What started as a love story at Oklahoma State University now stands to be a match made in heaven for the dairy industry throughout Oklahoma and the region.
OSU alumnus Larry Ferguson discovered the loves of his life when he was working at the OSU Dairy Center in 1975, both in terms of his career and in the former Kayleen Helms. Forty three years later, the former president and CEO of Schreiber Foods and his wife Kayleen were in Stillwater April 5 to witness dedication ceremonies for new facilities at the OSU Ferguson Family Dairy Center.
In 2016, the Ferguson Family Foundation kicked off new construction for the upgraded dairy center by committing $2 million to construct a state-of-the-art freestall barn. Completed in December of 2017, the freestall barn includes space for insentec-system cattle feeding stalls, a maternity area and a data room. The insentec system records daily feed and water intake by individual cows, allowing for research possibilities undertaken by faculty, staff and students that was not possible in the old facilities.
“The goal of everyone involved is to not only make OSU an enhanced learning center for dairy students but to provide continually advancing research-based educational support for the dairy industry,” said Tom Coon, vice president of the university’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. “Larry and Kayleen are always asking ‘what do we need to do next?’ They have worked diligently to engage others in the dairy industry; combined with their direct gift and matching support, we have generated $6 million so far, and we’re not done yet.”
Coon added ongoing improvements at DASNR’s dairy facility will help sustain good husbandry of the cows and calves in OSU’s dairy herd, while also promoting environmental stewardship, cost efficiency and safe food-handling practices through on-site practices and improved technologies.
The Fergusons likewise were instrumental in the construction of Helms Hall, the new student living quarters named in honor of Kayleen’s parents, who also met at OSU and had their own connection to the OSU dairy programs. Her father, Kenneth Helms, earned a dairy science degree before marrying Kathleen Cunningham. They both went on to earn master’s degrees in education from OSU while teaching and raising two daughters and a son.
“Helms Hall provides a modern living space with six individual bedrooms,” said Randy Raper, DASNR director of capital projects and assistant director of the statewide Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station system. “Students living on-site provide for the well-being of our dairy cattle and by extension the viability of scientific studies conducted on behalf of dairy producers and related industries, a very valuable contribution to the center’s mission.”
The renovations continue. State-of-the-art equipment is being added to the existing milking parlor, expanding research capabilities and capturing individual milk weights by each animal.
“New milking equipment using radio frequency ID tags worn by the cows will communicate with software that tracks milk production,” Raper said. “This will not only enhance ongoing scientific studies but enable our students to train on the type of equipment they will one day use upon entering the dairy industry.”
A visitor center and robotic milkers set for stage two of ongoing construction will create a showplace for student training opportunities and enhanced awareness of both dairy production and the research that promotes continued industry advances.
“Of particular interest is the incorporation of live web cams that have the potential to reach unprecedented numbers of people, expanding educational opportunities directly or through programs such as Ag in the Classroom curriculum provided through schools and Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service workshops, meetings and conferences,” Coon said.
Naming opportunities still exist in each area for those wishing to enhance the new Ferguson Family Dairy Center’s ability to make a positive difference in the lives of the region’s dairy producers and related agribusinesses, and have their gift matched by the Ferguson Family Foundation, reminds Heidi Griswold, OSU Foundation senior director of development for DASNR.
“The old dairy center dated back to 1920,” she said. “It’s important that OSU be in a position to solve concerns and issues of the dairy industry in the 21st century, especially given as how many dairy programs at other universities have shut down over the years.”
A number of donors in addition to the Fergusons have stepped up, taking advantage of naming opportunities inside the facility. Among them are:
● Brian and Mary Liddy, the Brian and Mary Liddy Maternity Area;
● Mike and Leanne Haddad, the Haddad Family Helms Hall bedroom;
● Ron and Dana Dunford, the Dunford Family Patio;
● Scott and Nancy Armbrust, the Armbrust Family Data Center;
● Jack and Engrid Meng, the Meng Family Helms Hall bedroom; and
● The Shelley family: the Stephen and Nanette Shelley Warming Stall, the Ann Shelley Insentec Stall and the Maggie Moo Shelley Insentec Stall.
Additional donors present during the dedication ceremonies were OSU alums Chuck and Linda McFate; Oklahoma A&M Board of Regents member Rick Davis of Davis Farms, Logan County; and representatives from Milk Source LLC, headquartered in Wisconsin.
“More than 5,000 people have visited the Ferguson Family Dairy Center,” Raper said. “These visitors include current and potential students, producers and some urbanites totally unfamiliar with the milk-production system. Being able to have a facility with a visitor center and a robotic milking parlor will expose visitors to the labor-saving and cow-health benefits afforded by the newest technology of milking and caring for cows.”
The importance of greater awareness of agricultural industries cannot be understated, as fewer and fewer people have a direct connection to rural America.
“We have a responsibility to the betterment of future generations,” Kayleen Ferguson said. “You have to work hard but you have to pass it on as well.”
Husband Larry agrees, citing he would never have become CEO of the world’s largest employee-owned dairy company without coming to Oklahoma State and going through its dairy program.
“Kay and I love the dairy industry,” he said. “We want to see more young people educated in the industry, but our monetary gift is about more than just education. OSU has played an important role in our lives, and we feel its agricultural programs always have and should continue to play an important role in helping feed the world. We became Cowboys as students. We’ve remained Cowboys in our hearts. Go Pokes.”
Additional information about opportunities to support this or other Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources programs is available by contacting Griswold by email at [email protected] or by phone at 405-385-5656.