Students in Dal’s newest faculty get their hands dirty

Faculty of Agriculture offers first-year students hands-on experience

Animal agriculture students Anthony Waterman, Alix Kusch and Mary-Ellen Power measuring heifers in the Birthing to Breeding Lab. Photo: Cyndi Sweeney
Animal agriculture students Anthony Waterman, Alix Kusch and Mary-Ellen Power measuring heifers in the Birthing to Breeding Lab. Photo: Cyndi Sweeney

Students in Dalhousie University’s animal science program don steel-toed boots and overalls and head into their “classroom” for a two-hour, up-close and personal bovine experience.

It’s not a typical lecture hall filled with tables and chairs, computers and screens. For these students, it’s a barn.

The Faculty of Agriculture is Dalhousie University’s newest department, the result of a merger with the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in September. The campus, located in Truro, is the only school in Atlantic Canada offering hands-on experience with animals to first-year students.

If you want to become a veterinarian, “this is the route to do it,” says Mary-Ellen Power, an animal science student and president of the pre-vet club. “The lab we’re doing today is all hands-on,” something students would not get that in a typical Dalhousie class. “It would be all theory.”

“The cows, the sheep, the mink, the chickens,” she says, “you won’t get that at any other universities in all of Nova Scotia.” The experience, she says, will give students a competitive edge when applying to veterinarian schools such as the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island.

The air in the barn is thick with the stench of manure. Machinery reverberates through the long corridors of cattle. On this day, lab instructors Jason Bouma and Stewart Yuill are teaching the “birth to breeding” lab and have to shout to be heard. Of the 49 heifers and calves in the unit, 19 are pregnant. Another unit houses 19 pregnant ewes that are starting to lamb. Autumn on the farm is busy.

Animal agriculture students in the birth to breeding lab. Photo: Cyndi Sweeney
Animal agriculture students in the birth to breeding lab. Photo: Cyndi Sweeney

The lab offers an introduction to cattle production and management and includes learning how to measure the cows’ vital statistics. For anyone squeamish about using a rectal thermometer on a heifer, the ruminant building is the wrong place to be today.

Ruminant refers to animals with four stomachs, such as cows and sheep. Bouma explains the number of “rumin” contractions necessary for a healthy cow. He’s hoping the students will hear two to three per minute, indicating the animal is in good health and digesting properly.

The animal science lab attracts students enrolled in diverse programs, like Emily Walker who has a bachelor of science and is in her second year of pre-vet medicine. The students appreciate the modern facilities and the campus spirit. “It’s much easier to learn in the labs than in the classrooms,” says Walker.

Beth Densmore, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture, echoes the sentiment.

“There are some students who need to visualize to be engaged,” she says, and “hands-on experience can take you a lot further down the road.” Densmore says the program is an excellent introduction to agricultural science, farming, plant science or crops, for students with little farming experience.

The program also introduces students to the business of agriculture. The milking herd produces on average 34 kilograms of milk per day and ships almost 2,400 litres every two days. It doesn’t go to waste, Bouma says, “the milk may end up in the cheese plant in Salmon River or Scotsburn, where they make ice cream.”

At the end of the lab, students hang up their clipboards and wash off their boots. Volunteers from other programs around the faculty arrive for the 4 p.m. milking. The lab may be over but there’s always work to be done at Dalhousie’s newest campus.