By Kyle Sharp
For years, I’ve heard about Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technical Institute (ATI) in Wooster. I’ve driven past the teaching and residential campus while visiting the neighboring Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. I’ve known students who have gone there. I even wrote several stories about faculty and programs taking place there when I used to work for the OSU College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences prior to joining Ohio’s Country Journal.
But the reality of the institution was really driven home to me this month when I visited ATI’s Apple Creek Farm to learn about ATI’s new dairy parlor and renovated facility that has been shaving milking time and labor costs, improving milk quality, and providing a brighter and more inviting work environment.
Here’s what I knew about ATI before: “ATI is ranked number one in the nation among two-year schools awarding associate degrees in agriculture and related sciences. It is an associate degree-granting program within the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at Ohio State University. Students participate in a curriculum that includes general and basic studies, hands-on experience, and a paid industry internship. Ohio State ATI is the largest institution of its kind in the United States, enrolling approximately 700 students and offering 29 programs of study.”
That all sounds great on paper. But you can read about something all you want. To actually see it in action makes all the difference.
“I view us as a 1,700-acre laboratory for students,” said Mark Schleppi, ATI director of farm operations. “We probably have 76 horses, about 220 total dairy animals, 225 total beef animals, 78 sows and all the affiliated pigs, and about 900 acres of crops, with corn being the majority. But we also raise soybeans, wheat, alfalfa hay, grass hay and have some pasture.”
The farm staff consists of Schleppi, a horse herd manager and part-time assistant horse herd manager, a crops manager, a beef/sheep manager, a swine herd manager, an assistant beef/sheep and swine herd manager, a dairy herd manager, and an assistant dairy herd manager.
They work closely with about a dozen ATI faculty members and peripherally with several others.
While students have lectures and gain knowledge at the ATI campus, it’s at the Apple Creek Farm where they gain hands-on experience and put their knowledge to use.
“Our academic programs require practical experience on the farm in the area you’re studying,” Schleppi said. “Here, every student can artificially inseminate a cow, learn about feeding rations, see how to best apply fertilizer to a field, etc. Whatever we’re into out here, students get involved with.”
This fall, beef cattle students were doing preconditioning and weaning of calves and building fence. Crops students were harvesting, doing fall tillage, spreading fertilizer and planting wheat, among other tasks.
“During their practicum, students are milking, feeding, taking care of calves, handling manure, doing heat checks and breeding, moving pigs, giving injections, and more,” Schleppi said. “We’re literally a working farm, so everything that’s a concern in the industry is literally a concern of ours. We’re doing all the things you think of as routine experiences in a given enterprise.”
In fact, the farm is asked to support itself based on the revenue generated from its production. So, the Apple Creek Farm feels the same pain that various parts of the agricultural sector feels when prices slip or input costs rise. The farm particularly suffered recently from low milk prices, because milk production generates the most revenue for the farm, Schleppi said.
Students fulfilling the practicum portion of their ATI experience perform most of the work on the farm, under the supervision of the staff. Sometimes, more experienced students also are hired to assist the staff with student training, he said. Enrollment in the different program areas can fluctuate, and in the event there aren’t enough practicum students to cover all the tasks, additional students are hired outside their course load to fill those needs.
For example, most dairy students doing their practicum work are second year students, because the goal is for them to have taken their milk production, animal nutrition and health classes before they come to the farm, Schleppi said. There typically are enough of these students in the winter and spring, but other students have to be hired to help at the dairy in the summer and fall. Students spend 10 weeks working at the dairy farm — five weeks on the 4 a.m. milking shift and five weeks on the 4 p.m. shift.
Three students work each milking shift, with one milking, one feeding and the other doing related tasks such as moving cows, breeding and cleaning.
The swine, beef, horse, sheep and crops students all have related tasks to perform in their area of interest. Plus, some students major in two areas, so they may get dairy and crop experience. It makes for an interesting environment, with a lot of turnover and constant training taking place.
“At times, the farm will host 100 students in a day in all the various tasks,” Schleppi said.
During my visit, I saw a student hard a work in the milk parlor, and another mixing rations and feeding. At one point, while angling for a photo in the parlor’ milking pit, my right arm was showered with falling liquid from above. Let me just clarify, it wasn’t water.
“Yeah, you’ve gotta watch out for that,” the student calmly said.
Now that’s a valuable lesson learned.