Real-world experience gives Texas A&M veterinary students an edge in getting jobs after graduation.
Returning to academia from a private veterinary practice career in 1996, Kerry Barling of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University in College Station began working on a straightforward mission - to create more opportunities for veterinary students to get exposure to large-scale animal production.
Since then, he and his A&M associates have cooperated with a feedyard and several cow-calf operations to accomplish this mission.
"Our work outside the clinic dealing with stocker operations and feedlots was limited geographically," Barling says. "We wanted to build a program around a cooperative educational venture."
Course Develops At the suggestion of students, Barling and veterinarians Steve Wikse and Robert Field developed a program in which fifth-year vet students can use an elective course to spend time in a feedlot and cow-calf operation. Texas operations cooperating with the program include: Graham Land and Cattle Company Feedyard in Gonzales; the Buffalo Ranch, Somerville; the Whitten Ranch, Snook; and the Patrick Welder Ranch in Victoria. (see page 2-BF)
"My hope is that a student graduating from our program is more 'employable' in large-scale beef operations," Barling says. "The program prepares them for the next level of their career, giving them an exposure to the beef industry that makes their practice specialty selection in this industry easier."
Students in the four-week program begin work in College Station with a background in advanced beef cattle medicine. After being assigned a problem to solve, their second and third weeks are spent in the feedyard and on the ranch. Students solve the problem the fourth week of the program, collate data and complete a final report.
"This course is one component of the effort we're establishing at the Department of Large Animal Medicine and Surgery," Barling says. "There's a united move to increase teaching opportunities at A&M and we're also increasing case load opportunities when possible. It's likely there will be joint opportunities in this program between our location and West Texas A&M."
Recognizing Change Not all students in this program are from a beef background, nor do all intend to continue in the beef industry.
"The population of veterinary students continues to be less from an agricultural background," Barling says. "It's our hope that, in addition to preparing future cattle practitioners, this will make those from other backgrounds and who go into other practice areas more understanding and compassionate to issues within agriculture.
"For those who don't choose the beef industry as a career path, this course educates them to aspects of production where they can make informed decisions and comments about the beef industry," he says. "For example, small animal veterinarians may be more supportive of the beef industry if they have an understanding of it."
Cheryl Fitzgerald is one of these students. She's a certified public accountant, originally from Manheim, TX, whose career goals are outside of the beef industry. However, she views the opportunities within the course as essential.
"My long-term goal is to run a feline clinic," Fitzgerald says. "The more exposure I can get to all species, the more I can help dispel myths about food animals, whether my clinic is in Dallas, Atlanta or any other location."
David Hebel, Elgin, TX, says he'll stay in the beef industry, yet the experience is still essential.
"I hope to operate a mixed-animal practice, but want to understand stocker, cow-calf and feedyard operations better," Hebel says. "The science doesn't set in until you've ridden pens. I can't get enough hands-on experience."
No Fluff Course "Hopefully, our students will benefit in this teaching alliance as well as the operations with which we're working," Barling says. "They've all been extremely cooperative and supportive.
"Agreement among our faculty was to ensure that students didn't perform menial tasks in these operations, but made significant contributions to the feedyard as well as contribute to management decisions. We want them to have a rigorous, mentally-challenging problem to solve during their time on location," Barling adds. "That's why we require a paper presentation at the end of the course. It gives students a method of validating their experience. Plus, it allows us to better evaluate students and their approach to problem-solving."
Faculty, the feedyard and the cow-calf operation cooperatively evaluate students. Conversely, students also evaluate the course. Barling says feedback thus far, from students and both sets of management, has been beyond their expectations.
Hebel mirrors the feedback. "This was one of the best opportunities I could have had," he says. "The student involvement is in depth and there is a lot of it."
Mutually Beneficial Barling says the program benefits all parties involved, and the investment in time by the participating operations isn't taken lightly.
"There's a sacrifice in time by the feedyards to participate," Barling says. "The return comes from increased manpower and extra consulting from students and A&M."
But, not all benefits coming from the course are immediate, Barling adds. If the feedyard implements a student's recommendations or solutions, the benefits could include a lower disease rate and/or a better bottom line. A&M benefits as well, he adds.
"Over time, there'll be more veterinarians with an understanding of the beef industry to disprove myths and help the public understand the issues of the beef industry."
Where's It Headed? Though a relatively new concept, Barling envisions great potential for universities and industry to work closely.
"I believe there's a good chance that the good rapport between feedyard management and A&M can help increase our presence in feedlots throughout the state," Barling says. "I see additional faculty becoming involved to address different roles such as microbiology, epidemiology and nutrition, for example. It's likely more students would prefer a course that would place them in the feedyard longer than a week."
It's worth noting that Charles Graham of Graham Land and Cattle Company, Pat Welder of Welder Ranch, Buffalo Ranch and Whitten Ranch are now contributing members of a partnership to improve the educational experience of professional students, Barling says. "They are, in fact, actively supporting tomorrow's agricultural world.
"As resources become more limited in academia, educators will form more alliances with industries in the world economy," Barling says. "Our total curriculum has changed to dramatically increase clinical exposure for students. I see that continuing as opportunities for partnerships increase."
Jay Gray says the feedyard business needs a little more "marrying up" with institutions such as Texas A&M University for two reasons - to improve cattle health and develop prospective employees. Gray, general manager of feedyard operations at Graham Land and Cattle Company, Gonzales, TX, has hosted a number of veterinary students with an elective rotation of a feedyard and stocker operation.
Graham is a 100% custom cattle yard receiving cattle from varied backgrounds. He says two things have really changed in his business. The first is a smaller pool of prospective employees. The second is the cattle. "The Brahman influence is dropping and the hybrid vigor isn't what it once was," he says.
In turn, this is prompting Gray to work more closely with cow-calf and stocker operators to improve their health and backgrounding practices. Plus, he says the yard's primary focus is to get better at what it does.
Program Fits Goals The student rotation offered by Texas A&M fits these goals perfectly, Gray says.
"It makes a lot of sense to expose students to the feedyard," he adds. "If they learn one little thing, it's worth it."
Ron Erkert, Texas A&M student from Farmington, NM, has processed incoming cattle, worked in the hospital, fed, rode pens and worked in the mill. He says his time at Graham helped prepare him more than studies ever could.
"I've got an animal science background, but this provides a better perspective," Erkert says. "The feedyard gives you the mass production scale as well as the economics of operations like this."
As part of his evaluation, Erkert designed a plan to improve the hospital set-up at Graham.
"I feel like we're getting unbiased information and consultation," Gray says. "We plan to implement some of the students ideas as the cost/benefit allows. It's an ongoing two-way education process."
Kerry Barling, the Texas A&M veterinarian who spearheaded the rotation program, says he's optimistic for the program's future. There are five students participating now and it looks as if there will be more in the next term. He also envisions working with other Texas feedyards to help students get some hands-on experience.