Training and Transitioning New Farmers: A Practical Experiment in Farmer Self-Development and Institutional Reinvention

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1995: $85,800.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $147,250.00
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
George Stevenson
UW-Madison, Center for Integrated Ag. Systems

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Agronomic: grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Animals: sheep
  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: housing, pasture fertility, pasture renovation, grazing - rotational, stockpiled forages, feed/forage
  • Crop Production: windbreaks
  • Education and Training: mentoring
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns, feasibility study, agricultural finance, whole farm planning
  • Natural Resources/Environment: riverbank protection
  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life, employment opportunities


    [Note to online version: The report for this project includes a table and attachments that could not be included here. The regional SARE office will mail a hard copy of the entire report at your request. Just contact North Central SARE at (402) 472-7081 or]

    Wisconsin has suffered dramatic losses in numbers of dairy farms. While the decrease in part includes large numbers of retiring dairy farmers, the lack of young people entering dairy farming is an even more significant factor in the decline. To reverse that trend a creative approach is needed to make dairy farming more attractive.

    The Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy Farmers (WSBDF) aims to get more young people into dairy farming using management intensive rotational grazing (MIRG). WSBDF is the only School of its type in the nation, and is administered by the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS). The career paths and training opportunities for New Zealand dairy farmers provides one model for the School. Adapting this training model to a program has been a challenge and a learning experience for the School’s staff and committee, and the program is continuously evolving to meet the demands of Wisconsin’s farming realities.

    First Steps

    In 1995, Steve Stevenson, CIAS associate director, and Russ O’Harrow, a retired Wisconsin dairy farmer and former CIAS advisor, traveled to New Zealand to study dairy farmer career development there. They found that carefully institutionalized farmer career paths in New Zealand help young people of all backgrounds enter dairy farming (see Attachment 1, Dairy Farmer Career Paths). An important part of career trajectory in New Zealand is specialized; early-career training that includes both classroom and on-farm work.

    MIRG plays an important role in helping young farmers get started in New Zealand. “New Zealand dairy production systems interested us. Our impression was that the low-purchased-input and low-capital nature of these systems helps get energetic, committed young people into dairy farming,” says Stevenson.

    In addition, dairy graziers and UW extension faculty approached CIAS about providing training in grass-based dairying. In 1995, CIAS secured a grant from the USDA-sponsored Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program to begin operation of WSBDF in cooperation with the UW-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

    WSBDF originally required attendance at the 17-week Farm and Industry Short Course, participation at a weekly grazing seminar, and completion of an internship. The School now offers flexible attendance options and additional alternatives, such as distance education. The School also gives students a chance to meet dairy graziers, and offers students assistance in identifying farming opportunities.

    Training objectives

    Stevenson and O’Harrow identified recruitment and training of new dairy farmers as a key challenge facing Wisconsin and an area where New Zealand’s example would be instructive. They identified four training and recruitment objectives. Comparing the WSBDF to these objectives helps point out the fit between the New Zealand dairy training model and Wisconsin realities.

    Objective 1: Identify strategies for recruiting beginning dairy farmers from non-farm as well as farm backgrounds.

    According to Dairy Farmer Career Paths, in New Zealand approximately one-third of all entering dairy farmers came from non-farm backgrounds in 1995. In Wisconsin in that year, less than five percent came from non-farm backgrounds.

    Attracting people from a variety of backgrounds can strengthen successful entry, energy level, and openness to new ideas in the dairy industry.

    WSBDF sends recruitment information to county extension faculty, farm press, high school agriculture teachers, vocational agriculture schools, and farmer grazing networks. Students come from farm and non-farm backgrounds. While Dick Cates, the School’s coordinator, feels that WSBDF has something to offer people from farms, it holds special promise for those who don’t come from a farm. “These students need a strong combination of dairy information, grazing knowledge, and management skills,” says Cates. And while most students have dairy farm experience, few have farm management experience.

    WSBDF students’ ages (18 to 35) and extent of formal education vary widely. Both men and women attend the program. Students come from Wisconsin as well as outside the state. One recent graduate had previously worked as a computer programmer; another had been a construction worker.

    While recruiting diverse students has been successful, student numbers have been lower than hoped. Low student numbers may reflect that those in positions to pass WSBDF information on to potential students are not doing so, or that the School’s requirements did not meet students’ needs. Cates hopes raising the Schools visibility and offering flexible attendance options, like distance learning, will attract more students.

    Objective 2: Use training approaches that creatively combine the theoretical and the practical, and make effective use of farmer mentors and on-farm internships.

    In New Zealand, dairy farmer training programs move from classroom to on-farm learning and are management-oriented. Dairy farm “cadets,” or apprentices, serve under carefully selected farmer mentors.

    Wisconsin’s Farm and Industry Short Course classes offer theoretical and practical training in dairy farming. The weekly grazing seminar allows farmers and others with grazing expertise to co-teach all aspects of developing a grass-based dairy. Students go to pasture walks to see grazing in practice, to ask questions, and to learn about a variety of grazing approaches. They also attend conferences, gaining practical knowledge from the sessions, and making important connections.

