When it comes to dairy education, the folks at Southwest Dairy Farmers live by the motto, when the kids cannot come to the cow, the cow comes to the kids. Southwest Dairy Farmers is a non-profit dairy farmer alliance that provides dairy promotion in Texas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arizona, Illinois, Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina and parts of Tennessee and Arkansas.
This organization includes a dairy museum and education center located in Sulphur Springs, Texas, as well as a free mobile dairy classroom program in which instructors travel to schools, fairs and other public gatherings. These presentations include a live cow and are usually 30 to 45 minutes in length and cover topics such as the modern milking process, characteristic and anatomy of dairy cows, the importance of dairy foods in a healthy diet and environmental and food safety practices.
The mobile dairy classroom is funded by the Dairy Checkoff Program, which dairy farmers pay in to with 15 cents per hundredweight of the milk they sell. The purpose of these funds is to provide education and promotion of dairy products. Ralph Keel, associate general manager at Southwest Dairy Farmers and director of the mobile dairy classroom program, said a portion of the 15 cents is used for local promotion, which fits perfectly with the mobile dairy classroom.
“One of the main purposes of this program is to spread nutritional information about milk and the value of milk in a diet,” Keel explained.
He said although there are other mobile dairy classroom programs in California, this presentation is the only traveling milk parlor where the audience is able to see a cow being milked.
“There’s just something about a cow being milked, everyone, including adults will come to see that,” Keel said. “There’s nothing else like it.”
Suzie Reece is the mobile dairy classroom instructor for Oklahoma and, in a sense, she was always meant to be in the position. She grew up on an Oklahoma dairy operation, showed and judged dairy cattle in school and went on to obtain a teaching degree. She taught grade school for 22 years and her children have been involved with showing dairy cattle. Eventually the opportunity to become a mobile dairy classroom instructor presented itself and Reece made the difficult decision to leave school teaching and become a different type of educator. She has been in the role of mobile dairy instructor for six years now and covers Oklahoma and certain parts of Arkansas and Missouri.
She loves her job because it is a combination of two passions: teaching and the dairy industry.
“I love to see the kids’ faces when they see my cow and watch her being milked,” Reece said.
Interactive agricultural education
There are 12 instructors in total—six in Texas alone—and they use their own cows for the presentations, although Southwest Dairy Farmers does help with sourcing cows. Reece said the best option is a dairy cow that was shown as a heifer because they are halter-broken, gentle, adapted to traveling in a trailer and used to the noise of large crowds. Reece uses two cows that were previously shown by her children. Snickers, a 9-year-old Jersey, is used during the school year and another cow, named Cheryl, is used in the summer and fall. Alternating between the cows gives them a break for part of the year at Reece’s family farm, a small, diversified operation with dairy and beef cattle.
Reece starts off the presentation by introducing her cow to the students, telling them her age, how many calves she has had and some of the differences between beef and dairy cows. She uses a computer monitor mounted on the side of her specialized trailer to show a slideshow that details dairy cow breeds, animal husbandry and facts about dairy products. Instructors explain the many health benefits of milk products, such as the nine essential nutrients it offers, including vitamin B12, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin D, vitamin A, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and protein.
“We’re teaching them about the value of milk in their diet, but also correcting misinformation,” Reece added. “With the older students who are on social media, I try to tell them to follow a real dairy farmer on Twitter or Instagram rather than people who don’t really know much about the industry.”
The most spectacular moment of the presentation is when Reece begins to milk the cow and the students’ reactions to seeing the milk travel from the teat through the clear tubing and into a glass collecting jar is palpable. Any audience members who were not fully engaged to this point are not fixated on Reece’s presentation and what she has to say and almost every hand flies up when she asks for questions from the group. That is the power of hands-on, interactive learning. Reece also explains the rigorous cleaning practices used for food safety purposes, such as washing and sanitizing the teats before and after milking and the processes of homogenizing, pasteurizing and bottling of milk. The students are often surprised to know that it only takes about two days from the time milk leaves the cow until it hits grocery store shelves.
She said the most difficult part of the job is driving in big cities and trying to find a large enough parking spot for a truck and gooseneck trailer at urban schools. Having worked as a teacher prior to taking on the mobile dairy role, Reece knew children have less and less of an understanding of where their food comes from, but when she started this job it became apparent the issue is widespread.
“You would be shocked by the limited knowledge kids and adults have of cows and agriculture in general, but it’s not just the schools in the big cities,” Reece said. “I surprised by how little even rural students know because many of them are so far removed from the farm. A lot of times adults don’t realize cows need to give birth to produce milk.”
The adults and teachers seem to enjoy the presentation just as much as the students.
“Sometimes I look up during the demonstration and see teachers with their mouths wide open because they are learning things they never knew from the presentation and they ask questions,” she said.
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Educational outreach programs, like the mobile dairy classroom are essential to reaching the young and the old to promote agricultural industries that need to connect positively with consumers. Sometimes the most powerful dairy ambassadors are a cow and a teacher.
“These are the future government leaders of our country, and they need to learn about agriculture and where food comes from at a young age so that they can advocate for the industry,” she said.
To learn more about the mobile dairy classroom or find more information on the health benefits of dairy products visit www.southwestdairyfarmers.com or call 903-439-MILK.
Lacey Vilhauer can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].