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Iowa’s Dairy Center trains tomorrow’s ag professionals

Friday, June 28, 2024

Recognized as Iowa’s first “Center of Excellence for Value-Added Agriculture” by former Governor Tom Vilsack, Iowa’s Dairy Center opened in 2000.

by Darcy Maulsby and
Iowa Farm Bureau Federation

While Iowa has fewer dairy farms than in years past, those farms are producing more milk than ever. Iowa’s Dairy Center at Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC) in Calmar continues to evolve to educate the next generation of farmers and industry professionals.

“We’ve trained thousands of students from the tri-state area of Iowa, southeast Minnesota and western Wisconsin,” David Lawstuen, chair of Iowa’s Dairy Center and a NICC dairy science faculty member. “Well over 90% go back to live and work in their home communities.”

Iowa’s Dairy Center also attracts students from Illinois, Indiana, Washington, Pennsylvania and beyond who earn their two-year associate’s degree in dairy science. “Many of these students choose to stay in Iowa and grow their careers here,” Lawstuen said.

Recognized as Iowa’s first “Center of Excellence for Value-Added Agriculture” by former Governor Tom Vilsack, Iowa’s Dairy Center opened in 2000. It’s operated by the Northeast Iowa Dairy & Agriculture Foundation.

“We currently have 140 students in the two-year agronomy, ag business, beef and dairy science, and vet tech programs, coupled with another 80 students from our nationally-acclaimed John Deere Tech program,” said Lawstuen, who works with Brenna Connelly, Iowa’s Dairy Center coordinator. “Along with farming, there are plenty of ag-related jobs available, from ag cooperatives to the milking equipment industry.”  

Upgrading robotics, connecting with consumers

Iowa’s Dairy Center includes 200 Holstein cows, which are milked with Lely A4 robots that were installed around 2014. “Our Holsteins milk 9 pounds a minute,” Lawstuen said. “That’s more than 1 gallon a minute.”

While the farm’s robotic milkers still look new, the technology has changed significantly in the last decade. “Lely has increased the efficiency of its robotics. We’ll be retrofitting the robots soon to include the new Lely A5 technology,” said Lawstuen, who expects this project to be complete by early 2025.

Iowa’s Dairy Center provides continuing education for dairy farmers. It also helps connect consumers to modern agriculture through tours and other on-farm events like Breakfast on the Farm, which has been held during June Dairy Month for 14 years. Guests enjoy Belgian Waffles, sausage and dairy products (including milk, cheese, yogurt and more) that are locally produced and processed.

The event also includes guided tours at the farm, story time with the Dairy Princess, educational exhibits and more. “It’s a lot of fun,” said Lawstuen, who noted that Breakfast on the Farm typically attracts 1,500 to 2,000 guests.

Creating a “canvas of conservation”

As part of its education focus, the farm at Iowa’s Dairy Center and NICC showcases 20+ conservation practices, including grassed waterways to control runoff and erosion, plantings of native grasses and flowers, a shelterbelt and wetland restoration. In 2014, the farm also switched to the “dynamic duo” of 100% no-till and cover crops, which have 90% less soil loss than many conventional tillage systems, according to NICC.

The cover crops at Iowa’s Dairy Center include triticale, brown midrib (BMR) sorghum Sudan grass, Italian ryegrass, hairy vetch, Berseem clover and more. Among their many benefits, cover crops build soil organic matter, which enhances water infiltration and reduces runoff. “Our president, Dr. Liang Chee Wee, wanted to make the NICC campus a ‘canvas for conservation,’” Lawstuen said.

According to NICC, 1% of organic matter in the top 6 inches of soil can hold approximately 20,000 gallons of water per acre. Adopting a no-till/cover crop system can increase soil organic matter by 0.1% per year. That’s equivalent to an extra water-holding capacity of 2,000 gallons per acre, or 1 tanker fire truck per acre per year.

“We also have a rain garden next to our free-stall dairy barn,” Lawstuen said. “This captures rainwater runoff and allows it to percolate through the soil.”

NICC has added a conservation agronomist degree in the last couple years. Whether students opt for this degree or a dairy science degree, they play a key role in the rural economy. “When our graduates live and work in Iowa’s rural communities, this means more farms will last another generation,” Lawstuen said. “It also means there will be more community members to serve as 4-H leaders, co-op board members and other leadership roles that keep rural communities strong.”