    After their coursework, students can complete two to six month internships on several Wisconsin grass-based dairy farms. A careful process matches students and farmer mentors. Internships begin in the spring, so interns reach seasonal or semi-seasonal dairies at the thick of the calving season. They get lots of experience-fast-with managing grass and cattle.

    Objective 3: Provide programs that help beginning farmers receive academic certification and earn income from meaningful farm jobs and apprenticeships.

    In the New Zealand training scheme, several levels of certification are available to students. National certificates in farm practice and farm business management tie directly to positions of increasing responsibility.

    In Wisconsin, meaningful certification is critical to those wishing to farm without family assistance or a farming background. WSBDF mentors provide letters of recommendation for interns working on their farms. Cates will also provide a letter of recommendation upon student request, and students receive a graduation certificate. “Bankers take the WSBDF credentials seriously,” adds Cates, “as do farm employers. Nearly 80 percent of our graduates are farming, and more than half of those are on their own dairy farm.”

    Objective 4: Build organizational capacity to oversee ongoing training and employment pathways as is done in New Zealand.

    In New Zealand, dairy cadets follow a structured path defined by the government, training centers, and the dairy industry, similar to students choosing other trades. Field officers monitor and guide dairy students’ progress through the New Zealand dairy career ladder. Field officers’ responsibilities include arranging job interviews and reviewing farmer trainers.

    Cates provides help for WSBDF students in ways similar to New Zealand field officers. He speaks as a reference for students looking for a farm to rent or for a cattle loan, and helps them evaluate a farm or situation when asked. “When they have the confidence and knowledge to start contacting others who can help them, they are on their way to managing their own farm,” Cates observes. But Wisconsin does not have a standard organizational structure for training and employing dairy farmers. Apprenticeship and sharemilking opportunities are scarce. “Most grazing farms are simply not large enough yet to employ someone year-round,” says Cates.

    WSBDF graduates can find meaningful farm employment hard to come by, particularly if they are without a family farm, an established employment situation to return to, or enough equity to get a loan for cattle. Such students may work on en expanding conventional dairy, even if their goals to develop their own grass-based dairy.

    Program evolution

    WSBDF carries out the four objectives for dairy training with varying success, depending on how well Wisconsin’s dairy realities match the New Zealand model. Dairy graziers have been eager to speak at the grazing seminar and serve as mentors. Students report that they have learned an immense amount from the internship. Student recruitment and post-graduation employment are weaker areas.

    The School is clearly unique in how it defines and fills its niche. One of the successes of the School is that it has attracted interest from people who want to give something back to Wisconsin agriculture. Many different levels of support are available to those who wish to make a financial contribution to the School. Cates notes, “Interest in this opportunity to invest in the future of grass-based dairying in Wisconsin is strong, and is crucial to the future success of the program.”


    The practical experiment proposed below seeks to address a key dilemma associated with the structure of agriculture throughout the North Central Region: a serious decline over the past several decades in the rate of entry of new farmers (Gale and Henderson, 1991). Farmers leaving the profession greatly outnumber those entering. In Wisconsin, the ensuring loss of farms is particularly rapid in dairying (Cross, 1994). Couple with an aging farm population and a recent decline in the state's aggregate dairy production, Wisconsin's seeming inability to reproduce its base of farmers presents increasingly serious consequences for the state's dairy manufacturing and processing sectors and for the economies of many rural communities (Barham, 1994).

    On the positive side, a serious and sustained movement of dairy farmers in the state is adopting various forms of rotational grazing to address issues of profitability, life style, and environmental stewardship. Over seven hundred farmers attended Wisconsin's second annual grazing conference (Stevens Point, March, 1994), organized by farmer networks around the state. To many knowledgeable observers, low capital, grass-based dairying appears to offer a significant entry vehicle for beginning farmers. In addition, veteran graziers increasingly speak of a willingness to act as mentors and sponsors for young farmers interested in grass-based dairying.

    What appears to be needed is a creative and coordinated effort to couple the resources of these veteran farmers with institutional resources to identify, educate, and strategically transition young families into farming enterprises that are environmentally, economically, and emotionally sustainable. The project proposed seeks to experiment with such a creative, coordinated effort through:
    -- investigating (with a strong eye to adapting) some of the programs and institutions of a country (New Zealand) with extensive experience in preparing and placing new dairy farmers.
    -- re-inventing portions of the Farm and Industry Short Course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a "School for Beginning Farmers."
    --establishing and monitoring case examples of veteran graziers mentoring and sponsoring the entry of new dairy farm families.

    While couched in Wisconsin realities, this practical experiment is intended to be a model and inspiration for farmers and educational institutions in other states as they search for ways to reproduce a viable and vibrant base of farmers. It is fundamentally a demonstration and education project with strong investigative and monitoring components. It links farmer networks, county Extension personnel, and university resources.

    Project objectives:

    Objective #1. Investigate and evaluate for adaptation in Wisconsin New Zealand's programs for the education and entry of new dairy farmers.

    Objective #2. Develop a creative "School for beginning Dairy Farmers" within the Farm and Industry Short Course of the UW-Madison.

    Objective #3. Establish and monitor case examples of veteran graziers mentoring and sponsoring the entry of new farm families into grass-based dairying.

    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.