Sometimes growing up on a dairy farm can feel like a very lonely experience.
Surrounded by beef operations and grain growers and faced with the reality of ever-shrinking numbers of dairies, the next generation of dairy farmers can start to feel like they have no peers.
That’s why youth dairy events like the Western Canadian Classic (WCC), held last week in Brandon, are so important, according to participants.
“Coming to these events really lets you see that dairy isn’t dead,” said sixteen-year-old Dana Andres, who travelled from her dairy farm near Steinbach. “There is only one dairy club in my area of Manitoba, so to see kids from B.C. and Alberta who share the same passion is a lot of fun.”
Andres was one of 100 youth who took part in the WCC, a premier dairy show for youth ages 12 to 21 from across the four western provinces.
Miriam Sweetnam, a Dairy Farmers of Manitoba board member and one of the event’s organizers, agreed the connections the dairy youths make at events like these are vital.
“Speaking as a Manitoba parent, a lot of our children are in schools where they are the only dairy farmer,” she said. “So, when those children are here, they are amongst 100 others who have similar interests.”
WCC has been held annually for the past 32 years, rotating through Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C.
Sweetnam has been involved on the Manitoba organizing committee for the past seven years and sees a number of benefits in getting youth involved in the program, including giving them a chance to network and build confidence in their interests.
“If you talk about clipping a calf to someone in the city and how excited you are to get a good top line, it’s not something that is on their radar,” she said. “This just gives these kids a venue to mix with others who have similar interests. Many of the connections made here stick with these kids. It creates a lot of cross-provincial interaction.”
Andres has been a part of her local dairy club and 4-H club for seven years and says participating in livestock clubs has helped her in a number of different areas of her life.
“This has really helped me appreciate where I came from,” Andres said. “But, it isn’t all about the animals. It is about building skills, friendships and travelling. There is also a public speaking program offered and I have gone far with that and that has helped me immensely in my school life and also in my personal life, just making friends and building relationships.”
In her own community, Andres says she has seen a growing interest from kids her age in the dairy industry.
“Our dairy club has been growing recently, which is really exciting to see. There is about 20 members this past year,” Andres said.
Sweetnam says she has also seen a growth in interest in Manitoba youth since she began organizing the event.
“Participation has become stronger over the years. I think the first year we had about 16 participants from Manitoba. But like anything, it goes in waves,” Sweetnam said. “And, we certainly don’t limit participation. Participants don’t have to come from a dairy farm. If they have interest in the industry, they are welcome to join.”
During the event, participants took part in clipping, dairy science and showmanship presentations and competed in stall, showmanship and conformation competitions.
“The goal is to make them better and encourage them to be as good as they can possibly be. In their own provinces they may be big fish in a small bowl but when you put them into this bigger bowl of the four provinces, they learn to be better and strive to improve and that is what we are trying to achieve,” Sweetnam said.
Participants are awarded points throughout the week from their participation in the various competitions.
“The high-point participant winner from this week will represent Canada on the team of six that goes to Europe for a competition at the European Young Leaders School, so it is a prestigious thing to win,” Sweetnam said.
In Europe, the Canadian team will take part in a similar program, competing with European countries.
“If anyone is on the fence about participating in something like this I think they should definitely go for it,” Andres said. “I know a lot of people who aren’t even from farms who are very involved in this program and it is so beneficial.”