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Published July 26, 2010, 09:23 AM

University of Minnesota Crookston sells of dairy herd

The NWROC is ending the dairy program in Crookston, as it consolidates operations around the state.

By: Kevin Bonham, Forum Communications Co.

CROOKSTON — When Tony Dank grew up on a small hobby farm in rural St. Cloud, Minn., where his family had a few horses, he figured he would become an elementary teacher.

Soon after enrolling at University of Minnesota-Crookston, he discovered the school’s livestock barns and its herd of dairy cows.

For the past three years, he’s worked at the dairy barns at the Northwest Regional Outreach and Research Center at UMC, part-time during the school year and full-time in summer.

“It’s the first farm I’ve worked at,” he said Friday.

He graduated from UMC in May, not with an elementary teaching degree, but one in animal science, equine science and pre-veterinary medicine.

Yet, this is a bittersweet summer for Dank, who will enroll at the University of Missouri-Columbia this fall to study veterinary medicine.

Friday, he helped the NWROC and UMC staff auction off the entire dairy herd — approximately 235 head. The NWROC is ending the dairy program in Crookston, as it consolidates operations around the state.

The move is expected to save about $300,000 annually, according to Greg Cuomo, associate dean for extension in the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences on the St. Paul campus. Six or seven people at the NWROC will lose their jobs.

“Basically, the decision to close the dairy at the NWROC came from a programmatic approach to determining how best to serve out campuses and deal with the reality of budget cuts,” Cuomo said.

“We’ve gone through the point of lowering overhead — the things that are less painful. As we look forward, with budget challenges that are out there, our decisions are going to impact programs and people.”

The university also has dairy research operations at its St. Paul and Morris campuses. Cuomo said officials are trying to eliminate duplication and redundancies in programs throughout the state.

“The NWROC does an outstanding job in crop research. That’s going to continue and its going to continue to be an important part of what we do,” he said. “It’s not a reflection on our commitment to the dairy industry. Minnesota is a big dairy state, and we’re committed to the dairy industry.”

UMC’s dairy operations contribute $7.2 million and 73 jobs to the local regional economy, according to a recent study by the University of Minnesota Extension’s Center for Community Vitality. It’s part of a $50 million annual contribution by UMC as a whole.

Dank, who wants to become a large-animal veterinarian, said he likely would not have chosen that career path, had it not been for the UMC program.

“It’s really sad from a student’s perspective,” Dank said. “They won’t get a chance to get the hands-on experience. That’s what really helped me.”

Smaller herd?

Ron Del Vecchio, chairman of UMC’s Agricultural and Natural Resources Department and a faculty member in the animal science, equine science and pre-veterinary program, said UMC has submitted a proposal to expand two other animal science programs, and to start a new, small-scale dairy program, with 30 to 40 milking cows.

“I’m hoping to hear something within a couple of weeks,” he said, adding that he would like to see the new dairy program begin this fall, so there’s little disruption.

Under the proposal, UMC would increase the number of breeding cows in its beef cattle program from 20 to 50, and the number of its sheep from 40 to 100 breeding ewes, along with starting a new super-dairy cow program.

Cuomo said the state is studying the proposal and is working with UMC. However, the university is backing away from animal research at UMC.

“But it’s a question of what’s the best approach and what’s best for everybody,” he said. “As a university, we’re still very committed to the dairy industry. We see it as a potential growth industry in the state of Minnesota.”

In the past year or so, the university has hired a faculty member to lead an organic dairy program at its Morris campus and a dairy nutritionist in St. Paul.

“It’s some evidence that this is an important industry for us,” Cuomo said. “We’re trying to get things in balance.”

Del Vecchio, who has been at UMC for seven years, said the school’s animal and equine science and pre-veterinary medicine program has doubled — to about 200 students — since he started. The pre-vet program, which was added during that time, contributed greatly to the growth.

He watched the dairy cows being sold, one at a time, for prices ranging from $1,400 to $2,800 during the first hour.

“Seeing the cattle move out is not a joyous occasion,” he said. “We’re certainly going to miss having the dairy here. Hopefully, we can bring something back.”

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to kbonham@gfherald.com.

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