A feminine touch: Cow caretakers in west-central Wisconsin are increasingly women
COLFAX, Wis. — America’s Dairyland is undergoing a bit of a revolution, and it has nothing to do with the words on Wisconsin’s license plate or even the size of farms.
It’s about the cows — specifically who’s minding the animals in the barn.
Increasingly, the folks caring for the cows, monitoring their health and managing the herd are women, according to agriculture educators in west-central Wisconsin.
It’s a stereotype-busting trend that’s as dramatic as it is undeniable.
The animal science management program at Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire, Wis., has seen female applicants climb from a minority four years ago to about three-quarters of the total for 2018-19, program director Adam Zwiefelhofer said.
The male-female ratio also has changed noticeably over the last few years at UW-River Falls in River Falls, Wis., where women this year account for 91 percent of the 650 students in animal science, the largest program in the university’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Science, said Dale Gallenberg, dean of the college.
When female students first claimed a majority of CVTC’s animal science management slots three years ago, Zwiefelhofer brushed it off as just a coincidence.
“But it continues to happen, and it keeps increasing,” Zwiefelhofer said. “It’s absolutely wonderful for the industry.”Strong bond
Several of the young women in the two-year associate degree program recently explained the appeal of potential animal science careers, including herd manager, dairy consultant, reproduction specialist, nutritionist and sales specialist.
They mentioned the opportunity to work outside, use technology, help provide food for the world and do something hands-on instead of being stuck behind a desk.
But most of all they talked about their love of working with dairy cows — Wisconsin’s official state domestic animal.
Bailey Karaba of Owen, Wis., joked that caring for a herd of cattle was like raising 400 kids with one key difference: “Cows can’t tell you what’s wrong when they’re not feeling well, so you have to be a problem-solver,” she said. “When a sick cow bounces back, it’s the best feeling.”
As for the satisfaction of working with cows compared with other aspects of agriculture, Jennah Henk of Birchwood, Wis., said simply, “I like seeing animals progress more than watching grass grow.”
Clearly, the students feel a strong bond with the primary subjects of their studies — at least for animal science students in the land of cheeseheads — despite occasionally being on the receiving end of a kick.
“Cows are like big puppies; they’re so cute,” Karaba said, adding that sometimes they follow her around the barn.
Halea Bowe of Chippewa Falls, Wis., initially enrolled at UW-River Falls to study veterinary medicine but changed her mind in part because of her passion for cows.
“I decided I like cows better than cats and dogs,” she said.
Second-year animal science student Katelynn Monson of Gilman, Wis., completed an internship this summer at Denmark Dairy near Colfax, Wis., and continued in a part-time role this fall. Not only is it great experience in her chosen field, but she enjoys her work caring for sick animals and helping to operate a breeding program, including artificially inseminating at least 30 cows.
Walking down the center of the 550-foot-long barn after artificially inseminating a mostly black, 2,200-pound Holstein on Dec. 7, Monson said she takes pride in her ability to spot symptoms of cows feeling under the weather — droopy ears, reduced milk production and walking “like they’re having a bad day.”
“Then I try to figure out what’s wrong,” she said.
As she led visitors around the barn, Monson stopped to pet and talk to a few particularly friendly animals, including her favorite, a cow numbered 7154.A woman’s touch
Farmers are noticing — and benefiting from — the special connection many female workers develop with livestock.
As a result, Zwiefelhofer said, CVTC increasingly hears from regional farmers who specifically inquire about the availability of female graduates.
The reason is simple: “Cows respond extremely well to being handled by females,” he said, chalking it up mostly to gentler bedside manner.
That can mean anything from generally being less stressed to cooperatively moving from one pen to another — an important facet of dairy farming when dealing with hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of 1,400-pound animals.
Can the calming effect of female handlers even affect milk production?
“Absolutely,” said Karl Kragness, who co-owns Denmark Dairy along with his father, Dennis. The farm employs four women, including Monson and another recent graduate of CVTC’s animal science program who help work with its roughly 1,500 Holsteins.
While Karl Kragness emphasizes that his male employees are great too, he said he doesn’t hesitate to seek out female workers because of their tendency to wield a softer touch with the cows.
“I’d pick a woman any day because of their attention to detail,” he said.
Zwiefelhofer noted that advances in technology — machines that scrape manure, distribute feed and spread bedding — have lessened the physical demands of farming and thus have made it easier for women to infiltrate the barn — once considered primarily the domain of men.
“They don’t have to lift 50- to 100-pound feed bags anymore,” he said.Yelling doesn’t work
The female CVTC students said they believe cows appreciate the calmness, patience and higher voices that women typically bring to the job.
“They’re just like people. If you start yelling at them, it doesn’t work,” Henk said.
Added Tess Fagerland of Mondovi, Wis., “I definitely think it goes back to maternal instinct.”
Bowe shared an anecdote about a cow at the farm where she works that refuses to get on a trailer unless she’s there.
“One day we had to take her to her other farm and I wasn’t anywhere near, and (the other workers) sat there for an hour trying to get her on the trailer. Finally, they had to call me. As soon as she saw me, I grabbed the rope and she walked on the trailer herself,” Bowe said with a chuckle.
Jane Mueller, secretary and treasurer for the Eau Claire County chapter of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation and operator of Mueller Hilltop Farms near Fall Creek, said she sees women getting more and more active in many aspects of the ag community. She agrees that it bodes well for the industry.
For Kragness and his wife, Mandy, hiring women also carries the important side benefit of providing female role models for the couple’s 5-year-old daughter.
“I feel that there is just as much opportunity, if not more, for her to be a big part of the future of this operation than if she were a boy,” Karl Kragness said.