February 05, 2023

A Year in the Life of a Farmer: Training day provides interns hands-on experience

Follow the Mitchell family throughout the entire year. Each month, look for updates about the family members and the decisions they make on their farm.

WINNEBAGO, Ill. — Summer interns for Phibro Animal Health prepared for their summer work during an on-farm training day at the Mitchell dairy farm.

The Phibro Animal Health interns traveled to northern Illinois from across the United States.

“We have interns from New York to California here to teach them Phibro’s approved method for being on farm, handling cows and safety along with industry standards for farm management,” said Erica Varner, senior account manager for Phibro Animal Health.

The two-day training session started with day of instructions at a hotel.

“We went through safety, educated them on products, expectations in the field and some sales training so they know how to talk to people on the farms,” Varner said. “We also gave them an overview of Phibro — who we are and why we do what we do.”

At the dairy farm, the interns observed the cows and the dairy facilities to learn about a variety of management criteria such as body condition scoring, manure scoring, cud chewing, cow comfort, stocking density, respiration rates, proper TMR consistency and urine pH testing.

“Our interns are hands-on with cows and we give them projects,” Varner said. “We help them, but we allow them to run their projects independently.”

The Phibro interns will do projects such as heat stress assessments or overall farm stress assessments.

“All the interns will come together in August to present their projects and all the information they found to the intern group and the Phibro leadership team,” said Varner, who is also the intern coordinator.

“They asked me for some tips about being courteous on a farm,” said John Mitchell, who together with his brother, Aaron, are partners in Mitchell Dairy and Grain LLC. “I don’t think I’ve encountered any other company that sends interns out to train on a farm.”

Phibro’s interns not only receive valuable job experience, they also are paid for their work during the summer.

“Our goal since we started this program was to be the best, most sought-after internship in the dairy industry,” Varner said.

“We go to the best ag schools across the U.S. and we interview a lot of students,” she said. “We’re only picking the top-tier students to be part of our program and we expect a lot out of them.”

Roommates at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Katie Yahnke and Rachel Skinner are two of the Phibro interns for the summer.

“We found out in November that we were interns and I’ve been looking forward to it for the whole spring semester,” said Yahnke, who will be a senior in the fall studying dairy science and ag business.

“We’re both friends with one of last year’s interns and she highly recommended the position and talked about all the great things she did last summer so I’m excited,” said Skinner, who will also enter her senior year in the fall to complete her dairy science degree.

“The great thing about internships is you can try it for three months and see of it’s really for you or not and you see all the different parts of the dairy industry without fully committing to them.”

“John is so welcoming, he has allowed us to come through and work with the cows,” Varner said. “We really appreciate him opening the farm to us.”

Mitchell has fed a Phibro product, Animate, to his dry cows for about three years.

“Animate is an all-natural mineral product that is fed for a minimum of 21 days to pre-fresh cows,” said Varner, who provides on-farm support for the product with the Mitchells and their nutritionist.

Animate is blended into the TMR.

“It is an anionic salt and its purpose is to help the cows achieve the correct calcium metabolism,” Mitchell said. “The goal is to prevent milk fever and it has an effect on retained placentas and metritis.”

Research shows that even if a cow is not down with milk fever, a subclinical problem with calcium levels after the cows calve, can cause them to have a slow start in milk production, Mitchell said.

“In general, with this type of product, it’s not very palatable, so if you overfeed it, cows won’t eat,” he said. “Getting it perfectly dialed in is important, so Erica comes to the farm and measures urine pH to determine if we’re feeding it properly.”

Varner visits the northern Illinois farm every one to two months.

“Generally by the time you see a problem in fresh cows, the problem was really a couple of weeks ago,” Mitchell said. “So, we try to keep on top of it.”

Phibro offers an Animate app to help dairymen track the performance of their pre-fresh cows.

“The app is cool, my nutritionist uses it to look at urine pH,” Mitchell said. “We can track trends, look at standard deviations or averages. It has historical data, so we can look at successes or failures.”

The several days of 90-degree temperatures in May had an impact on the 400-cow registered Holstein herd.

“Milk production dropped about five pounds per cow,” Mitchell said. “After that, the cows went through the spring flush that we normally see when it warms up, so we had higher production, but lower components. Milk production was at 91 pounds, it went down to 86 pounds and now the cows are back up to 92 to 93 pounds.”

However, the warm, dry days also provided the opportunity to complete the first cutting of alfalfa, as well as the harvesting of cereal rye.

“The alfalfa quality was pretty good, the first test we got back from the green sample was 182 RFV and my nutritionist took some more samples today,” said Mitchell about the haylage that was put into a bunker. “The yield was pretty good considering about half of the acres were seeded in the fall.”

The yield from the cereal rye was more than Mitchell expected.

“It was probably the best yields we’ve had for the six years we’ve done it,” he said. “The cereal rye went into our smallest bunker and filled almost three bags.”

Last year the cereal rye filled two storage bags that were not as long as the bags this year.

“We did have an extra 20 acres of cereal rye this year,” Mitchell said. “So, hopefully we’re sitting pretty strong on that inventory.”

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor