On-the-job training and the opportunity to build toward his own operation are two reasons Clem Miller, Medford, WI, signed up for Wisconsin’s Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program.

“The start-up costs for a conventional dairy are too high for us,” says the 30-year-old, who had previously managed a conventional dairy and worked in construction.

“But by learning about and working on a lower-input grazing farm, maybe we’ll achieve our ownership goal – possibly within five years.”

The new program is sponsored by Wisconsin-based Grassworks, a producer-run, non-profit organization supporting on-farm research, education and adoption of managed grazing.

Open to anyone interested, the nationally accredited two-year program is the first of its kind for production agriculture. It matches people interested in managed grazing with master dairy graziers who have at least five years of production experience, know how to mentor and are willing to help others learn.

By combining on-farm work with classroom and online classes, the program is equipping apprentices with the skills to take over an existing grass-based dairy or to start their own. Classroom instruction is provided by Northcentral Technical College in Wausau and the University of Wisconsin’s School for Beginning Dairy Farmers. Participants also attend pasture walks and seminars and network with agribusiness professionals.

“It’s so exciting to see this taking off,” says Joe Tomandl III, the program’s director and a master dairy grazier, also from Medford. “We hope to have four apprentices placed by year’s end.”

Miller is apprenticing on Tomandl’s home farm, a 320-acre operation with 160 Jersey and crossbred cows that are calved seasonally. Paid for 4,000 hours over two years, he’ll spend 3,712 of them working the farm; the balance will be spent on class-structured education. So far, Miller’s taken an online soils class and attended several pasture walks.

“The pasture walks have been very helpful,” says the apprentice. “I’ve learned about building lanes, rotation schedules, cow management and handling runoff.”

Apprentices generally start at a minimum hourly wage of $8, with 50¢/hour raises every six months. Some master graziers pay more than that and, in cases, housing is also offered.

Next year, Miller will get additional compensation, most likely in the form of heifer calves, says Tomandl. “Those animals will help Clem to start building equity for his own farm.”

The Wisconsin Farm Center, under the state ag department’s Trade & Consumer Protection Division, is another of the program’s partners. It’s using equity models to help workers transition toward farm ownership.

“We’re asking the apprentices: ‘What do you want in five years?’ ” says Tomandl. “If it’s a 100-cow dairy, then the equity model will show them how many acres they need to get started.”

Tomandl is taking applications for apprentices and master graziers. Some master graziers are seasoned producers looking at the program as a possible way to slowly transfer their farms to new owners and ease into retirement, he says.

“I’m getting apprentice applications from people in many different walks of life,” he says. “Some are just out of high school or college, others have been working on dairy farms for years and have always wanted to own their own farms. Others are in completely different fields, such as the steel trades.

“The person who is going to succeed in this program is someone who wants to succeed, who wants to do this and is serious about it,” Tomandl says.

For more on the program, funded through a grant from USDA’s National Institute of Food & Agriculture Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, visit www.grassworks.org or contact Tomandl at cjtom@hughes.net.