Educating Opportunities for Young People Desiring Ag Careers

Published on Mon, 04/06/2020 - 1:01pm

 Educating Opportunities for Young People Desiring Ag Careers.

 By Heather Smith Thomas

 Today there are many educational programs that can help young people who hope to find a career in various agriculture industries.  Many colleges and universities offer courses in agriculture, animal science, ranch management, etc.

Opportunities At SDSU
Dr. Joseph Cassady, Professor and Head of the Department of Animal Science at South Dakota State University, says his department offers just one major.  “We’re not a large Animal Science program, but we have 450 students in our major,” he says.
“There are other majors at SDSU, depending on what aspects of agriculture, beef or dairy that a student is interested in.  In other departments these options include Ag Business, Dairy Production, and a Dairy Manufacturing major.  We also offer an Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering degree, and SDSU was the first university in the country to offer a 4-year degree in Precision Agriculture.  We also have a 4-year degree in Agricultural Science,” he says.

With an Animal Science major, some SDSU students go on to veterinary school or graduate school to pursue professional degrees, but the majority enter some form of production agriculture or an allied industry with their 4-year degree.  This program has a strong foundation in science—and specific application of sciences to animal husbandry.

“We focus primarily on pigs, cattle, sheep, with some exposure to poultry.  We also offer an equine minor, and a minor in meat science.  We have required courses in meat science for our major, but if someone wants a stronger background (to work in the packing industry or for owning/operating a locker plant) we offer the meat science minor.  Within the college there is also a Food Science major which includes meat products.”  Students can get a basic background for many different careers.

Like any college, there are required basic courses (English, humanities, written and oral communication, etc.) but within the Animal Science Department there are also courses in mammalian reproduction, genetics applied to livestock, nutrition for diet formulation, etc.

“We have a new course focusing on animal husbandry.  More of our students today come from a nonfarm background.  Also, because of specialization in agriculture a student might have grown up on a cattle operation or a pig farm but doesn’t know anything about sheep,” says Cassady.  The animal husbandry course teaches basic skills like how to halter an animal, how to move an animal (low-stress handling techniques), how to observe an animal and determine whether it is healthy or sick, or whether its behavior is normal or not, and why.

There are a tremendous number of jobs available for ag students.  “There are some differences today around the country, including a demographic shift in the last 30 years.  When I was an undergrad, most Animal Science departments were about 50% men and 50% women, and today more than 80% of their students are female.  In the future, as the 50 and 60-year-olds in the livestock industry move toward retirement and the 20 and 30-year-olds move into those positions there will be many men replaced by young women,” he says.

There’s also been dramatic increase in technology in ag careers and a need for students to be technologically savvy, to take advantage of all the assisted management technologies becoming available—from data systems used in feedlots to keep track of rations and how much feed is going into each pen, to systems that monitor animal health.  “For instance, we have technologies that monitor how often an animal comes to the water tank and drinks.  A person might be able to discern changes in behavior from that information and know if the animal is sick,” says Cassady.

There are technologies that monitor animals’ movement or how much time they spend lying down versus standing, to help a person evaluate that animal’s well-being.  The dairy industry has been using technology that—based on the animal’s activity—can let you know when it’s time for that cow to be artificially inseminated.  Most young people today are already using their smart phones for many things, so it’s easy for them to learn how to work with these new technologies.

TCU In Texas
A unique program at Texas Christian University (Fort Worth, Texas) prepares young people for careers in ranch management.  Kerry Cornelius, Director of the Ranch Management Program, says this program is not like anybody else’s.  The students go on 5-week-long field trips and visit 70 different operations.
“Everywhere we go, people say they can’t find good young folks who are willing and wanting to work.  There is tremendous opportunity within the industry today whether packing plants, feed yards, ranches, backgrounding operation, or farming,” he says.

“There are many young ladies today at Ag universities, entering many fields—not necessarily just ranch management.  For instance, a high percent of employees in some feed yards are women.  It’s been a slow transition but I see more opportunities in the future for women simply because there is such a need for help, and many young women are interested in an ag career.  The ones who go through our program are very intelligent and dedicated and do very well,” Cornelius says.

One of the things required for admission to this program is some experience. “We want the students to know what they are getting into, and understand the terminology and what we are talking about.  Some are coming from urban backgrounds, and we require that they get some experience before they sign up.  Working outdoors can be difficult if it’s really hot, raining, or cold and we don’t want a student spending all that money, time and education and then say ‘This isn’t really what I want to do.’  

The program’s keys to success are a focus on economics and ecology.  “You can’t have one without the other and be sustainable.  A ranch operation must have both.  We teach our students how to put a dollar figure on everything they do.  We are really a business school that focuses on beef cattle production,” says Cornelius.

“We teach science-based courses, but even in those courses—whether its range management, nutrition, or animal health, we’re looking at what it costs: what do you pay for it and what are the returns.”  If you are in it for the long haul and not just as a hobby, it won’t work if you can’t make a profit.

Some people say land prices are so expensive that most people can’t afford to get into ranching, and this is true.  It’s cheaper to lease land than to own it.  A person can lease the land and build a herd of cattle or custom graze and make a living. There are many land owners today who don’t want to own cattle or do the work involved; they own the land as an investment or for recreation, and make their operations available for lease.

Another factor is the aging of today’s present ranch owners.  “This often creates an opportunity for young people.  Some older producers want to find somebody to either come in and operate it or pass it down to,” he says.

