Five to 10 percent of dairy farms close each year, in part because of a lack of skilled laborers, says University of Missouri Extension dairy specialist Ted Probert. To help the dairy industry survive, a national nonprofit organization has created an apprenticeship program to fill positions currently held by farmers whose average age is 59.
Many farms do not have a successor, says Probert. The Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA) helps dairy farmers find serious employees who want to be dairy farm managers or potential owners. MU Extension is an administrative partner of DGA, which was created in part with funding from the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. Probert is DGA’s education coordinator for Missouri.
DGA offers apprentices full-time paid employment and on-farm training to become dairy graziers. A dairy grazier uses managed grazing systems in which most of the farm is planted in perennial forages, and cows rotate through paddocks of high-quality grasses, which are allowed to rest and regrow, Probert says.
The two-year apprenticeship is a “grow your own” approach, created by and for farmers, to ensure a dairy farmer labor force for the future, he says. It is the first formal farming apprenticeship in the nation. It pairs current and aspiring graziers with existing dairy farmers.
Probert works with graziers in south-central Missouri to offer monthly “pasture walks” to teach about forage programs, cow management, facilities and dairy economics in Wright, Texas, Laclede, Douglas, Ozark, Howell and Webster counties. “Pasture-based dairies continue to be among the most profitable dairy farms in our area,” he says.