It’s long been said that the dairy industry is built on relationships. For more than 25 years, university, technical school and short course students have gotten an early start on building relationships for their careers through the Professional Dairy Producers (PDP) Mentor Program.

The mentor program is designed to attract and retain young people in the dairy industry and grow the next generation of dairy producers and industry leaders. The goal for students is to experience modern dairy production systems and stimulate career planning with production agriculture as an option.

“The unique part about the PDP Mentor Program is that it is tailored to the interest of the student and provides valuable opportunities for students of all disciplines and backgrounds,” says Shelly Mayer of Slinger, Wisconsin, dairy producer and PDP executive director. “It gives those who grew up on a dairy farm the chance to see the practices and protocols on a different farm, and those with little or no agricultural background a practical first-hand look at the concepts they are studying in school.”

Students apply to the mentor program during the fall and are matched with an active dairy farmer and PDP member. Students coordinate with their mentors to spend a full day on the farm, which is typically tailored to the interests of the student. On-farm activities could range from management and planning meetings, calf care, herd health, breeding, or interacting with veterinarians, nutritionists and other industry professionals.

In March, students and mentors are invited to attend a breakfast at the PDP Business Conference, where they share experiences. Students can participate in the two-day conference to further build their network and learn from dozens of researchers, business and leadership experts.


The PDP Mentor Program began in 1996, with more than 1,100 students having completed the program over the years. Thirty-eight students from eight colleges and technical schools completed the program in 2023-24. The mentor program is supported through Dairy’s Foundation, along with a grant from the Alliant Energy Foundation.

Adding to classroom experience

The program has become a key part of the undergraduate or short course experience for students at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls by providing the dose of reality that many students are craving through interaction and on-farm experiences, says Dr. Steve Kelm, professor and chair of animal and food science.

“There are things discussed in the classroom that are hard for the students to visualize as they have not experienced it themselves, and the mentor program puts these elements into a sharper focus,” Kelm says. “In some cases, it will validate the work done in the classroom, and in others, it will point them in a direction that may not have been considered in classroom discussions.”

Several students highlighted that farm visits are a great way to see new dairy technologies or new approaches to barns, milking parlors and other facilities in action while receiving firsthand feedback from farmers who have implemented these new innovations.

While many of the mentor program participants plan to work in a production agriculture setting, others are looking for opportunities in allied industry. Meeting and working with multiple members of a dairy farm team, their advisers and industry professionals such as nutritionists, veterinarians and others provides a perspective on the career options available in today’s dairy industry.

“My highlights in the PDP Mentor Program were meeting the team members of my mentor farm,” says Rachel Rynda, UW – River Falls student who completed a mentorship with McFarlandale Dairy in Watertown, Wisconsin. “It was rewarding to see how well the team works together toward a common goal and how much they care.”

In addition to dairy farm mentorships, the entire program is coordinated by a college student intern hired by PDP each year.

“It is a great opportunity for a student to get the experience of managing a professional program and build project management, communications and presentation skills while interacting with fellow students, progressive dairy farmers and the PDP staff,” Mayer says.

Providing a jump-start to professional networks

In addition to the on-farm experiences gained, the mentor program’s opportunity to attend the PDP Business Conference gives students a head start on building the professional networks they’ll need to thrive in any role in the dairy community.

“Students need to continually expand their network of contacts as they move closer to the work outside of college,” Kelm says. “The reality for most is that you are only exposed to a fraction of the industry by the time you’re 20- or 21-years-old. The mentor program expands these contacts and helps to add immensely valuable context to the student perception of work within the dairy industry. In addition, short-term mentorship plants a seed that may develop into something later in life, and now they have another individual who can be utilized as a sounding board on decisions that can arise even years in the future.”

The mentorship experience also helps students understand the opportunities and connections in the broader dairy and agriculture community.

“It helps them feel they are part of something bigger than they have currently experienced, which is critical as students transition away from the college environment,” Kelm says. “They start to recognize people at industry events and see the interaction that mentors have in the broader community, such as cooperative boards, school boards and state agencies. Participation in the mentor program expands a student’s bubble in a way that the classroom can’t accomplish.”

—Written by Professional Dairy Producers staff

The above update is provided by the Professional Dairy Producers Foundation (PDPF), which raises funds nationwide and awards grants and sponsorships for educational programs and initiatives that benefit the U.S. dairy community. PDPF is committed to uniting the dairy community on issues of common concern to achieve its vision of a professional, proactive and prepared dairy community.