Beyond the Barn: Middle Schoolers ‘Earn Their Boots’ at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy

Posted on August 27, 2015 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
Today’s average consumer is at least three to four generations removed from the farm.  Even in rural school districts, farm kids are in the minority in the classroom.  That means these students have less exposure to the more than 300 careers available in the dairy industry.

In June, the team at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy in Kewaunee, Wisconsin set out to change that and help middle school students discover potential career paths in agriculture.

Pagel’s Ponderosa worked with Kewaunee Middle School to invite 24 seventh- and eighth-grade students to the dairy.  As a part of the summer school programming, these students spent three full days learning about all aspects of the farm from employees and industry partners.

John Jr. and Chase Pagel took the lead in planning the “Ponderosa Boot Camp,” along with John Sr., Mona Pagel, and several farm managers.  They described the project as a huge undertaking, but worth the investment of time and energy as students learned about agriculture right where it happens – an experience most never had.

“There’s so many more kids removed from the farming generation,” John Jr. said.  “Kids grew up totally differently.”

He pointed out this is an especially interesting phenomenon since Kewaunee County is home to 40,000 cows and only 20,000 people.

The students were bussed from the school to the farm each day.  Thanks to sponsorship support, each child received a backpack (filled with items such as a notebook, pen, hand sanitizer and safety glasses), a reusable water bottle, a t-shirt and a pair of boots.  They were also provided lunch each day.

John Jr. said “they learned what a working lunch is” as the time was used to further discuss dairy and agricultural careers.

Students were divided into three teams – The Holsteins, Jerseys and HoJos – and participated in a wide array of activities around the farm.  That started with an important discussion on teamwork and communication.  Mona, who manages the farm’s human resources, described the CAR policy – Communication, Accountability and Respect – and its role on the dairy.

Next, the students took a tour to learn what it takes to care for the more than 4,200 milking cows as well as the youngstock.  Almost every child pulled feed from a cannulated cow.  They also learned the importance of a properly balanced total mixed ration (TMR).  To help them understand, Randy Charles, Kewaunee High School agriculture instructor, had the kids create their own TMRs with snack foods like raisins and pretzels.  Each ingredient represented a portion of the cow’s diet.

A trip to the offsite calf ranch was also a big hit.  Students spent about two hours measuring milk and feeding calves.  Each group was assigned to 30 calves to feed milk, rinse pails, feed water, dump grain waste and feed starter grain.  They were even challenged with the task of training a calf to drink from a pail.

Other discussions and demonstrations included milking, animal handling, tractor and skid-steer safety, nutrient management, and use of new technologies, such as unmanned aerial vehicles for crop scouting.

To wrap up the three-day event, the teams competed in Dairy Jeopardy to test their newly acquired knowledge.  John Jr. and Chase said they were blown away by how well the kids did; they even needed to use a tie-breaker question.  All of the students were recognized with a certificate at a graduation ceremony.  Most of the students’ parents attended the graduation and Chase said it was “standing room only” for the ceremony.

For three lucky students, the learning will continue.  The organizers selected the top three students to receive tuition to attend Badger Dairy Camp, which will take place next spring in Madison, Wisconsin.

The Ponderosa team will continue learning as well.  They plan to improve upon this pilot project and offer the Boot Camp again next year, possibly opening it to more grades and/or more schools.

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