Including the Human Aspect in Animal Sciences

Very often within class in Animal and Dairy Science, we place the animals we study in a hypothetical utopia of sorts. It is just the animal and their surroundings. They have enough food to eat, the climate is ideal, and the only illnesses are those clearly defined or those with the perfect example symptoms. Obviously this is not the case. The temperature fluctuates throughout the year. Some crops are better than others in for the use in feed. And not every sickness is as easy to diagnose as the textbooks let on. But one aspect that I feel is not touched upon in most classes is the human one, or rather the role of the actual farmers. Because the animals are the focus on the industry/business of animal agriculture, we tend to forget about the owners, managers, and staff that work day in and day out on these farms. They only have but so many hours in the day, and more importantly, so much money to spend on their animals.

The class I teach is a senior level course that focuses on visiting real commercial dairy farms, evaluating their current processes, and providing a thorough recommendation on how they can improve their farm. It extremely easy to just go in, provide the staff with recommendations, and leave thinking “Yeah we did a good job. That farm will be fine.” As one of the only classes that uses a real dairy farm in its lessons, I have to make sure that the students consider the human limitations to each aspect of the farm as well as the emotional impact the operation may have on them. Most of the families of owners of these dairies have been running the farm for decades, passing on the operation with each new generation. Sometimes the “easiest” answer might be to say close the farm, sell the cows, start a different business, but obviously that is not taking the livelihood of the farmers and staff into consideration.

It can get a little frustrating as an instructor, as this is the first time the students usually have to deal with messy/incomplete records or have to handle a case study that has a lot of limitations. When I was reading “How is Innovation Taught?” by Dan Edelstein, the discussion of innovative thinking in the humanities compared to STEM really stuck me as something to consider when developing my own courses. He says “that [humanities] students are required to practice innovative thinking earlier on in their studies” than those in STEM. At least in animal sciences, we only implement this sort of thinking either during graduate studies or maybe in senior level course. Maybe I should be teaching my courses in a similar manner? Or encourage those who teach the introductory courses to implement something similar, rewarding the students who have innovative or creative solutions to an unconventional problem? As I move closer to a faculty position, I’ll have to keep this in mind when developing my own curriculum. This could encourage more individuals to pursue a career related to research or at least help those who want to go into industry/be consultants develop creative solutions to on farm problems. It also could instill the practice fo critical pedagogy further, getting students to question the currently industry solutions and innovating those to adapt with the changing attitudes towards agriculture.

I also might advocate for developing a course related to humans in agriculture. We already have ethics and welfare courses, but again these focus on decisions about the animal. The hypothetical course could focus on the human side of animal science. What sort of emotional tolls are placed on those running agriculture businesses? What combination of factors lead to fatigue/exhaustion in running a dairy? What sort of recommendations/advice do real farm owners and managers want to hear and how should it be phrased? Overall, it may focus on taking the current “clean cut” cases from textbooks and examining how that would impact the farmer. I don’t know how popular the class would be, but it could be a new opportunity to implement the human side into animal sciences.

Let me know what you think. Would that course be helpful? Are there areas in agriculture where the inclusion of humanities could benefit the students? Could the inclusion of agriculture benefit the humanities students? i look forward to hearing from you. Thank you!

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