Mini-internships give ag students hands-on farm experience

A University of Alberta program connects urban students to farmers, and gives farm kids new ag experience, too

Gillian Arraial, Alexandra Shepherd and Bailey Hove learning to castrate calves while interning with Chelsea Geiger Pellerin and her family.

A unique internship program at the University of Alberta has become increasingly popular with students since its creation in 2016.

Poultry professor Dr. Frank Robinson helped create the program, which is a partnership between the faculty of agricultural, life and environmental sciences and the University of Alberta Career Centre. Robinson set up mini ag internships, geared towards ag/animal science students with an urban background. These internships give students hands-on experience during the university’s week-long reading weeks, which happen twice a year. For most students, reading week is a break from classes and study, but for those accepted into the internship, it’s an exciting chance to gain experience at a farm, ranch or some other livestock business.

“This program originated because on the last day of classes that spring we asked students what they thought was the main thing they didn’t get from their courses. They all said animal experience. They can’t get animal experience at school and they had no prior experience,” Robinson says.

“We always had a winter reading week in February, and had just started a fall reading week in early November. I thought we might do something during reading week for three days and still give the students two days to do whatever they want. So in the fall of 2016 we started our program.”

It started with 16 students that semester. “I talked to some chicken farmers I knew, then expanded it into dairy, and then beef became a big part of it,” says Robinson.

“We interview students, to decide where to put them — a hatchery, dairy or beef operation — and are open to what the students want to do. We placed 299 animal science students between the first fall program in 2016 until winter of 2020 after COVID hit. We placed 118 that last semester in 2020.”

When students are interviewed, they are asked about experience they’ve had, and are then placed on an operation that offers new experiences. “If they come from a beef farm we probably won’t put them on a beef farm. If they come from a poultry farm we don’t put them on a chicken farm.”

About 80 per cent of these students are female, mostly urban, with no farm experience. “We usually place them in groups of two or three, though some farmers take more, for the three days. Some people always ask for four because they like to put them in two teams on their beef operation. A few producers have hosted students every semester,” says Robinson.

This past winter it was a virtual program with 36 students online for the three days. “We also had farmers talk about their operations and had 45 students registered for that. This worked well because students saw more farms than they would have for actual internships,” he says.

“Now we’ve had 299 actual placements and 45 virtual placements. We typically have 10 to 20 farmers involved each semester. A lot of students are already asking about placements this fall. We’re hoping we can do it, in spite of COVID,” Robinson says.

Various organizations and individuals donate to the program to fund an endowment that provides boots and coveralls for students, plus covers mileage costs and hotel expense if students have to stay overnight.

“If the farm is within 100 kilometers we expect students to drive in and out, but otherwise we pay mileage.”

For Cassidy Clisby, the ag internships reinforced what she was learning at school, built confidence and gave her a glimpse of what her life would be like as a veterinarian. photo: Courtesy Cassidy Clisby

Robinson has a list of 15 new farmers who want to take students this next year. Some are alumni and enjoy interacting with students, and this program provides a chance to encourage the younger generation.

“We’re also looking at possibly doing a session during summer on weekends, if we can grow the program.”

Some farmers and ranchers allow students to stay at their places. “The students have a good time, and some volunteer to go back afterward and help with the farm work; some students have acquired summer jobs this way.”

This program has been so successful that the University of Saskatchewan is looking at doing the same thing. “We’ve also placed students at Lakeland College here in Alberta, in their dairy, beef and sheep programs, for an internship, so this has worked out very well.”

Farmer perspective

“He always emphasizes the importance of experience in learning and exposing students to new situations. He has a great way of inspiring students to do better and become better.”

The program exposes students to a different world, giving them experiences they wouldn’t find elsewhere, such as helping during calving season on a commercial operation, she says. This shows students what it takes to produce a steak, and how farmers take care of animals, before the calves are even born.

“In the fall semester, students come in November and I thought it might be boring for them because we’ve finished combining, but it’s still important for them to see what we do.” She adds that there’s other work such as fencing, making plans for swath grazing and getting ready for calving.

Any time of year there are many jobs to do, and students get a chance to see what it takes to get everything done. Some times of year the rancher or farmer is going night and day.

“Students ask when they should come to work during calving. It depends on what they want to do. If they want to fully immerse themselves in this, I recommend they spend the night here. They can either do night checks with my sister, or be at the farm at 5 a.m. with me, and we’re getting home at 7 p.m. We’re constantly going, and you see their awe and appreciation when they realize that farmers work hard and do so many things.”

Students also get to see both the joy and the tough side of farming. For example, it’s rewarding to work hard and save a calf, and it’s exciting for the students to start the day and see all the new calves. “They also see the heartbreak when we work diligently and there’s still a calf we don’t save. We’re getting up at 4:30 in the morning and dog tired but we have to get there and see what we can do.”

