families participating in the Support Network and presented through conferences and publications, including a Beginning Farmer newsletter through the Center for Rural Affairs, Nebraska. On farm field days and the documentation of organic and other low input farming systems was undertaken in the northeast (SARE project LNE-014). Other programs across the country have sought to forge cooperative relationships between farmers such as the Farmer-Farmer Mentoring Program and the subsequent Farmer-Led Learning Groups (SARE project NE04-020) to provide experienced producer mentoring to those entering or transitioning to pasture-based dairy farming. Grazing networks have also been widely utilized by farmers at all levels of experience to discuss new ideas, methods, and specific practices that work for them in a practical setting (also CIAS Research Brief #49).

    In addition to the WSBDF, the other most comprehensive educational program of its kind is the Farm Beginnings Program in Minnesota. This program has served over 100 new farmers to teach sustainable farm practices, provide mentorship from experienced farmers and even to give ‘livestock loans’ to assist some families during start up (SARE project LNC01-192). Another goal of Farm Beginnings has been to share its curriculum with other regions interested in implementing similar programs. Farmers in the northeast region of the country have benefited by the formation of an agricultural service provider network in recent years which has provided several tools targeted to new farmers, including business planning materials and a land link program (SARE project LNE99-119). The project focused on bringing together farmers and agricultural agencies and organizations from twelve area states and also produced several publications including an entry workbook and a program and service directory.

    Educating for and encouraging pasture-based farm practices has been one particular method of promoting sustainable livestock production practices that can also be more accessible to new farmers and enhance environmental stewardship. Specific efforts nationwide include SARE project ENE00-055 which tested a variety of ways to deliver pasture management instruction to farmers and then developed and distributed a "Grazing and Pasture Management Educator's Kit" to extension professionals in Pennsylvania and Maryland. As Jackson-Smith et al. discuss in Grazing in Dairyland…not only are management-intensive grazing farms in Wisconsin economically competitive, but graziers are also more likely to be concerned about soil and water conservation, reduced energy inputs and the need for using methods such as crop rotations, composting and ecological pest controls. Graziers reported spending fewer hours per week doing farm work than other types of dairy farmers and were more likely to say they planned to stay in farming ‘indefinitely.’

    PATS Research Report #8 followed up on the grazing dairy farm population in Wisconsin during the 1990’s and found that graziers were continuing to be profitable (also CIAS Research Brief # 50) and more satisfied with their family quality of life. In addition, while overall farm numbers in Wisconsin have declined steadily for 20 years, (Buttel, et al., 1999), the number of dairy operations using managed grazing increased. The challenges and barriers to entry into dairy farming were discussed by Barham et al. in the report Nurturing the Next Generation…which emphasized that research, educational, community and policy efforts are necessary to promote and support entry into the dairy sector. They state that there are many paths to dairy farm start-up, however there are large financial and management requirements which need to be addressed and skills that can be learned through training, mentoring and farmer networks (also CIAS Research Brief #56).

    It is to meet these requirements, the particular challenges faced by entrants into the dairy and livestock industry, and to provide for their training, as well as the identification of farming opportunities and the ongoing support of mentor farmers throughout the state and beyond that the WSBDF continues to serve a unique function. Learning from the related efforts of pasture-based practitioners and educators around the country, the School has both the institutional framework within the UW-Madison and an independent advisory council and host of farmer speakers and mentors that continually reshape its design to best provide for the next generation of dairy farmers. The need for the evaluation and promotion of sustainable agricultural practices is at the heart of the School’s foundational managed grazing curriculum and the financial evaluations of pasture-based dairy operations and business plan development emphasis of the course lend additional real world support to its students. The WSBDF program will continue to have a wide-ranging impact through its connectivity with the agricultural service sector as well as good relations with the greater community of producers and consumers that have a common interest in supporting family farms, quality food and a healthy environment.

    See Appendix 1. Literature Citations.

    Project objectives:

    Project Outcomes: The first goal of our project was to investigate in some depth, through survey and case study research, the professional activities, life-choices and opportunities of the approximately 200 graduates from the University of Wisconsin pasture-based School for Beginning Dairy & Livestock Farmers (WSBDF) in the first ten years since the Program’s inception in 1995. The work of this project will help us in the NCR to understand how this first-of-a-kind program has been or not been effective, and how we can improve and promote the model for broader applicability and access across the NCR. The ultimate goal of the project is to help ensure that there is a next generation of new pasture-based farmers who are profitable and have a high quality of life, while sustaining and improving the environmental resource base. Such farmers and their families contribute as productive citizens and members of their rural communities and society as a whole. Our primary objectives were to learn:

    -How many graduates were farming and information about their farming operations, additional employment, household, farm management, financial status and use of managed grazing (a major program emphasis, but not requirement).

    -What professional activities students who were not farming were engaged in and whether they continue to want to farm; what issues have kept them from starting or continuing to farm, and how they plan to overcome these obstacles.

    -For those farming, what was their pathway to start-up; what were the impediments along the way; and how the WSBDF did or did not assist in career pathway development.

    -For all graduates, their evaluation of the WSBDF program, including level of satisfaction with specific program elements, most and least effective aspects, the overall quality of the program and what would they change or add to the WSBDF to make it more useful.

    Short Term: Increase knowledge and awareness of:
    1) what aspects of the WSBDF helped or didn’t help our graduates get started in dairy farming;
    2) what were the barriers to start-up that our program helped or didn’t help our graduates to overcome;
    3) increase the general awareness among the public that the WSBDF has been successful and effective at helping many individuals who have had a dream to farm to achieve their goals; and
    4) change skills and attitudes through initiating, developing and implementing improvements and changes in the program structure and content to ensure that the WSBDF can best serve it’s stake holders (prospective start-up dairy and livestock farmers) and mission (‘to help aspiring dairy and livestock farmers get started’).

    Medium Term: Change behavior and practices through
    1) greater demand for the WSBDF Program offerings among NCR stakeholders;
    2) additional financial support (GPR funding) for the WSBDF through UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Wisconsin legislature and/or private endowments;
    3) increased interest and demand among educational institutions and groups to develop their own beginning farmer program effort, including to adapt or utilize the WSBDF;
    4) improved accessibility to start-up farming; and
    5) improved profitability, environmental practices, and quality of life for beginning farmers.

    Long Term: Society will come to understand that our prosperity, our rural communities, indeed the survival of our culture are at stake. We need to ensure that bright, motivated individuals who have a passion to farm, and to serve as stewards of our public resources, have our public commitment to nurture their success.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.