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Women in Dairy Farming Influence a Dairy Daughter

While toy companies still use male figures to represent dairy farmers, in real life, women working in dairy farm positions are more common than is often depicted.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ May 2014 Women in the Labor Force: A Databook, women comprise approximately 24.5% of the estimated 944,000 farmers, ranchers and agricultural managers in the United States.

Annually, more than 7,900 jobs in agriculture and forestry occupations, as well as over 6,200 jobs in education, communication and governmental operations involved with agricultural and food systems, renewable resources and the environment are expected to open.

Enrollment in Michigan State University College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) is at a 30-year high of 4,500 students, reports Dr. Kelly F. Millenbah, associate dean and director of academics and student affairs with CANR.

“In the past 50 years, the population on the earth has doubled – and by 2050, we’ll have 2.5 billion more people on the earth. We rely on a worldwide food and agriculture industry to feed and clothe the entire human population,” Millenbah said. “Our graduates are finding work.”

Millenbah cites an undergraduate destination survey that shows 89% of 2013 CANR graduates have found employment, are starting a business or are in graduate school. She encourages students to pursue agriculture careers as a way to make a difference in the world around them.

Indeed, those with a passion for animals and crops are ensuring the continued growth of Michigan agriculture through their work in the dairy industry, which contributes $14.7 billion annually to the state’s economy. An astounding 98% percent of Michigan’s dairy farms are family-owned, many of them multi-generational.

Hillhaven Farms, a fourth-generation dairy in Edmore, reflects farming traditions and commitment. Women serve in key roles on the farm. Care of the 900-cow dairy farm’s animals is managed by a female herdsman.

“At our place, the herdsman is in charge of everything related to animal health and reproduction,” said owner Mike Rasmussen. “A female herdsmen at our milking facility just happened. We had a need, she had the ability, and it’s worked out. Experience is what earned her the position.”

Kami Miller began in 2011 as a milker at Hillhaven and also served as assistant herdsman. When the existing herdsman didn’t work out, Rasmussen took over temporarily and Miller worked with him, slowly transitioning into the position in 2012.

“Kami did a good job of following up with fresh cow monitoring. Although she doesn’t have an animal science degree, she cares a lot about our cows, notices things and makes note of them,” Rasmussen praised. “She is a good liaison, able to convey my expectations to employees and their concerns to me.”

While Miller is organized and computer-savvy, Rasmussen said he also appreciates her life- seasoned approach of not leaving everything to technology. Miller’s careful daily note-taking documentation has been an asset in detecting dairy herd health changes. It’s also inspiring.

Not long ago, Rasmussen and his wife, Sonja, noticed their 10-year-old daughter had begun to emulate Miller. “Gracie collects pop bottles around the farm and returns them for money. This summer, she said she wanted a paid milking job.” Sonja said. But Gracie was too short to reach the equipment.

Soon after that, Sonja was in the farm office and spotted Gracie on a surveillance camera monitor, wearing a small milking apron and trailing behind Miller, taking notes on a clipboard while the herdsman checked on the cows. She was pleased her animal-loving daughter was showing more engagement in dairy farming.

“The next day, I jokingly warned our employees, ‘better watch out, there’s a new sheriff in town.’ Gracie heard me and started wearing a pink hat with a star on it.” Sonja said. “She also set up her own locker with her name on it in the break room and wrote her name by “calves” on the dry erase board schedule.”

Watching female herdsman Miller, another female herdsman at Hillhaven’s heifer farm, and her own mother in the farm office, has deepened Gracie’s interest in dairy work. She also interacts with two other female farm employees who milk and do chores, including truck and tractor driving, and machinery repair.

A few weeks ago, an employment application with Gracie’s name on it mysteriously appeared atop Sonja’s computer keyboard. Apparently, her experience with livestock care had increased her confidence. She felt herself ready for a paid position.

“I think it’s a positive thing for Gracie to be mimicking what Kami’s doing,” said Mike Rasmussen. “She’s learning valuable skills and good work habits at an early age.” He is proud his daughter is carrying on the family tradition of caring for her family’s cows and land.