The TCU 5-week ranch tours take students to a variety of operations.  “The first ranch we visit is in the panhandle of Texas, the second is in south Texas, and those two are in the fall semester.  In the spring we go to southwest Texas and then to east Texas.  The last tour takes us into western Oklahoma, western Kansas and the Flint Hills, the Osage, and the Arbuckle mountains.  We see purebred cow-calf operations, commercial cow-calf operations, stocker operations, feed yards, packing plants, and any other operation in each region,” explains Cornelius.

Students get a broad exposure to various aspects of beef production.  “I tell people there are three ways to learn something.  You hear it, see it, and do it.  They hear it in the classroom, see it on these field trips, and then we have 6 major projects where they put it to work for themselves and think through those things,” he says,
The program started in 1956 and now has graduates in 40 states and 23 countries.  Cornelius has been the Director since 2006 and has seen many “crops” of students who have gone on to various careers and done well. Anyone interested in the program can check the website:

Ranch Management Program At MSU
Rachel Frost, Program Lead, Dan Scott Ranch Management Program (Montana State University, Bozeman) says this new program at MSU provides a 4-year bachelor’s degree in Ranching Systems.  “This covers Animal Science, Rangeland Ecology and Management, as well as Business.  Equal credits are offered in each of those three disciplines,” she says.

“This is a multi-disciplinary approach to train ranch managers and combines the academic requirement with two internships.  Students serve an internship with a ranch we match them with, between their sophomore and junior year.  They go back to that same ranch for a second internship the summer between junior and senior year.”  This provides hands-on experience doing many things and is a good combination of intensely applied academic foundation in sciences and actual experience with the internship.  

This is a limited admission program.  “Students can declare Ranching Systems as a major when they arrive as a freshman, but partway through sophomore year they have to apply, and must be accepted before they can serve an internship and go on,” says Frost.
To be accepted, students need to have earned or be in the process of earning 40 credit hours toward the Ranching Systems degree and have at least a 3.0 GPA.  “They must supply a resume, letters of reference, current transcript, and a letter of intent stating why they want to be in the program and what they think it will do for them.  They must answer essay questions about the ranching industry and trends,” she explains.
After the application is graded, they go through a face-to-face interview with members of the steering committee.  This is a way to sort applicants and accept the ones most likely to do well and benefit from the program; it is limited to 10 students per year.  
This program started July 1, 2019 and opened for applications last fall.  “Along with the internship and curriculum degree we want to incorporate as much out-of-classroom experience and educational opportunity as possible.  We took in a soil health symposium recently and a ranching profitability course.  We are partnering with NRCS, conservation districts and non-profits; they help by waiving registration fees for students to attend these educational opportunities across the state,” she says.

There are more ag-education programs starting around the country to encourage young people to go into ag careers, and there are plenty of jobs available.  “We’re seeing a change in demographics as more of the people who purchase ranches are landowners but not ranchers,” Frost says.  They want someone to lease their places and run cattle, or someone to manage their ranch.  
The need for professional managers is increasing, along with a need for more integrated multi-disciplinary training for young folks who want to go back to a family ranch and be the 4th or 5th generation who can operate it.  There may be generation who leaves the ranch and goes into another career and their kids want to go back to the ranch, but don’t have the experience and education needed.  This kind of ag program can be very helpful for them.

“This program is funded by private partners, through the MSU Foundation and donations by ranch and business owners who believe in the need to train young people.  Our donors appreciate the close relationship we have with the ranching community and want to maintain that.  We are also fortunate to have some great ranches near Bozeman, who understand the difference between an intern and summer help.  These ranchers are working with us to make sure we meet the educational needs of these students rather than just sticking them out on a fence-line all summer.”  They do need to experience a variety of jobs.  For more information on this program a person can look at the website:

University of Wyoming
Steven Paisley, Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, says there are a variety of majors at the University of Wyoming that could be useful for an ag career.  “We tell our students that unless they have a specific goal, they don’t have to pick out one job or focus.  We encourage our students to take a variety of courses.  Maybe they want to go into ranch management or a range management job, or to graduate school or take pre-vet courses.”

There are many options, but for an advanced degree, students need to focus on upper division biology, science and mathematics, with more rigorous course work, rather than applied-type courses like beef production, sheep production, dairy, etc.

Paisley encourages students to do internships.  Nearly every ag company and many ranches offer internships.  “This is a wonderful opportunity to get a feel for a certain segment of the industry,” he says.  Internships also provide opportunity to develop relationships and improve the students’ odds of finding a job afterward.  The people they intern for can recommend them, or may want to hire the student themselves.

“Our university has a limited coursework schedule, which makes it challenging to do the internships; you can’t skip a fall semester because that would put you back an entire year.”  An internship every summer can be good experience, however, to be a part of different aspects of the industry and observe different management or leadership styles.  Paisley’s son has done internships with large commercial cow-calf operations, and seedstock operations.  There are also internships in ag lending; nearly every aspect of the industry has opportunities for internships.  Many are paid jobs, and the student gets credits toward his/her degree for doing an internship.  The internship is great because it’s just a couple months in the summer; if it’s something you are not enjoying you can endure it for that long, and see if it’s something you want to do or not.

“Our students have built lifetime friendships through internships, which many of them would not have gained otherwise.  The university also helps match the student with a particular internship.  There are many outfits looking for interns; I get a lot of e-mails asking if I know of any students who would be interested in this or that.  We also have an internship coordinator for all departments.  We post the internship requests on the college website,” says Paisley.

One reason this university gets many requests for interns is that most companies realize kids from western states--from rural communities, with rural background--have a good work ethic.  “These students have an appreciation for good husbandry.  There’s high demand for young people who know how to work and are motivated.”
Paisley also recommends that students visit with teachers and professors.  “They can help a student problem-solve and prioritize.  In many cases they also have contacts or opportunities they can tell a student about,” he says.