Learning Through Doing: Show Cattle
(Written by freelance writer Hannah Johlman. This story was originally published in the fall edition of The Ledger Magazine, the official publication of the American Aberdeen Association.)
With a moderately sized herd of 75 purebred Aberdeen cattle, the University of Findlay offers animal science students a unique, hands-on-learning college experience.
“We try to get the students involved in a number of ways through class or extra-curricular activities pretty early on so that our freshman are involved in animal handling – both food animal and equine – in their first year,” says Farabee McCarthy, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of Animal Science Pre-Veterinary Studies.
The University of Findlay is a private university in Findlay, Ohio. Though a smaller college than most, with an average total enrollment of just more than 4,000 students, the school is well known for its animal science and equestrian studies programs.
The animal science department is made up of about 600 students who choose from three different programs: pre-veterinary, science or industry, allowing students to focus on one area.
The pre-vet option includes several courses that are required by some veterinary schools in addition to normal, undergraduate animal science classes. The science option is directed more toward students who are interested in a career that is more lab oriented or if they are considering graduate school. The industry option is more heavily weighted toward business and better for students who plan to work in the industry after graduating.
“We’re a pretty small facility really, so we advise all of our students within the department,” McCarthy says. “We try to advise students from the time they arrive to develop some options and have an open mind about other careers in animal agriculture.”
Many colleges require advising appointments, then students are left to sign up for classes on their own. At Findlay, faculty advisors are with their students every step of the way, from guiding them through class registration to informing them about internships and career goals.
“Most of the faculty are heavily involved,” McCarthy says. “We encourage students to sit down and talk about where they want to go. Sometimes students just need a sounding board with an idea, and we try to push them to look at options, ask questions and to get as much information about other opportunities, not just lock themselves into one area.”
Part of how students are encouraged to make life decisions in the short time they are at the school is through extensive hands-on experiences at the Pre-Veterinary Barn and the Dr. C. Richard Beckett Animal Science Building where students spend a good portion of their first two years learning practical animal handling, animal husbandry, care, restraint, nutrition and animal behavior.
Ten years ago, as student numbers were increasing, the animal science department received funds to put together a herd of livestock for study and research.
“We had some animals, but no significant numbers, and we didn’t have a lot of the other species,” McCarthy says. “We’re kind of limited in terms of acreage, so I needed to have something that was going to give students opportunities, particularly the kinds of students we get who don’t have a lot of experience or background in large animals, but yet still have the numbers to meet our needs.”
He began researching smaller breeds that the program could also get involved in from a breeding standpoint and grass-oriented-type breeds that could put together a nice set of commercial cattle, but he kept getting drawn back to the Aberdeen.
“The more I got to looking at them, they seemed like if we could get them bought at a reasonable price, they could be an opportunity that would work really well with some of our needs,” McCarthy says.
The first 12 cattle came from two breeders – Spring Creek Farm in Iowa and Double J in Nebraska. Six years ago, the program purchased more cattle from the University of Georgia, which McCarthy says took the program to another level.
“There were some national champion cows in there,” he says. “In fact, we still have offspring and we do some embryo work with them, so over time we have just simply tried to improve as a herd and also as a breed to try to bring some things to the table that other breeders could use. It’s always an ongoing process, but I think that we’re headed in the right direction with the cattle.”
In addition to the cattle, after the success of the Aberdeen cattle, the facilities became home to a flock of about 120 Southdown brood ewes.
“It gives the students opportunities to work with the livestock and see some of the industry through going to Denver and Sedalia, Mo.,” McCarthy says. “We’re always trying to provide more learning experiences for our students.”
According to McCarthy, many of Findlay’s incoming students come from less production agriculture-oriented backgrounds, partly because he sees agriculture in general losing more young people in terms of having hands-on production opportunities.
“Most livestock operations have continued to increase in size while decreasing in number of producers. As a result, most of our students may have shown animals in 4-H, but they are not coming with real farm backgrounds,” he says.
Now more than ever, McCarthy believes that it’s the university’s duty to prepare animal science students with experience so that they are able to deal with real-world problems and situations that arise in the industry on a day-to-day basis. And as much as students want to be involved on campus, McCarthy says the opportunities are there whether through clubs, research opportunities, internships, student employment or the livestock show team.
Students are encouraged to join clubs, and McCarthy says that the Pre-Vet Club and the Block and Bridle club are the most active on campus.
“The Block and Bridle club will take some trips and have events periodically, and the Collegiate FFA club puts on a judging clinic in the spring and they have put on steer shows in the spring as well.”
Though Findlay doesn’t have a graduate studies program, there are still opportunities for students to get involved, if that is what they are interested in.
“It varies with the different faculty members in terms of how many students they work with, but in general, students who want to do research or be involved in some animal research are able to for a semester or year or even longer,” McCarthy says.
Not only are internships highly recommended for most animal science students, they are required for students in the science and industry options. Often, the internships are with veterinarians over the period of a summer, but students are encouraged to broaden their horizons and explore the many opportunities available to them.
“Students are encouraged to find other internships and apply for those, but we have a faculty member that focuses a portion of her time on developing relationships with various operations and companies to try to generate some of those opportunities for our students,” McCarthy says.
Internships are sometimes available through the animal science department, but students are also able to volunteer or work part time at the livestock units under the two fulltime barn managers.
“Beyond them, it’s all student labor,” McCarthy says.
At the barns, students learn how to do anything and everything, from processing cattle to checking health and doctoring the livestock. Once students have worked at the barns for a period of time, McCarthy says they are treated almost like employees in terms of responsibilities.
“If they see something abnormal, students are supposed to bring them in and try to get whatever needs to be done with them done,” McCarthy says.
And for students who are interested in or have experience showing livestock, students make up the entirety of the livestock show team for both the Aberdeen cattle and the Southdown sheep. Students begin working with the cattle around the second or third week of the fall semester where they start preparing for shows by halter breaking the calves to lead and rinsing and blowing them out. A reward system is used to decide which students get to go to the big shows like Louisville and Denver.
“We get about 70 students who are interested,” McCarthy says. “But the students who are the most active are invited to help and show the cattle.”
Each student is assigned jobs in whatever their skill is on show day, from pulling legs to making sure cattle are ready ringside to showing the actual animals with the end goal being the same – giving students opportunities to network and learn their way around the livestock.
“All of the students have opportunities to be on the show teams, and our curriculum really provides as much opportunity as they want to take,” McCarthy says. “We are trying to produce advocates for agriculture, and that starts with introducing and allowing students to get these kinds of experiences.”