Students’ dairy health knowledge brings first-place win at Intercollegiate Challenge

Group photo of students and coach in front of brick wall.
Winning first place in the 2019 Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge, WSU’s team includes, from left, coach John Swain, Taylor Wilson, Colton Bunyard, Morgan Hawley, Liv Brockhaus.

Competing to show and spread knowledge that improves productivity, health and safety on dairy farms, four Washington State University students won first place at the 18th annual North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge.

Equipped with notepads, cameras and stopwatches, Morgan Hawley, Taylor Wilson, Colton Bunyard and Liv Brockhaus toured a working dairy in Tifton, Georgia, identifying and sharing crucial challenges, opportunities, and solutions before a bank of professional judges. The WSU team, coached by Animal Sciences Professor John Swain, took first in their division.

At Dairy Challenge, held March 28-30, 2019, 240 students from 36 colleges work to improve their dairy management and communication skills, network with other students, and explore industry careers.

“It’s a capstone experience,” said Swain.

Drawing on what they’ve learned in class, farms and milking parlors, including as members of WSU’s Cooperative University Dairy Students, teammates found ways to help make dairies safer, more efficient and productive.

“Our students highlighted issues that the judges felt were critical to that operation,” Swain said. “But it’s not about whether you win or lose, it’s about the journey from freshman year to now. These students put in the extra effort to see what they could do.”

“It’s not just in a book anymore,” said Wilson. “You’re taking what you’ve learned in class and in the dairy and applying it to the real work, and you have to adjust your own thinking to how things actually happen every day on a dairy.”

Focusing their own strengths

Students began practicing for the challenge in January, visiting WSU’s Knott Dairy farm and neighboring dairies, reviewing records and observing practices, all the time building their knowledge of successful dairy practices as well as risks.

Their work leads up to a single team competition that involves records reviews, a personal inspection, and a final presentation.

At Tifton, students reviewed the assigned dairy’s books and software records, then split up at the facility to inspect stalls, parlors and barns, gauge practices and identify and solve challenges. With only two hours at the farm, every second is critical, and every student applied her or his own strengths.

“Some of us are good with feed management or reproduction numbers, others with commodities,” said Bunyard. “There is a lot of science involved, and room for everyone to find their niche. To see everyone working together as a team to help dairy producers put it over the top for me.”

Happy, healthy cows add value

For Hawley and Wilson, seniors headed to careers in dairy, and Brockhaus, an aspiring veterinarian, animal welfare was a special focus. Dairy cows need access to space, clean water and food, and proper temperatures to stay productive.

“Comfy cows make more milk,” Hawley explained. Students perused temperature records to predict when cows might become uncomfortable or unhealthy due to heat and humidity.

In the milking parlor, students timed how cows were milked to gauge efficiency, while watching for potential health and safety issues.

“One of the biggest challenges in dairy today is labor,” said Swain. “Inconsistency and procedural drift affects the amount of milk that a cow will produce. You can spot that and add a dollar value to it.”

Swain has coached the team for 17 years, since its inception. He says this year’s team was one of the most successful to come through the program.

“This group melded,” he said. “Whether they agreed or disagreed, they came together as a unit. These are the future leaders of our industry.”

  • Learn more about the North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge here.