Wisconsinite loves to milk cows.
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Vanessa Ponterio, of Melroe, Wis., is a senior animal science student at North Dakota State University. Photo taken Feb. 25, 2020, at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds in West Fargo, N.D. (Mikkel Pates / Agweek)

Vanessa Ponterio is about to launch her career in animal science — dairy — despite its economic turmoil.

Ponterio, 22, is a senior animal science major at North Dakota State University in Fargo, N.D. Her parents, Frank and Kim Ponterio, milked 90 registered Holsteins, at Melrose, Wis., about 30 miles across the Mississippi river from Winona, Minn.

A rise of what she calls “Big Dairy” — milking a lot of cows for a cheap price — has had its impacts. The Ponterios got out of dairying a couple of years ago but then got back in, milking 10 Jersey cows and 50 Holsteins. They sell milk to Dairy Farmers of America.

She has a sister who went into a poultry-related business, but Vanessa is the only one of four to seek a dairy-related field. She started showing dairy cows through the 4-H.

“I got sparked into the genetics side” of the business, she says, adding, “Take bad cows, use good genetics and make a better calf.”

She graduated high school in 2016 and started her college career at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, but wanted to go to a bigger school. Two and a half years ago, she came to NDSU. The school drew her with its strong animal science program.

Ponterio initially was “discouraged with the dairy” career prospects, but ultimately returned to it. She acknowledges there isn’t an abundance of encouragement from her relatives with dairy in their blood: “I’ve had uncles, parents, cousins, telling me I’m not going to the right industry, so it’s kind of heartbreaking to hear stuff like that, so …”

Despite the current gloom in dairy, she persists, explaining: “I think it’s my love for the dairy cow, and my interest was sparked when I was young. I kind of have that passion for something that’s being defeated. I always cheer for the underdog.”

People will always be consuming dairy products, she explains.

At NDSU, she’s been particularly encouraged by Bison Dairy Club. The group has traveled to Canada and to other industry conventions. She was part of the NDSU Dairy Judging Team and at the World Dairy Expo took second place individually in judging the Ayrshire breed category.

Ponterio expects to graduate in the fall of 2020. She hopes to work for a bull stud company, perhaps selling semen or working with bulls and their offspring in a heifer center.

“We have to find our niche again,” she says, adding that that small farms may be the way to go. “Know where your food comes from.”

Dairy farmers hit a new high for milk production last season, despite the national herd continuing to shrink.

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