Moo U: Students tackle dairy industry case

By Carol Elliott | Winter 2011

Estimates vary, but dairy cows contribute as much as 3 percent of man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. All of the usual jokes aside, it’s a significant problem that has moved center stage for the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, whose board includes 30 dairy industry CEOs representing nearly 80 percent of the 182 billion pounds of milk produced every year. The center has set a goal of reducing dairy industry GHG by 25 percent by 2020.

This fall, a group of 13 Notre Dame MBA and four Master of Science in Accountancy students took part in a weeklong Interterm Intensive course that took on the challenge of developing a flexible business plan to promote “Dairy Power.” This initiative involves converting manure into methane gas to produce electric power through the installation of an “anaerobic digester” and a generator.

In particular, student teams were asked to craft a marketing strategy to educate the various stakeholders critical to large-scale adoption of the technology. Currently, just 124 of the roughly 60,000 U.S. dairy farms use digesters.

Students spent a day touring the vast cow barns and seeing a digester first-hand at Fair Oaks Farms—part of a 10-farm, 30,000-cow dairy cooperative in northwest Indiana—before meeting as teams to strategize solutions. “As the week progressed, I watched the students realize what is possible here, what can be done,” said Erin K. Fitzgerald (’99), vice president of sustainability at the Innovation Center, who worked with the students and acted as a judge for the final presentations.

The recommendations ranged from the winning proposal that identified specific communities where farmers and food processing plants could partner to utilize the technology, to an economic analysis showing the favorable comparison of a digestor with wind and solar energy production, to a “Raise a Stink” campaign to educate consumers about digesters.

“The case was particularly interesting because each student had to take the core problem-solving frameworks from our coursework at Mendoza and apply them to a completely foreign industry,” said Justin Whitmore (MBA Candidate 2011). “This resulted in two interesting outcomes: In a very short amount of time, we developed solutions that the dairy center valued, and each student saw how the Mendoza curriculum helped each of us work quickly and effectively in new and ambiguous situations.”