Commentary: Is Now the Time?

At the annual Plains Nutrition Conference held in San Antonio in April, three diverse yet totally related topics stood out to me.  There were research updates from Texas A&M and the USDA-ARS, Meat Animal Research Center, Clay Center, Neb. and invited presentations on estimating energy values of feedstuffs; analyzing undegradable (UIP) and bound nitrogen (DIP) fractions in feed; and predicting gain from intake.  All were well done, but not earth shattering to most of the attendees. 

What really stood out to me were three things, two presentations dealing with the demographics of current Animal Science students and funding issues facing animal science and ruminant nutrition programs.  The third was the quantity, quality, and subject matter of the graduate student research projects.

Dr. Maynard Hogberg of Iowa State University gave an eye-opening overview of who the undergraduate and graduate students today are, what their interests are, and what the opportunities for employment are upon degree completion.  A recent USDA study, titled “Employment Opportunities for College Graduates in Food, Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Environment-United States 2015-20” indicated annual job openings of nearly 58,000 for an expected annual supply of only 34,000 agriculture and related graduates.  That, coupled with the fact that ag sciences exceed the overall work force wages by $12,000 to 15,000 annually, is the good news.

Being of reasonably sound mind, in spite of just turning 71, which sounds much older than it feels, I am alarmed by Dr. Hogberg’s demographic breakdown:

1.       More women than men graduate at the Bachelor, Masters, and DVM levels with women making up 52, 55, and 77% of each.  This has been fairly consistent over the last 15 years.

2.       Minority graduates are only 17% of all ag graduates.  Who will lead the charge to feed the world?

3.       Enrollments in ag studies are growing but the trend is to a larger percentage of women. Many of who have no interest in careers in production agriculture, but rather in veterinary medicine, food safety or the consumer science areas.

4.       Barely half of these students come from farm or ranch backgrounds, with limited animal exposure much less experience.

Several other trends that don’t bode well for animal agriculture include:

·         There is a disconnect between Universities and producers. When I become king, it will be desirable for a faculty member to have at least five years of real world work experience.

·         Shift toward grant-supported competitive research.

·         Fewer faculty in general and fewer of those that understand sustainable animal-production systems.

·         Shift in student interest and background to companion animals.

·         Curriculum shifts toward environmental impact, food safety, and animal welfare rather than modern production systems.

·         As incoming freshmen, only 10% of students have a goal of graduate studies.

Dr. Hogberg cited a move at Iowa State to a one-week hands on class to help naïve student’s gain experience working with and around large animals.  One week?  He also spoke to the need for internship opportunities with several being advantageous to just one.  In 2016 over 50% of ISU incoming students indicated a career goal in veterinary medicine and only 15% a goal of working with large animals.  Ag. program enrollment numbers are up but production interest is continuing to decline.  A 2015 USDA study indicated that almost half the job opportunities in ag are in the business and management areas.  Do we teach these skill areas?

So what’s unappealing about jobs in production agriculture?

·         No regular hours.

·         Limits of rural areas i.e. high speed internet, quality schools, fitness centers, other singles of like age, flexible work schedules, dining options, diversified shopping, and on and on and on.

·         Opportunities for spouses to feel fulfilled.

Without prior exposure, these things and others we could add to the list are monumental barriers to hiring new grads.

Faced with increasing enrollments and decreasing funding how does all this work? Dr. Clint Krehbiel of the University of Nebraska cited the need to integrate Social Science with Animal Science.  The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated a 73% increase in meat and egg consumption and a 50% increase in Dairy consumption by 2050.  Percent of return on investments in ag research are between 30 and 75% according to FAO, but there are very few takers.

We are making food safer, cheaper, and more nutritious and adding to public wellbeing, but from whom and where is the funding going to come from?

These are serious concerns that are only compounded by a decreasing number of production-ag-related companies and what appear to be narrowing R&D programs by the remaining few.  Areas like enzymes, essential oils, plant extracts, behavior modification and the like are championed in large part by small startups without budgets to assist universities with funded research and perhaps research dollars side tracked for administration costs have gotten out of hand as the expense of a university trial is prohibitive for most of us.

This leads me to share some hope that I see monthly.  As I’ve mentioned in prior offerings my business focus has been multi-generational feeding and cow-calf enterprises.  I currently am enjoying the opportunity to mentor, teach, and work with nine next-generation family members from seven different family owned operations.  These young people are the future of what is in most cases a four- to six-generation family owned business.  Most of them have a college degree, although not necessarily in an Ag related discipline, but they would all agree that “I don’t know what I don’t know.”

Internships, mentoring, and opportunities of the like are what those of us with age and experience should be promoting and becoming involved in as we give back to an industry that’s been very good to us.  Perhaps we have clients with available housing and would work with you and your extension people or state university faculty to structure a program where one or more students could rotate through an operation, at little or no cost to the students, learning firsthand what calving time, weaning time, processing, feeding, and animal care is all about.  I don’t believe a week is enough, but three to four weeks would help.

The graduate student research posters at PNC were outstanding with a marked trend toward management and systems as opposed to a brown bottle and syringe first approach.  Five cash awards were presented by the Kenneth & Caroline Eng Foundation with top prize going to C.P. Weiss of Texas A&M for “Effects of roughage inclusion and particle size on digestion and ruminal fermentation characteristics of beef steers.”  Other winners included K.B. Wellman, J. Hawley, R.E. Carey, and W.C. Kayser but, these were but a few of many outstanding projects.

A few years back there was an industry-wide initiative for feed yard and ranch security.  That appears to have been relegated to back burner importance.  With the craziness on the world stage I’m reminded that hoof & mouth disease could destroy 10 to 20% of our animals within five days if we don’t get an immediate handle on it, and we don’t have enough vaccine to do that.  Worried yet?