By: Diane Gasper-O’Brien
HAYS, Kan. — The Fort Hays State University Department of Agriculture prides itself on its hands-on learning opportunities for students at its 3,800-acre University Farm.
The department is getting, even more, attention these days because of a project that involved a large rancher from Newkirk, Okla.
Six FHSU students prepared more than 20 head of Hereford and Red Angus cattle for the annual National Western Stock Show last month in Denver.
It provided a unique opportunity to show cattle at one of the most prestigious stock shows in the country, often referred to as “the granddaddy of them all.”
The students took 14 head to the show and were rewarded with one of their pens of Herefords winning reserve grand champion honors in the winter heifer category.
Mike Stoppel, the manager of the beef division for the University Farm, said a friend of his from Lucas had been preparing Bowling’s cattle for the stock show in years past, but because of a personal commitment, he wasn’t able to do it this year. So he approached Stoppel about FHSU students taking on the job.
From the start of the project when the cattle were brought to the Fort Hays State campus in October to the final day of the show, it was a win-win situation for all involved, said Nancy Bowling, owner of the Bowling Ranch on the Kansas-Oklahoma state line south of Arkansas City.
“We’re helping kids, and it helps us,” said Bowling, who has operated the ranch alone with help from a ranch manager and several employees since her husband, Dan, died in 2012. “We’re contributing to their education.”
She is doing that in more ways than one.
In addition to taking several students along to Denver for the show, Bowling gave each student who participated in the project a $1,000 scholarship.
Having college students help with the show hasn’t gone unnoticed by other ranchers.
“The idea of us using college kids has been overwhelming,” Bowling said. “I have nothing but high praise how these students conducted themselves, and people were complimenting them and asking us about the college kids.”
Bowling is more than happy to tell them.
During the Hereford show, a commentary was read about each ranch as its cattle were presented in the ring.
“Nancy wrote up a unique little story about Fort Hays State students helping with her herd,” Stoppel said. “I have talked to numerous people in the industry, and they said it’s a great deal.”
From the time the cattle arrived in Hays, students were responsible for the care of a couple dozen Bowling cattle, from feeding and watering to grooming and breaking them to lead.
“They learned about nutrition and feed rations and grooming them,” Bowling said. “They experienced heifer breeding and even had to go through seeing what it was like losing a bull.”
Stoppel said the experience was invaluable.
“It definitely gave kids who hadn’t been exposed to anything like this before a different aspect of the cattle industry,” Stoppel said.
One of those students was Kylie Jones from Rexford, who graduated in December with a degree in animal science. Jones had worked at the University Farm since coming to FHSU in 2014, but she had never been to a stock show.
“I was excited for a new opportunity and to see a different side of the industry I’d never been around,” said Jones, who got in on the ground floor of the project when she accompanied Stoppel to Oklahoma to visit with Bowling about the project.
“I was able to build a relationship with the owner,” Jones said, “and that was a cool opportunity to get involved with the decision-making and planning from the beginning.”
Students who participated had a diverse experience range with preparation for stock shows.
Jones said she not only learned a lot from Stoppel but also from fellow students such as Garret Stoppel from Russell and Casey Jensen from Courtland. Both were involved with cattle in 4-H and FFA growing up and are sophomore agriculture business majors who are quite familiar with stock shows.
“Garret had grown up around all this, so he was able to teach me a lot about what was going on,” Jones said. “I learned a lot from Mike and my peers, getting their ideas about things.”
Garret Stoppel, Mike’s son, said it was a learning experience for him as well.
“The people who had never been exposed to something like this, it was very different for them than for someone like me who are up on this sort of thing,” he said. “I’ve been going to stock shows since I can remember.”
“It was neat to see some of your fellow students experience something like this, something they had never seen before,” he said. “But it was also a learning opportunity for me. I knew the ropes, but it was different being able to show others who had worked at the beef unit the right way to do things for showing cattle.”
Jensen also understands the project also could have some long-term benefits for the students.
“You get to meet a lot of good people and make some connections at these shows,” he said. “With my family being in the Hereford industry, I already knew quite a few people, but we got introduced to a lot more people (in Denver), and I got to know Nancy Bowling better.”
Jensen also got to see first-hand his uncle win the Hereford Bull Pen Show.
“That’s a really big honor, so that was neat,” Mike Stoppel said. “The entire experience the students gained from this, they couldn’t have gotten in a classroom or even on the university farm otherwise without this opportunity.”
“It’s cool that we are building relationships with ranchers like that,” Jones said. “If we do a good job, they’re going to promote the college. It’s great advertising for our ag department, for students to see all the different opportunities they can have if they come to Fort Hays State.”
Don Benjamin, interim chair of FHSU’s Department of Agriculture, said he and other instructors in the department consistently look for hands-on opportunities for students to learn.
“Our goal is to involve the students in the farm,” he said. “You can teach them theory in the classroom, but you can’t teach them experience.”
Jones said that she is glad that FHSU is progressive in its teaching approach for ag students.
“I’m not a classroom learner; I’m more of a hands-on learner,” she said. “Besides working on the farm, we get to utilize a lot of different producers and feedlots around the area, so it’s great as much as my teachers utilize the farm to help us learn about different aspects of agriculture.”