Looking a 900-pound heifer in the eye was a first-time experience for Ronald Stewart, a junior in animal sciences at the University of Illinois. When Stewart came to the university, he had big dreams – to play football and become a veterinarian. Not only did he walk on to the football team last fall, but he also tackled the task of inserting a growth promotant during one of his beef labs this past semester.

It’s true. The art of stockmanship has not been forgotten at the University of Illinois. In fact, more than 1,000 students have completed a unique, hands-on course designed specifically to teach the basics of working with farm animals in labs like this one at the beef farm.

Nearly 85 percent of students enrolled in the university's Working with Farm Animals (ANSC 103) have little to no experience working with animals in a farm setting. While this percentage seems staggering, it’s reflective of many animal science departments today. Urban females with aspirations to attend veterinary school make up one of the largest demographics of students in animal sciences.

ANSC 103 was developed when university professors began noticing that fewer students understood the basics of working with farm animals.

Walt Hurley, professor of animal sciences, said, “In my upper-level lactation biology class, most students did not have the fundamental knowledge to effectively handle the animals in order to complete their class projects.”

The first ANSC 103 class was offered in 1996 for 16 students to teach practical stockmanship and animal handling skills.

“Most introductory courses of this nature are oriented toward teaching the science of the animals or the ‘how-to’ of farm animal management,” Hurley said. “We understood that the most fundamental needs of our typically urban students who generally did not have a specific interest in food animal production was to let them learn through direct contact with the animals.”

Stewart came to university to become a veterinarian, just like 80 percent of his classmates.

“I grew up in inner city Chicago – there were no farms within 50 miles of the city,” Stewart said. “The only time I had seen a heifer was when I drove past farms on the way to visit family.”

Because many students come in with similar backgrounds like Stewart, one of the strengths of this course is to allow students to find out if they really want to work with farm animals, said Dick Cobb, instructor of the sheep lab.

“Many students want to become a veterinarian because they enjoyed caring for pets during their childhood,” Cobb said. “This class exposes them to opportunities to care for and treat farm animals. Some find this appealing and it opens new doors. Others realize it’s not what they want to do, which is critical for them to discover at this stage of their education.”

Currently 80 percent of animal science majors enroll in this experiential learning course at some point in their educational program. In the fall, this course will become mandatory in the U of I’s revised animal science curriculum. The goal is for all animal science students to take this class before they enter their junior year and begin advanced courses.

“There may be other institutions with similarly named classes,” said Neal Merchen, head of the department of animal sciences at the university. “But with our state-of-the-art research farms, I doubt many can match the hands-on learning experiences offered in our labs.”

The labs require a significant, direct oversight by instructors. The five labs include dairy with Hurley; sheep with Cobb; beef cattle with Tom Nash; poultry with Carl Parsons and Chet Utterback; and swine with Bill Fisher.

“I believe the class is unique because of the background and appointments of the people teaching the labs,” Cobb said. “The instructors include full professors, academic professionals and non-academic farm managers. We have diverse experiences, yet all of our thoughts and ideas are treated equally.”

In a typical lab, instructors describe the activity they want students to perform, offer a brief demonstration, and then let students try it on their own. The students quickly develop the rudimentary skills associated with the various animal species.

Rebecca Maloney, a senior in animal sciences, always wanted to work with animals and hopes to pursue a career working in a zoo.

“Before taking this class, I had almost no experience working with farm animals,” she said. “I now know several methods for drawing blood and giving injections, not to mention how to operate chutes to catch animals and how to operate an automatic take-off milking machine. I even know how to inseminate a sow.”

Each week students are challenged to step outside of their comfort zone.

“Many schools teach you the science of the animal, but they don’t take into account the animal’s physical being,” said Sarah Ozawa, a sophomore in animal sciences. “This class has taught me the practical skills needed to handle farm animals while adapting to new situations along the way – a skill I can apply in any career.”

Chet Utterback, instructor of the poultry lab, believes he is simply helping the university accomplish its mission.

“I view this as one of the most important courses we offer. As a land-grant institution, our goal is to educate students and the public. There’s no better way than in a hands-on learning environment like this. Students discover the value of the U of I’s research farms in providing food for the world and educating livestock producers and veterinarians to care for our animals.”