When challenged to help trim the Nettle Creek School Corporation’s tight budget, two staff members looked no further than its 40-acre Hagerstown, IN, farm.

Their idea: raise beef cattle to help feed the corporation’s Hagerstown Junior-Senior High School students. It would shave $3,000 from the school’s annual food bill and provide students with valuable learning opportunities.

“The more hands-on learning the students can do, the better off they’ll be once they graduate,” says Nathan Williamson, the agriculture teacher who, with Jerry Hillman, director of maintenance, created the beef cattle project.

“Our animal science students will feed and care for the cattle on a daily basis. When the cattle are butchered, our food-science class will get involved. Home economics students will study the different cuts of meat, and we want to get the science, business and math departments involved, too.”

Students will also learn how to work safely around animals, he says.

“I believe it is part of the learning process to be exposed to safety situations in a supervised setting. Students need to learn about flight zones and animal-handling techniques. With not many of our students growing up on farms, they are gaining experience now that can help them find work in the animal ag industry later.”

By mid-October, the nine students in Williamson’s agricultural mechanics class had finished building a fence around a 10-acre section of the farm, where cattle will graze a fescue-clover mix. The other 30 acres, used for ongoing corn studies, will provide grain for the cattle’s diet. The first group will be butchered next August after classes start.

Seven 700-lb steers will arrive in early November from a nearby farm. The cattle will overwinter on pasture, and a wooded area will provide some shelter from the cold and snow.

“Our future goal is to buy 10500-lb animals around Aug. 1 and then have them close to butcher weight in May, when we get out of school,” says Williamson.

He would also, somewhere down the line, like to use the project to provide students more hands-on grazing education. “Our plan is to mow the forage in those 10 acres to a height of about 9” in late June, so the cattle will have some nice lush growth when they arrive in August.”

Later this fall, stalks will be baled from the school’s 30 acres of corn and used as roughage and bedding. As the program develops, Williamson would also like to integrate fall strip-grazing into it by seeding a rye cover crop after the corn.

“We’ve gotten tremendous support from the community and the Indiana Beef Council.” Cash donations from individuals, banks, the local energy cooperative and other businesses will be used to pay for the seven animals bought this month.

Two local contractors bulldozed and excavated pathways for the fence. Seed dealers donated seed for the corn plots. A fencing supplier gave some materials and provided others at cost, while an area farmer donated gates. The local elevator will store and mix the grain part of the cattle’s ration.

Future cash donations from the community could help expand the program, says Williamson. “But part of my purpose as a teacher is to help teach financial responsibility and sustainability, so I think, eventually, this project needs to stand on its own in terms of providing meat for the school. That’s also something very important to teach our students.”

Contact Williamson at nwilliamson@nettlecreek.k12.in.us.

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