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Study Abroad To
Belgium & The Netherlands

Elizabeth Karcher and Mike VandeHaar
Dept. of Animal Science


From May 16-31, 20 Michigan State University students participated in a 3-credit study abroad program focusing on dairy husbandry and environmental stewardship. Traveling with Animal Science faculty leaders, Dr. Elizabeth Karcher and Dr. Mike VandeHaar, the students explored the dairy industry in the Netherlands and Belgium.

The group consisted of 19 undergraduate students in Animal Science (16), Zoology (1), Agribusiness Management (2) and, Veterinary Medicine (1). Before the trip, the group met twice to discuss key differences between the U.S. and The Netherlands. Students were given the task of working on problem statements before departure and during the program. These statements ranged from the question of sustainability to regulations surrounding manure management. In addition, the students were asked to keep a daily journal documenting their experiences.
Students visit GREENPOWER, a manure treatment plant and biogas generator in Pittem, Belgium.

Experience for Students
The study program was a combination of visiting private dairy farms, agricultural companies, and universities. A highlight for students was the opportunity to live on a farm with a Belgian host family for 2 days. Visiting dairy farms allowed the students to observe first hand the environmental issues and regulations facing dairy farmers in Belgium and The Netherlands. Many of the farms visited made their own cheese, so students also sampled cheese and learned how cheese is made.

Three companies helped sponsor activities. Lely Industries provided a tour of their factory and of a local farm and gave the students insight into the complexities of designing and constructing a robotic milking machine. Scientists at Provimi (animal nutrition company based in Rotterdam) talked to the students about their current areas for ruminant nutrition research. Finally, Alltech, Inc. arranged a day with government regulators in Brussels and a visit to biogas generator to show ways in which many Belgian farmers are dealing with manure management.

Two of the most popular activities among the students were the opportunities to interact with faculty and staff at both CAH Dronten and Wageningen University. Members of the CAH Dronten dairy club arranged a full day of discussions and farm visits for the students and concluded the day with a social activity. Several MSU students commented that the interaction with their peers at another school really provided insight into Dutch agriculture and culture.

While in Wageningen, several faculty members took the time to meet with program participants to discuss issues ranging from organic farming and sustainability to nutrition and environmental concerns. Participants also toured two of Wageningen UR’s research dairy farms - Waiberhoeve and Aver Heino. The 4-day visit to Wageningen ended with a student social hosted by Wageningen Animal Science students.

Besides Academics, Fun
The program also allowed plenty of time for students to experience a new culture. Activities included a canal cruise in Amsterdam, a visit to the Anne Frank House and two art museums; and shopping at city markets. Students learned first hand why the Dutch stay reasonably thin – they ride bikes everywhere. We bicycled in Wageningen, Doorn, and the National Park de Hoge Veluwe.

Students also learned about Dutch trains and public busses – dependable, on-time, and orderly. Several students, accompanied by Karcher, spent a Saturday touring Cologne, Germany. Of course, all of the program participants enjoyed dining on “pannekoeken” (Dutch pancakes) and Belgian waffles.

In Their Own Words 
When asked what it meant to participate in this study abroad, Allan Mergener (Animal Science, senior), responded by saying “Participating in this study abroad meant a chance to broaden my horizons by experiencing the dairy industry in a different cultural setting. Visiting farms, talking with farmers, and meeting Dutch agricultural students my age through this program has increased my global awareness.”

According to Tera Koebel (Agribusiness Management, sophomore), “Studying dairy husbandry and environmental stewardship in the Netherlands and Belgium was a very enlightening experience for me because it was like looking into the future of how resources will be managed as our country gains human and animal population density.”

“Since those countries are so much smaller (compared with the U.S.) and everyone lives so closely together, the farmers have to be very strategic with their management of land, cattle, and wastes which are all issues that the United States will likely become more strict with over time. By traveling there to see their farms and hear firsthand how they cope with these challenges, I am able to help prepare my family’s farm and use my studies at Michigan State to help people in agriculture to be one step ahead of the regulatory processes to come.”

Long Before It All Started
In June 2009, Karcher and VandeHaar set out to initiate a new study abroad program. The goal of the program was to learn about animal agriculture, especially dairy farming, and how economic, environmental, and social policies in The Netherlands and Belgium have affected it.

These two countries were chosen because they have climates and water resource issues similar to Michigan, English is commonly spoken, and flights to Amsterdam are reasonably priced. Moreover, they have greater population densities for both cows and people than Michigan, so environmental and social concerns about farming receive even more attention than in the US.

In 2008, VandeHaar did a sabbatic at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, partly with the intent of developing a study abroad program. In 2009, Karcher visited the two countries to meet with contacts and arrange the program.

The first year of the program was a success and both Karcher and VandeHaar are looking forward to taking another group of students in May 2012.

Karcher states, “The most rewarding part of the trip for me was the opportunity to increase my interactions with MSU undergraduate students and to watch the students’ personal growth as they were forced into situations outside their typical comfort zones. In 2 short weeks it was easy to observe the increased global awareness and confidence exhibited by many of the program participants.”

For more information on this study abroad program, please contact Dr. Elizabeth Karcher (ekarcher@msu.edu).



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