Stories of Promising Practice: Prairie School District
Wednesday, November 15, 2017
Prairie School District RE-11J is located in New Raymer, 85 miles northeast of Denver, adjacent to the Pawnee National Grassland. The district encompasses almost 700 square miles of mostly flat country, running as far north as the Wyoming border. Beef cattle production ranches and dryland farming dominate the area, with oil fields becoming increasingly prevalent as well.
Ninety-four percent of the district’s 217 students are white, and 30 percent qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. Although many students leave this rural area upon graduation, some decide to stay and work on the family ranch. The school district’s bovine reproduction class is tailored to those students, as well as students interested in veterinary medicine and genetics.
In the late 1990s, as young people moved away from farms and ranches in increasing numbers, Prairie district’s student population was shrinking. Almost all Prairie students lived within the far-flung district’s boundaries. Few choiced in from other districts.
Joe Kimmel, now the district superintendent, taught agricultural education classes at the time. A cattle rancher himself, Kimmel came up with the idea of teaching a bovine reproduction class with both classroom and hands-on components.
Not only would such a class serve students and ranchers well. It might also attract students from neighboring districts, even from larger nearby towns, such as Fort Morgan and Sterling, because no other district offered a similar class.
Good genetics and healthy reproduction of cattle are “key factors in whether ranches make money,” Kimmel said. “So this class was a natural fit here.”
Kimmel had strong contacts in the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. He reached out to them, as well as to local and national companies that produce artificial insemination equipment, and the program was born.
Like many rural school districts, Prairie is also closely tied to the FFA Association (once known as Future Farmers of America). FFA aims to help students develop “their potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education."
Kimmel raised the money to buy a small herd of cattle. For many years, cows were kept off-site, and students had to ride a bus to work with them. In 2014, however, a new K-12 school was built adjacent to the old school, just outside town. The district kept a section of the old building and repurposed it as a barn for the 12 head of cattle.
Today, students need walk only 100 feet from the biology lab to reach the barn, where the most hands-on experience imaginable is available to them: artificially inseminating a cow in heat. This is career and technical education (CTE) in its purest form, tailored to the district’s rural, ranching population.
Prairie’s semester-long bovine reproduction class is broken into two phases. During the first half of the spring semester, students work exclusively in the classroom.
“There is a lot of foundation we have to lay - how to manage and run cows efficiently and effectively,” said Kevin Schlabach, the district’s agricultural education teacher and FFA advisor. “We focus on reproductive health, nutrition, proper management at calving and prior.”
Once students have learned the basics in the classroom, the hands-on work begins. There’s a laboratory component, and a daily opportunity to work directly with the cows.
On a cool morning in early May, three freshman students and one sophomore, all girls, huddled around a stereo microscope, examining egg cells, called oocytes, they had extracted from a cow ovary in the high school laboratory, under Schlabach’s discerning eye.
Although this was only practice, aspirating the ovary with a needle to extract oocytes is a necessary first step in the process of in vitro fertilization.
“My family is big in cows, and I want to be a geneticist, so it’s helpful for me to learn these techniques,” said Emma, one of the ninth-graders.
Emma and her classmates saw they had introduced some air into the sample they were examining under the microscope, so she painstakingly popped them with the needle so they could view the oocytes clearly.
Schlabach slapped an entire cow reproductive system on the lab table, and had his students practice inserting the thin steel insemination rod through the cervix into the uterus. While nothing beats doing this procedure on a live cow, he said, students have to do that work entirely by feel. Being able to see the internal organs laid out on a table helps them visualize what they can only feel inside the living animal.
“This is a biology class as much as an ag class,” Schlabach said.
Next, the class headed to the barn. Schlabach and the girls donned dung-spattered coveralls, then clipped cellophane-wrapped sleeves to their left arms and slipped on sterile, disposable gloves.
They extracted a narrow glass tube containing bull semen from a canister, and slipped it into the tip of a long, skinny insemination rod. Emma inserted the plastic wrap-covered arm up to the elbow in the cow’s rectum. From there, she could manipulate the cervix into a position that would make it easier to pass the insemination rod though it.
While getting spattered with filth and sticking an arm deep inside a large mammal might make city kids pass out, for these ranch kids it’s no big deal. It can be frustrating at first though, because it takes a delicate touch to get the rod through the cervix.
“There is a very steep learning curve once you get into the cows,” Schlabach said. “But when you finally get the hang of it, it just clicks and there is an ‘ah-ha’ moment. It’s like learning how to ride a bike. It’s pretty cool to see that moment.”
Prairie does not use live semen, so the school’s cows do not end up pregnant.
While some students will take the knowledge from the reproduction class and to college, there are other career pathways available that don’t necessarily require a college degree, Schlabach said.
“They will be able to select superior genetics into their own family operation, or they can work for someone else as an artificial insemination specialist or embryo technician,” he said.
FFA offers a good complement to a bovine reproduction class, Schlabach said. The program helps students develop career strategies, exposes them to the national agricultural scene, and teaches them how to evaluate livestock and select animals with superior genetics.
Results and replication possibilities
Kimmel and Schlabach travel to agricultural education meetings and training sessions across the country and said they have heard of no other school district that offers a hands-on program like theirs, with live cattle on-site. As a result, Prairie has developed a national reputation for its programs and receives visitors regularly.
But as evangelists for this brand of career and technical education, the two men insist that many aspects of their program could be replicated elsewhere.
While not all schools have the facilities to keep cattle on campus, plenty of rural districts should have ready access to cattle. Higher education institutions like the CSU veterinary school are open to partnerships with school districts, as are local agricultural businesses
And FFA, which has a chapter in almost every rural high school, can be a key partner as well, Schlabach said.
Thanks in part to the reputation and success of Prairie’s bovine reproduction class, the district now draws almost 75 percent of its students from outside of the district, including the towns of Sterling and Fort Morgan.
Students who take the class are in a good position to land jobs, Kimmel said. An agricultural company recently called him for a reference check on a graduate who was competing for a job. Kimmel said the student had successfully completed the program. He got the job.
And no wonder, he said, as he looked at the four young students sharing the microscope. “These freshmen are doing what grad students at CSU do.”
To learn more about the steps involved in bovine artificial insemination, you can read this article.