FISC students sit in a classroom on the first day of classes
UW-River Falls Dairy Science Professor Steve Kelm, left, speaks about cow posture and mobility with students Wednesday in a classroom at Mann Valley Farm. The students are enrolled in the first Farm and Industry Short Course (FISC) agriculture education program being taught at UW-River Falls. The first day of the course was Wednesday. UWRF photo. 

Dairy-focused Farm and Industry Short Course begins 

University takes on program to help address agriculture workforce shortage

Oct. 26, 2023 - Nine students gathered around a cow, watching carefully and studying the animal’s gait as the Holstein ambled past them.

Standing nearby, instructor Steve Kelm viewed the cow as well, noting such details as the sway of its back and how its weight was distributed on its hooves. 

“You see how she’s leaning this way?” Kelm asked the students Wednesday at Mann Valley Farm, operated by the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. “What does that tell you about the condition of her feet?”

Kelm, chair of the UW-River Falls Animal and Food Science Department and a dairy science professor, and students were interacting during the first day of the much-anticipated Farm and Industry Short Course (FISC) at the university. FISC had been taught at UW-Madison since 1885 until two years ago, when officials pulled the plug on the program because of a lack of demand. The course is designed to educate Wisconsin’s agriculture workforce.

With support from the agriculture industry, UW-River Falls agreed the program was a good fit for the university, given its strong ag programs. Faculty in the university’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences (CAFES) designed a program and worked to recruit students. They sought funding, some of which could come through a proposed bill currently before the state Legislature. 

The 16-week short course is designed for high school graduates who are interested in dairy farming or working in jobs that involve dairy cattle and management. The short course began Wednesday and ends March 15. Students will earn up to 20 credits for their work. Seven of the nine students are living on campus, while the other two commute. 

On Wednesday, students sat in a classroom learning about cow structure and mobility from Kelm. Then they headed to a dairy barn at Mann Valley Farm to see those topics firsthand. Using a mobility rating system, students studied cows and discussed with Kelm the best care for each animal to prevent it from becoming lame.

“She’s got some tenderness in at least one foot, but we can get her help and prevent her from getting worse,” student Joey Renn, 18, of Heartland, said of one cow. 

After examining cows with differing degrees of walking difficulties, students returned to the classroom to learn more from Kelm. They took a mid-day break from studies, then resumed classwork for the afternoon. 

Students participating in FISC said their first day of class went well and they were already learning valuable information. The combination of classroom learning and hands-on instruction at Mann Valley Farm is an effective teaching combination, they said. 

FISC students acknowledged the difficulties related to dairy farming. Most grew up in farming families and they know all too well how dairy farms have been disappearing in record numbers from across Wisconsin in recent years. But they’re determined to operate dairy farms of their own, despite challenges. 

“I love the tradition of it,” said Taylor Kolls, 34, of Ellsworth. “In Wisconsin’s history, so many people were dairy farmers, and I feel like we’re getting connected to our ancestors in some way by doing this. In Wisconsin, this is in our blood. It’s who we are.”

Kolls works weekends on a dairy farm in addition to his full-time job. He quit that job to participate in FISC and when he completes the course, he plans to work at the farm full time. Other FISC participants said they also plan to operate dairy farms, in large part because of their love for that way of life. 

Kyle Menn’s family is the sixth generation to farm the Monroe County land his ancestors settled in the mid-1800s. He didn’t see himself attending college, but FISC will provide him and other participants with valuable knowledge to help them become better farmers in an increasingly competitive market, he said, noting his father and grandfather completed FISC. 

“I was just going to stay home and figure it out,” Menn, 20, of Norwalk, said of his farming education plans. “But I realized this program could really help me out.”

Macy Johnson’s parents aren’t farmers. But the 19-year-old from Cushing became attached to the farming life through her involvement in 4-H and spending time on farms during her childhood. 

“The uncertainty of farming can be hard, but I like the fact that no two days are the same,” she said. “There is a comfort in that way of life. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

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