Posted: April 23, 2024

Five Penn State students traveled to Visalia, CA for the North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge, (NAIDC) held April 4-6. Team members were Lynneah Brady, Big Cove Tannery, PA; Kendal Jenkins, Columbia Crossroads, PA; Justin Merry, Arkport, NY; and Paige Peiffer, Lebanon, PA. Ashton Stiles, Blairsville, PA, participated in the contest as part of an aggregate team.

Photo, from left: Seated – Kendal Jenkins, Ashton Stiles, Lynneah Brady; Standing – Assistant Coach Gillian Plaugher, Justin Merry, Paige Peiffer and Coach Lisa Holden.

Photo, from left: Seated – Kendal Jenkins, Ashton Stiles, Lynneah Brady; Standing – Assistant Coach Gillian Plaugher, Justin Merry, Paige Peiffer and Coach Lisa Holden.

Penn State’s team placed third for the farm they evaluated, River Ranch Dairy, Hanford. Stiles's aggregate team placed first for their farm, Flint Dairy, Hanford.

The students were coached by Lisa Holden, Associate Professor of Dairy Science, Gabriella Varga, Emeritus Professor of Dairy Nutrition, and Gillian Plaugher, graduate assistant.

Students completed an on-farm analysis after a two-hour on-site visit and observation of the farm’s operation. Following a question-and-answer session with the farm owners and advisors, the student teams developed recommendations for nutrition, reproduction, milking procedures, animal health, cow comfort, and labor and financial management. Prior to the visit they had received data from each operation.

The four-person teams had their presentations evaluated by a panel of five judges, including dairy producers, veterinarians, finance specialists, and seasoned agribusiness personnel.

More than 37 academic schools participated, with 212 students.

Holden said, “This competition offers an exceptional opportunity for students to get real-life experience and put their classroom knowledge to work. We are appreciative of the support of so many in the dairy industry who make this valuable opportunity possible, including the farms that open their operations to scrutiny by the students  and our endowment donors who provide financial support for students to travel and participate.”

Stiles, animal science major, said, “My experience with Dairy Challenge was incredibly valuable for my personal and professional growth. As a Senior, Dairy Challenge has allowed me to immerse myself within farm data and taught me valuable skills that I will use within my future career. Additionally, being a member of an aggregate team provided me with a very clear depiction of what it is like to work within the dairy industry since we work with so many different people to ensure the success of farms. Dairy Challenge also provides wonderful opportunities for students to network with different industry professionals.” 

Peiffer, a senior animal science major said, “getting the opportunity to see different types of set ups, parlors, data management platforms, and many other areas of farms with larger herd sizes through Dairy Challenge allowed me to gain a better understanding of the industry as a whole. It provided me with the perfect chance to apply all the information that I have learned within the classroom and directly apply it to real world operations and situations. It was 100% a learning experience and I can confidently say that I have gained so many new skills- financial comprehension, data analytics, teamwork, public speaking, etc..- through the mentorship that I received by my Dairy Challenge coaches and teammates here at Penn State. The entire process of Dairy Challenge has prepared me for a lifelong career within the industry and because of that, I will be forever thankful for the impact that the people and the overall contest has had on me.” 

Brady, a senior, agreed about the value of the competition, saying, “Dairy Challenge was a tremendous learning experience for me. If it wasn't for the competitions, the practices, and Dr. Holden coaching us, I would not know what I know today, nor would I feel prepared to take on the industry here in literally a few days!” She will be working as an assistant herd manager, and added, “I know that I will be using the knowledge I learned through Dairy Challenge every day of my life. The real-world skills, the investigative analysis, and the drive to think outside the box are all skills that Dairy Challenge taught me.”

There was also a Dairy Academy where 84 students visited Curtimade Farms, Tulare, with industry mentors, also evaluating and learning about the practices. 

All students visited the Career and Innovation Fair, attending top-level technology presentations from NAIDC sponsors. Topics and presenters included:

  • Matt Groen of Cargill - “Dairy Sustainability, a Multi-Faceted Approach”
  • Mitch Hockett of ST Genetics - “Sustainability: Genetics and Technology that Reward Producers and Consumers”
  • Tony Parreira and Zachary Barlow of AgWest Farm Credit - “Sustainability: Planning for Tomorrow”
  • Ian Johnson of Select Sires - “Low Carbon Technologies”
  • Jarett Zonneveld of Alta Genetics - “Breeding Programs of the Future”
  • Frank Mitloehner of UC Davis - “Sustainable Livestock, Sustainable Future”

Dairy Challenge has helped prepare over 10,000 students for careers as dairy owners or managers, consultants, researchers, veterinarians, or other dairy professionals. It provides a unique opportunity for students to engage in dairy industry management and communication while networking with other students and exploring industry careers.

The National Dairy Challenge Contest and Academy is an innovative event for students in dairy programs at North American post-secondary institutions. Its mission is to develop tomorrow’s dairy leaders and enhance the progress of the dairy industry, by providing education, communication, and networking among students, dairy producers, agribusiness, and university personnel. The 2025 National Dairy Challenge contest will be held in Gainesville, FL.

Funding for Penn State’s participation in the event came from an endowment established by alumnus Clifton Marshall, the Student Activity Funds in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, and the Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association.