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More Women Pursuing Careers in Dairy Industry

By Becky Theller - Published May 12, 2016

There's been a quiet revolution in the dairy industry that has more to do with people than dairy cattle. Over the past 50 years what had been a male-dominated profession has welcomed an increasing number of women.

Back in 1980, only about a quarter of dairy science graduates were women. Now women make up more than half of the graduates each year.

"Much of the early gender revolution in U.S. colleges of agriculture occurred in the 1970s as colleges increasingly transitioned from curricula based on production agriculture to curricula based on food science and agricultural science," says Allan Goecker, assistant dean emeritus of Purdue University's College of Agriculture. Goecker has studied trends in enrollment and is the lead author of USDA 2015-2020 Employment Opportunities Report for College Graduates in Agriculture, Renewable Natural Resources and the Environment.

Growing Interest in Dairy Science

The changes mirrored what was happening in most of higher education as more women entered college and earned degrees. By the early 1980s, as many women as men were earning bachelor's degrees, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. But men still outnumbered women in the sciences.

Even today male graduates outnumber female graduates in almost all science and engineering disciplines. Agricultural sciences, including dairy science, are an exception.

"In 1982, when I was at the University of Minnesota, it had already started to shift," says Michael Schutz, professor of animal sciences and co-adviser for the Purdue University Dairy Club. "When I was a student, there were probably only two female faculty members. Now, across the country, it's close to half."

What caused the shift?

According to Goecker, the growing number of female graduates in the 1970s was driven by interest in veterinary medicine, interest in natural resources (especially wildlife and environmental science) and by the growth of programs in nutrition, food science and food engineering.

Sarah Wagler stands outside a stall of cowsSarah Wagler, a 2007 animal sciences graduate of Purdue University, is now a field representative for Dairy Farmers of America. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Desire to Work with Animals

Through the 1980s, those trends held, and things are much the same today. Some women, like Sarah Wagler, originally entered college aiming for a career in veterinary medicine or working with wildlife find fulfillment instead in dairy and other animal sciences. Wagler, who came to Purdue in 2007 to be a veterinarian, is now a field representative for Dairy Farmers of America.

"After graduating from high school, I wanted to be a vet. Probably about 90 percent of the animal science majors starting at Purdue want to be vets," Wagler says. "I thought it was the only way I could work with animals. After talking with professors and other students, I discovered that animal sciences was much more, and I could transfer my love for animals into other careers."

But some women, like Kelly Heckaman, a Purdue Extension educator in Warsaw, Indiana, just started out with a passion for dairy science. And she has shared it.

"I grew up on a small dairy farm—well, probably it was average back then with about 40 Holstein and Guernsey cows," Heckaman says. "I showed dairy in 4-H for 10 years and did dairy judging in FFA.

She received her bachelor's degree in dairy science from Ohio State University and master's in dairy cattle breeding and genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "This is my true passion," she says.

Sharing the Passion

Heckaman, who started working for Purdue Extension in January of 1996, has mentored others for the past two decades, working as the 4-H Dairy Show manager at the state fair and starting 4-H dairy student and producer contests at the fair.

She has coached 4-H and FFA dairy judging teams at both the local and national level. She has also helped form the Indiana 4-H Dairy Youth Academy and the Indiana 4-H Dairy Youth Conference.

Women like Heckaman set an example that has brought about the gender shift.

"I think we have had strong and excellent role models in the dairy industry who help encourage increased participation," Heckaman says. "I think the women before us blazed a trail and opened many doors for future generations."

Schutz can cite name after name of notable female dairy science students who have done well after they left Purdue. He says he remembers them as talented students. "So it's not surprising that they're rising to the top in careers in the dairy industry."

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