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Andrews University Board of Trustees Votes to Close Dairy

The Andrews University Board of Trustees voted during its June 4, 2018 meeting to shutter the Andrews Dairy, effective summer of 2019.

The decision was first announced by Andrews University President Andrea Luxton at the faculty board briefing later that afternoon. Andrews has faced a tough financial battle over the past several years due in large part to continued enrollment decline. Luxton stated that there have been “four years now of really bad performance,” noting that the fiscal year that concluded on April 30, 2018 found Andrews in the red to the tune of $2.7 million.

Segueing into the announcement about the Dairy, Luxton said that it was “probably the most difficult decision we took at the board meeting.” Due to a significant decline in the price of milk over the past several years, the losses for the dairy have been between $700,000 and $900,000 per year for three years now.

Luxton stressed that “this has not been poor management” and that there “has not been anything that anyone…could have done differently.” In addition to the plummeting milk prices, Luxton added that per capita, the amount of milk being consumed in the United States has also declined over the last 20 years, adding to the negative impact. 

In an announcement released on the Andrews website following the president’s board briefing, the university stated that the decision was “made following an extensive study of the Andrews University Dairy operations and current marketplace for dairy products. That year-long detailed analysis led to the conclusion that it was unlikely there would be any potential turns in the dairy market that would bring the Dairy operations close to a breakeven situation.”

Luxton acknowledged that this will be a “significant loss for the university” as the Dairy has been “a key part of one of our academic programs and it’s given students work.”

Indeed, when it opened in 1907, the Dairy and farmland provided milk and produce for the campus, as well as opportunities for students to work their way through school. Over the course of these 111 years, the Dairy has grown from 50 cows to over 700 — the largest herd of any university.

Though it no longer provides milk for use directly on campus, the award-winning Holstein herd’s milk is marketed by the Michigan Milk Producers Association Cooperative, and is used by both large and small companies, from the internationally-renowned Nestlé to the locally-owned Old Europe Cheese in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

The 900 acres of cultivated farmland feature state-of-the-art, modern facilities made possible by a $1 million gift a decade ago. In a local newspaper article regarding the 2008 donation, then-President Niels-Erik Andreasen described the Dairy as “sacred ground” and talked of the income it generates for the university, stating that the last few years “have been really good.” In years past, when milk prices were better, the Dairy helped the university through some tough economic times, which is one reason the decision to close it was such a difficult one to make, according to one board member.

The value to students who require work opportunities to pay for school has only increased with rising tuition costs. According to the Andrews Agriculture Department, it is estimated that student employees will earn $175,000 for their work at the Dairy this year. On-campus work opportunities like the Dairy are particularly important for the university’s many international students, who are ineligible to receive U.S. federal student loans and whose visa status prevents them from working off campus.

Former student employee Jessi Mazigian, who worked as a calf feeder, said her time at the Dairy was her “favorite job, by far.” She described the decision to close as “very unfortunate for the college, the staff of the dairy, and all of the cows. It is a heartbreaking time. The cows and calves were so loved by the staff. It was a job you could look forward to coming into every day.”

According to the official announcement, a staff of 15 full- and part-time employees, along with 20 student employees, manage the current Dairy operations. When the Dairy closes in 2019, “as many as four of the full-time staff will transfer to positions elsewhere in the University.”

The fate of the Agriculture Department’s programs remains less clear. In a report written for the board by Agriculture Chair Katherine Koudele, the Andrews Dairy was described as “the finest facility in the Midwest.” The Dairy has consistently received the highest ratings possible from third-party auditors including Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (F.A.R.M.) for its dedication to animal welfare, cleanliness, employee training, emergency preparedness, and the many other areas of consideration.

The report spoke to the preferred consideration the Andrews animal science and pre-vet majors receive when applying to graduate programs because of the experience they’ve gained through the Dairy. Since 1996, 88.2% of Andrews University students who have applied to veterinary colleges have been accepted. According to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, nearly 50% of individuals who apply to vet school are accepted, putting Andrews’ rates well above the national average. Their experience and skill with large animals makes Andrews’ students sought after by veterinary schools.

These sentiments were echoed by several alumni of the Agriculture Department as well as Dairy employees who responded to request for comment on the board’s decision.

Carissa Witzel, a full-time dairy employee who first began working there as a student in the fall of 2013, said she grows close to the calves under her care and gives them names. “I’m having a hard time with the administration’s decision to close down operations. Mostly due to my emotional connection to the animals. I’m going to miss it very much,” she added.


