The Future of Agricultural Education

Published on Tue, 01/12/2010 - 10:27am

There are many things a young, aspiring cattle producer can learn through higher education. But the most important of those may be how to learn. “A lot of people may say, ‘Well, they need to know A.I., and they need to know nutrition’,” says John Lawrence, Iowa State University professor of agricultural economics and director of the school’s Beef Center. “But the bottom line is, they need to be able to evaluate the information.” That’s a skill Lawrence says has become increasingly important with the flood of information coming from the Internet and other sources. He says, “Whether that is a decision that impacts your own farming operation, or things like policy decisions—like climate change, environmental regulations, and things like that—how do you evaluate the science and the information?”

Lawrence says more and more producers, and their kids, are getting college educations; where the share of people seeking degrees in some other walks of life may be leveling off, it’s still rising for the farming profession. “Some of that may be a two-year program,” he says, “a technical program in production management; some of it may be in animal science, or agribusiness or agronomy, or across a whole host of different degrees. But again, teach people to be lifelong learners, and to be able to stay current on what’s going on in the industry, and to evaluate the science and information themselves.”
But, he says, there are some core areas with which cattle producers need to be familiar. Although a rancher with his own enterprise may outsource some of his feedstuff decisions to a nutritionist or sales person, at the end of the day he still needs to know how to evaluate rations or to use computer software to calculate what’s best for his herd. And cow/calf producers in particular need to become familiar with genetics and breeding programs. “We’ve seen the industry move predominantly to Angus-based cattle,” Lawrence says, “and the market has driven that. And yet, I think there are some opportunities for some crossbreeding programs to get some growth back into these cattle.”
And don’t forget the aspects of Lawrence’s own profession. “My bias is always about the money, the economics,” he says “And so, understanding and using a good set of records, making decisions based on the economics and the science and not the emotion, is pretty important as well.”
It’s an already formidable set of skills to be learned, but Lawrence’s colleague Brad Skaar would add ‘leadership to the mix. Skaar, an associate professor of animal science at ISU, also conducts the school’s Beef Industry Leadership Fellows program. “I like to call it an Honor’s Program for kids with beef interests,” says Skaar. “Their objective is to study the industry at large, how associations work, how producers put their heads together to make things happen, what are the responsibilities of national association-level kinds of programs.”
Except for now he’s in the process of tearing the curriculum down and replacing it. “We put it on ice this last 6-9 months,” he explains. “We were having all this involvement with the industry, but what we’re not figuring out well, and this is where we’re changing, is how to teach leadership in that program.” Skaar says the Beef Fellows program was intended to bridge a gap in ISU’s curriculum; although there are numerous courses designed to teach the science of cattle production, he says none of them focus on “what makes the beef industry tick, who makes decisions, where is change created in the industry, how do we deal with issues that eventually impact the producer? Things like the BSE issue…dealing with consumer groups…export and trade barriers.”
Through the Fellows course, students participate regularly in state and national Cattlemen’s Association meetings; they also make a trip to Denver to meet with NCBA, the U.S. Meat Export Federation and other groups. Skaar doesn’t shy from controversy; his students have also discussed the industry with NCBA’s rival organizations, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and RCALF-USA. “From a student’s viewpoint,” he explains, “they need to see and interact with people who see the industry and lead the industry from all angles, and not just one angle.”
What was lacking, he felt, was coursework in studying how leadership works. “The issues of the day will change,” he says, “but the leadership skills don’t change. So that’s why we’re shifting the program.” A grad student, Zeb Gray, is developing the curriculum; they’ve also been meeting with people at Ames who teach leadership courses, determining whether they can make it a certificate program, and have gotten help from an unexpected quarter. “As far as I know,” says Skaar, “the only place you can get a leadership certificate on campus right now is through the Women’s Studies program. I know that is a little bit of an odd fellows’ arrangement, but we have found great friends in the Women’s Studies program on campus who have already forged a trail on how to put a certificate program together, and are willing to share their coursework with us.”
Coursework in animal science is evolving rapidly on college campuses, and it’s been hard for the instructors to keep up. Meghan Wulster-Radcliffe, executive director of the American Society of Animal Science, says the changes since she got her undergraduate degree in 1995 have been dramatic; schools now offer companion animal classes and laboratory animal management classes. “Animal science departments are becoming a home for all of managed animals, not just for the traditional livestock species,” she says. “In some ways that’s excellent, because it gives our students a lot more opportunity; it also gives true production agriculture people reach across more fields, and that gives us more influence.” But the profession is not producing an ever-increasing number of educators, and the challenge becomes servicing both these new interests and the needs of the animal scientists’ traditional base.
The students’ demographic has also changed; Wulster-Radcliffe says it’s no longer dominated by those who came from the farm, seeking better methods, and intend to return to it. Now, she says, “50-80%, depending on the department, are not from a rural background at all. They leave, and they have so many more opportunities than they used to have, that it’s not really clear whether they’re going to go back to production agriculture.” But where that’s created uncertainty for educators, it’s also given them a new, previously untapped clientele—students from urban areas who develop a desire to enter production agriculture, a new source of lifeblood for that field.
John Rayfield wears a couple of hats; in addition to being an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications at Texas A & M, he’s also assistant superintendent of the national FFA’s livestock evaluation career development event. He sees many students who come from a farm or ranch, but aren’t there to take production agriculture coursework; students in his department often go on to be Extension agents, vo-ag instructors, or farm organization staffers. However, he says, “There are many of our students who have an interest in coming here, getting a formal education, and then going back to the family farm to implement those practices that they learned here.” Ag Leadership students can select areas of concentration ranging from horticulture or turfgrass management to animal science, agricultural economics, and agribusiness.
But even for a kid returning to a multi generation cattle farm, Rayfield says, “There’s tons that we can teach them,” starting with the outlook for beef trade. “Many times those students come to us with some technical knowledge,” he says, “and they sure have a good skill set to take back to the farm, but when they get here they open their eyes to the fact that there is a world outside of Texas…there are endless opportunities there, and just so many different ways that they can get involved in that global market.” And there are also technological advances; Rayfield ticks off ultrasound, performance data in cattle, embryo transfer and A.I. technology among the techniques that have become commonplace over the last couple of decades, and cloning as a technology that’s on its way.
In his FFA role, Rayfield echoes John Lawrence when he says the goal is not only to make young people better evaluators of livestock, but also to enhance their problem-solving skills. “We have the team activity with problem-solving,” he says, “where they utilize performance data to select and then cull females for selection that you’d put back into the herd; we also have a quiz that we give that covers topics from livestock management to the meats industry to the latest technologies, health of animals, and nutrition.” FFA, he says, has taken a leading role among youth organizations through developing a curriculum “that not only prepares them for college preparatory work, but also provides some skills and some training for going back to the family farm, and keeping it going.”