By TIM ALEXANDER
PEORIA, Ill. — In an era of dwindling dairy farms and fewer producers in Illinois, a new Peoria County extension 4-H SPIN (special interest) “Dairy Club” attracted 19 mostly-urban youth in its first year.
The initial enthusiasm for the club, expressed by students ranging from third-graders through seniors in high school, came as a complete surprise to organizers.
“When Fred (Rosenbohm, volunteer dairy club superintendent and Peoria County dairy cattle farmer) and I met last spring and talked, we were trying to figure out how to get the minimum of five kids to sign up for a dairy club. The interest shown was wonderful in a time when dairy farms and awareness of farming in general are on the decline,” said Cathy Ludolph, Peoria County 4-H program coordinator.
USDA statistics detail the decline in total milk cow operations in the United States, from 97,460 in 2001 to just 65,000 in 2009 – a reduction of 33 percent. The number of dairy cow operations stood at exactly 51,481 as of Sept. 22, according to the Midwest Dairy Assoc. (MDA).
Though total milk cow operations have declined significantly, the number of large operations has increased, the USDA notes in its Overview of the United States Dairy Industry.
In Illinois, 810 licensed dairy herds provide 223 million gallons of milk annually, creating $394 million in sales, according to the MDA, making Illinois the 20th highest-producing dairy state. But those numbers pale in comparison to that of just a generation ago.
“I didn’t expect this to happen,” said Rosenbohm – operator of a 125-head family dairy farm comprised of brown Swiss and Holstein cows – of the club’s immediate popularity. “Some of the kids are from farming backgrounds, but none are from dairy backgrounds.
“The kids didn’t know each other beforehand, and now they are spending time with each other away from 4-H. If they never take this any further, they will have learned to work together, to make new friends and will have gained knowledge of where their food comes from.”
The club held its first meeting in April and things progressed to the point where Rosenbohm allowed the students to show some of his best dairy cows at the 2012 Peoria County 4-H Fair Aug. 3.
“During the first meeting they learned different breeds of dairy cows and the differences between beef and dairy cows. Now they’ve done everything from milking and washing cows to drawing blood from cows,” said Rosenbohm, who also grows corn, soybeans and wheat on his farm. “It’s all about teaching the basics – why we have this, why we do that.”
As his students’ enthusiasm for the club and the bonds they formed with each other and the animals grew, so did Rosenbohm’s desire to continue to mentor the youths.
“I want to teach them a lot more,” he said. “I’ve got speakers coming in to address the club, and we hope to participate in the Peoria County 4-H Barnyard Olympics. My agenda is filling up.”
Ludolph said the club extended its original commitment to meet just six times and now plans to meet regularly through 2013. They also hope to take part in the 4-H Dairy Quiz Bowl at the state level.
The kids capped off their first year of activities with a trip to the Illinois State Fair, where they volunteered in the dairy barn. Next year, they hope to show Rosenbohm’s best dairy cows at the state fair, after showing at the Peoria County 4-H Fair again.