Students Michaela and Melissa attempt to examine a cow while she attempts to eat their homework.

Aimee-Joy Cork is a 2015 Andrews graduate with bachelor’s degrees in Animal Science and French Studies who is now enrolled in a master’s program at the Veterinary Public Health and Epidemiology at Texas A&M University. She discussed the birth of her favorite calf at the Dairy, a Brown Swiss named Alejandro whom she said is one of the closest animal friends she’s ever had. Cork heard of the Dairy closing from a friend and said she was “devastated and heartbroken” by the news. “The Dairy played such a crucial role in my time at Andrews and my interests….Without the experience I had working at the Dairy I probably never would have gotten the 10-month internship I had in Madagascar with ADRA…teaching locals about animal welfare, and probably never would have gotten the current job I have working with horses. Even though I am not currently working with cows, every day I miss working with them because of the hoof-prints they left on my heart while working at the Andrews Dairy.”

Animal science classes at Andrews are currently heavily dependent on the hands-on experience gained by having access to large animals right on campus, with each class and lab utilizing the Dairy. The students learn a battery of important skills including obstetrics and neonatal calf care, perinatal cow care, diagnosis and treatment of metabolic conditions, and intravenous, intramuscular, intramammary, and oral treatment administration that are vital to gaining acceptance to veterinary school.

According to the Agriculture Department’s report to the board, it would be impossible for students to get this level of training at other dairy farms because a typical farm is not invested in education and not interested in having students on their operations working with their cows. And, as one alum mentioned, some students do not have vehicles and so would have a hard time traveling to off-site internships at other farms. The report described the alternative of solely book learning in this particular field as “hollow education” when not combined with hands-on skills development.


Animal science students Michaela, Melissa, Perla, Melanie, Elia, Krysti, and Jeshua prepare to perform pregnancy exams on the cows.

The Andrews Dairy has gained national and international acclaim in both academic and agriculture circles. Dairy Management students from Purdue University, Michigan State University, and Ohio State University have toured the Dairy as part of their studies, and students from as far away as Royal Veterinary College in London, England have completed internships at the Dairy. The Dairy is currently in the midst of a three-year federal grant-funded faculty research project that combines the efforts of the Andrews Agriculture and Medical Laboratory Science departments with the prestigious College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University.

Jolene Birney, DVM, is a 2006 graduate of the Andrews pre-vet program who went on to study at Michigan State University, and now serves as adjunct faculty in the Andrews Agriculture Department. During her undergraduate studies she worked at the Dairy milking cows and feeding calves, and credits the Dairy with teaching her the value of hard work. She says that though she’s been practicing veterinary medicine for eight years, the Andrews Dairy is still teaching her new things, now in her role as a professor. She says she has “found the dairy to be an invaluable source of learning. The students examine the cows, learn how to calmly work the cattle, to humanely treat the animals for any sickness, and to respect God's wonderful creatures. I will miss visiting the dairy for class, for veterinary health visits, for farm harvest parties, and especially Sabbath afternoon walks.” Birney added a request to “please pray that the cows find caring homes that care for them as well as they were cared for at Andrews.”


Jeshua, Melissa, Perla, Elia, Stacey Nichols (a guest lecturer from VitaPlus), Krysti, Mike Harrington (an Andrews Dairy Feeder), and Michaela learn about cattle nutrition from Dr. Birney (front, center).

The fate of the cows is of concern to many who spoke with Spectrum. According to sources close to the situation, the 700-head herd will likely go to slaughter, a future one individual described as completely “antithetical to what has been our responsibility to God’s creatures since the Garden of Eden.” When asked for comment regarding the cattle herd, university administration stated that “over the next year, the Andrews University Dairy will look at the appropriate options for the future of its herd of Holstein cows, which would ideally include a sale of the entire herd to another larger Dairy operation. Since the Farm will continue its crop and related agricultural operations, existing equipment will be repurposed or sold as appropriate.”

With the closure of the Dairy operations, the Andrews Farm is set to expand its food crops, with the hope that increased production in this area will bring additional income to Andrews and help alleviate its financial burden.

 

Alisa Williams is managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.

Main photo by Justin Jeffery, courtesy of Andrews University. Additional photos courtesy of Dr. Jolene Birney.

 

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