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Dairy farmers like connecting in person, but virtual workshops bring growth

Jim Salfer with dairy farmer and cows
Jim Salfer, right, in less restrictive times visiting with Craig Roerick of Roerview Dairy in Swanville, Minn.

As the late Kenny Rogers once sang, “Every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser.” For now, Jim Salfer, University of Minnesota Extension dairy educator based in St. Cloud, must focus on the wins.

The Central Plains Dairy Expo scheduled for March 24 to 26 was canceled due to the COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The I-29 dairy-beef short course—named for the I-29 interstate that connects collaborators in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska—has traditionally led the Expo on the Tuesday of Expo week. 

“We decided to re-open registration and re-promote the program nationally,” says Salfer. “After canceling the in-person program we only had four participants request a refund. We ended up having almost 50 more join us online. We have participants from 24 states.”

Milk prices during COVID-19 a concern

2020 was expected to be a profitable year for dairy farmers. However, in early March, because of COVID-19, 2020 milk futures dropped 20 to 30 percent in most months. Many farmers were very concerned about the markets. 

As chairs of the I-29 committee, Salfer and Fred Hall, his dairy education counterpart at Iowa State University, discussed having a webinar discussing the outlook for dairy prices. Salfer contacted Marin Bozic, a University of Minnesota professor who focuses on dairy markets. He also contacted the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, which stays abreast of the ongoing state and federal legislation. 

Both Minnesota Milk and I-29 put out the word and 427 people ended up viewing live online March 25. “The webinar was only one hour, but the question and answer portion went on for another 45 minutes,” says Salfer.

“We appreciate working with partners like I-29 Moo University and University of Minnesota Extension,” says Jenna Davis, director of education for the Minnesota Milk Producers Association. “By working together, we are able to provide these timely opportunities to more farmers and industry members.”

In-person Extension education will return

While online workshops aren’t new, the current situation is forcing more in-person events online and also creating new topics and needs. “As with our regular events, we give them homework and are available to them as they implement what they’ve learned,” says Salfer. “Extension has never been a model of giving people a steak dinner and a $10,000 speaker and then everything goes back to life as usual. Our strength is in tailoring our program to their needs.”

Dairy farmers and the Extension educators who often bring them together know this quarantine situation won’t last forever. “After people are cooped up like this, I’m guessing we will have very good attendance when we can meet again,” says Salfer. “We may restart with small groups, maybe five to eight nearby farmers or farm couples and families at a time. And we will make plenty of time to interact.” 

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