Students are gaining experience, but also helping, plus getting a boost of resolve, she says. Geiger Pellerin also loves “seeing their wonder.”

“They come in the third week of our calving, when we’re starting to slow down and wear out. To have them come, and help show them what happens at calving and see their excitement is reinvigorating for us.”

Geiger Pellerin also gets to see the excitement in students as they learn how to do things themselves.

“We don’t have them stand outside the pen and watch us castrate and dehorn; we show them how we do it then give them the tools and tell them to have at it. We make sure they put enough paste on the horn buds and make sure they have both testes below the castrator ring.”

Some students want to become veterinarians but have no animal experience, and these classes and mini-internships give them a start. There’s no substitute for experience, and also they learn that the farmers know a lot about animal care. “Maybe there’s a calving going wrong, and students ask if we are going to call the vet. We tell them no, we can’t afford a $250 or $300 vet bill just to come pull a calf,” she says.

“We put our hands in there and figure out what’s going wrong, and correct it.”

The vet is a resource, she says, but as farmers, they have the experience to know whether it’s a problem they can handle. “The vet students learn that they need to respect the farmers and realize that they know their farm, their own operation, their own cattle.”

It is gratifying to show students the dynamics of farming, she says, including the family side. Students are “thrown right into it, doing the jobs we’re doing, then eating lunch with the family, with fun and laughter,” she says, with everyone pitching in to wash dishes. Then they’re out the door, checking calving cows, castrating calves and handling the other chores that come with running a ranch.

“My sister and I both have young families and we enjoy showing the students this side of things. I’ve been out working since 5 a.m. and come in for lunch and my mom has been watching my kids, and it’s time for one of them to take a nap and I excuse myself for a bit because I need to be a mom now and not a farmer. We show them that aspect, too. For those three days, they are also coming into our lives. They come to understand that the farm and home life are very integrated and you are not doing one without the other.”

Student perspective

“It was an incredible benefit to take what I was learning in class and actually apply it and do it,” she says.

Clisby grew up in Vancouver, B.C., with no farm experience, but has a horse and is planning to go to vet school.

“When Frank gave me this opportunity to go to different farms during reading week, I wanted to see what the farmers could teach me,” she says.

“When you enter the mini-internship program they tell you all the places we can go and to pick our top three.” The internship organizers then matched two or three people to go with her to farms, she explains. For the Lakeland College placement, 10 students went together.

“Frank is so accommodating, trying to get everyone what they want, using our first, second and third choices. They try to make it happen, and I loved it!”

She went to her first farm in the fall of 2019. She stayed with the family, pitching in with meals, and helping with farm chores such as collecting and cleaning eggs. Her host family also introduced her to other people to offer a broader perspective on agriculture.

“They visited friends and neighbours and invited people for us to talk with. One night they brought two fourth-year vet students from Calgary. Another night they brought two friends who were part of a feed mill, and we did a tour of the feed mill the next day.”

Clisby says that experience not only allowed her to apply what she learned at school, but also to see how it fits into a farmer’s daily life. “This is something I want to do with my life, and it gave me a glimpse of what my life is going to look like.”

In February 2020 she went to the dairy at Lakeland College. “We stayed in a hotel that time, went to the dairy early mornings and stayed all day and it was amazing.”

Clisby says she’s a “very hands-on learner,” and so struggled with online classes during COVID. If she can do it once, she remembers it, she says.

“The mini-internships reinforced what I was learning in classes. I got to apply it and have a broader perspective. Many students trying to get into vet school really struggle to find a large animal operation where they can volunteer because they need those hours for vet school. I was fortunate to be able to get some beef experience, dairy experience, etc. and through the Agriculture 101 class was able to get my large animal handling certificate — so that was like the cherry on top of the cake.”

Clisby has chatted with students who stayed in B.C. and are planning to apply to vet school. “They don’t get any animal experience. This was one reason I chose to come to Alberta because they had an ag program that I hoped would give me a leg up for vet school since it’s very competitive to get in.”

The hands-on experience, and looking at things from the perspective of the farmer or rancher provides a lot of information that a student will never get by just going to classes. It also helped build confidence.

“I was timid in class, not wanting to put my hand up and maybe say something wrong — especially in class with people who are already young farmers,” she says.

“But at the farm, I was able to ask about things I didn’t know. For instance, I didn’t know what average daily gain was, how it incorporates into their business, why they feed so much grain, at a certain percentage, at a certain age for their cattle. I didn’t realize how many types of beef operations there are — feedlots, stocker backgrounding, etc. They were so open about explaining everything; I felt like I couldn’t say anything wrong.”

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