Breeders Connection 2019: Nebraska Beef Industry Scholars program enhances students’ understanding of beef business
Students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are learning there’s more to the beef industry than breeding and feeding cattle.
University of Nebraska students who want to learn more about the beef industry can obtain a minor in the Nebraska Beef Industry Scholars program. According to Matt Spangler, who coordinates the program, the Beef Industry Scholars Program started in 2007, and graduated its first class of students in 2010. Started as a certificate program, it has become a minor.
The idea of the program is to give any student at UNL with an interest in beef cattle, particularly those in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, an opportunity to engage in it. “There are students from a beef production background enrolled in the program, but also plenty of students who don’t have that background,” Spangler said. “Maybe their grandparents were involved in production agriculture, but their parents weren’t. There is a variety of students with different interests and backgrounds, but they share a general interest in beef cattle production.”
Melissa Keyes Nelson enrolled in the Nebraska Beef Industry Scholars program because she had always been interested in the beef industry, and wanted to be a part of it in the future. She grew up on the family ranch in Springfield, Nebraska. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to get to know some of the leaders in the beef industry now, and in the future,” she says.
“What is unique about the program is it exposes students to the breadth of the beef industry, and some of the things students don’t necessarily associate with the beef industry,” Spangler says. “The emphasis is on emerging issues and really forcing students to debate the pros and cons of them. The emphasis is on the outside or external forces that shape the industry.”
Dr. Brad Lubben, an assistant professor of agricultural economics at UNL, teaches the senior policy course. “We take real issues and fit theory, science and analysis to those issues. The students learn how to apply what they have learned up to that point to the real issues,” he says.
During the course curriculum, students also learn about regulations and regulatory agencies. “There is also a class that focuses on national policy, and teaching students the importance of taking part in organizations that help develop policy. All of that, coupled with peer to peer and student to industry networking, makes this program very unique,” Spangler says.
The program helps students who may enter into a career profession of narrow scope, but see how the profession is integral and ties into the industry complex. “I think that is extremely important. This program may help the students understand how large and diverse the beef industry is, while giving them a different set of lenses to look through as they pursue a career, that on the surface, may be a bit external to production agriculture,” Spangler said.
Some of the classes focus on exposing students to current and emerging issues in the beef industry, as well as communication and crisis management, and communicating to diverse audiences. To earn the minor, students are required to take an internship, and some production-oriented classes like cow/calf management, feedlot management, fresh meats, and animal welfare, which are core animal science classes.
“At the university, I think we do a tremendous job teaching fundamental science-based classes that are really required to have an understanding of beef cattle production,” Spangler says “But, what makes this unique is supplementing those courses with things to enhance soft skills, like written and verbal communication and networking opportunities, that will hopefully help the student’s understanding of what the beef industry entails. It is more complex than simply raising beef cattle. For students with an interest in the agriculture industry, particularly the beef industry, we think this really helps them in their chosen field of endeavor.”
After completing the minor, students have secured employment in a variety of fields. Some have gone home to family production operations, or they work in roles in cow/calf or feedlot management. Other students have become high school ag teachers, gone on to vet school, become legislative aides or journalists, gone into sales with pharmaceutical companies, or become ag lenders. “Their occupations are really diverse. These students came together with a common interest in the beef industry, and hopefully they learned how diverse that is by securing employment in a number of career fields,” Spangler says.
The program is offered at UNL as a minor, and students in any discipline can declare that minor at any point before they graduate. “We encourage them to start thinking about it very early in their college career. The spring semester of their freshman year is when one class each semester starts that is designated to be taken as part of this minor program. Identifying this as an interest early in their academic career is certainly beneficial,” he says.
The cost of earning the degree is associated with the cost of the credit hours required for the minor. “We have several activities like study tours, and a trip to the NCBA trade show and convention every year as part of a class focused on national policy,” he says. Student travel for those activities is covered by the program through donations and small grants that enable them to off-set those costs to students, Spangler says.
Keyes Nelson, a former participant who is now employed as an externship and internship coordinator in the College of Applied Agriculture and Food Studies at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, found the job shadowing and tours as one of the most valuable parts of the program. “We learned a lot about policies in the beef industry and how that affects the producer and the consumer,” she says. “If you are going to be involved in the program, put your all into it because you will only get out of it what you put into it.”