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Fourth-graders at Bluestem Elementary School in Leon, Kansas, are pictured with three steers. (Courtesy photo.)

Fourth-grade students in the Flint Hills of Kansas are learning how to take care of livestock as part of their education.

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Barb McCaffree removes staples after surgery of an infected umbilical cord. (Courtesy photo.)

Their teachers—Barb McCaffree and Angie Greene—are longtime educators in the Bluestem Elementary School in Leon, Kansas. Along with supportive co-workers, administration and school board, these teachers bring a slice of the farm to help educate eager students. McCaffree has taught in the Bluestem School District for 25 years and Greene has worked 16 years in the district. McCaffree is a 33-year career teacher who grew up on a farm in northwest Kansas. Her background includes high school, as well as college, rodeo. After she was married, McCaffree became involved in a cattle operation near Leon. Greene also lived in the country as a child, working with animals and involved in 4-H.

The teachers tapped into their ag backgrounds to incorporate agriculture into their curriculums but thought more could be done.

About seven years ago, Bluestem’s elementary staff visited Walton Elementary School a charter school near Newton, Kansas. Walton emphasized an agriculture-based curriculum to help elementary students be better learners. They came home from the trip thinking they could have a farm at the Leon school, just like the Walton school.

The teachers then attended a Kansas Foundation for Ag in the Classroom conference and began to create agriculture units to teach throughout the year. Units today include beef cattle, soil erosion and conservation, Kansas crops, dairy cattle, chickens and goats. Projects focus on active projects and experiences.

They tie those units to field trips and extend the lessons even further.

Those trips have taken them to the Kansas State Fair, Wilson County Old Iron Days, Miller Dairy in Hutchinson, Butler County Ag Day and El Dorado Livestock Auction. They have visited cow-calf operations and goat farms, watched a soybean harvest, have seen veterinarians working with animals, sheep and alpacas being sheared and many other opportunities that came up.

They are grateful to have the support of many community members that invested in them and allowed them to learn at their farms.

Real world experience

Students weigh cattle every week. They halter the calves and bring them into the barn to be weighed. That data is then taken back to the classrooms where the students calculate the weekly weight gain and rate of gain. They also use an app on their iPads to graph the data.

This gives them the opportunity to work with the cattle and learn about the feeding procedures and proper care of the animals. In addition to fourth grade, other teachers also incorporate agriculture units and help with planting a garden for an annual plant sale.

Kindergarten classes are paired with fourth-grade classes and meet each month as “Ag Buddies” to learn more about agriculture.

What fourth-grader Bryleigh Kieffer enjoys the most about agriculture is being able to learn something new every day.

“It also help other kids that don’t live in the country have an idea of what farmers and ranchers do,” Kieffer said. “It also teaches people what farmers and ranchers do for us.”

Filling a need

The teachers find that agriculture can bridge a gap.

“Our students do come from a variety of backgrounds,” McCaffree said, adding while some students live on a farm or a ranch most live in town. “We start very basic but to expand to new information for all levels. Our main mission is to build knowledge, awareness and understanding of the role that agriculture plays ion their lives. Our goals are to make farming and ranching real to the students, educate the students about the importance of agriculture in their lives and to appreciate farmers and ranchers.”

“I believe that getting the students to learn with the hands-on approach is the best way,” Greene said. “They can sit in the classroom and learn what the signs of a sick calf are, or they can be in the barn and say, ‘Mrs. Green, No. 850 is hanging her head today,’ and that creates a learning opportunity.”

Project list extensive

Bluestem Elementary School has had a greenhouse and an annual plant sale for over 20 years. The students grow vegetables and flowers and sell them to the community. The proceeds from that go to support Ag in the Classroom.

At the start of the 2018-19 school year, the class had six large calves, each weighing over 1,000 pounds. The largest one was donated for use in high school concession stands after butchering. Two were sold at the local sale barn and three were fed to butchering weight. Students sold $20 tickets for an opportunity to win a half beef. Three hundred tickets were sold into the community, family and friends and four winners received the prize.

One of the steers, named Duke, was taken to the El Dorado Livestock Auction where he was sold for $5,225, which was by design so fourth graders could see the process and watch as their hard work paid off, the teachers said. The intent of the fundraisers are so the program can be self-sustainable. The program needs to have animals at the farm to learn from and is be able to purchase the feed and supplies.

Career opportunity

One of the fourth-graders has used this experience to set a long-term goal of being a veterinarian.

“I like learning about agriculture because when I was a little girl I wanted to be a vet, I still do and I like doing chores, feeding and learning how to doctor them,” Cassie Wheeler said. “I like seeing my teacher doctor the animals too. This will help me become a veterinarian.”

Helping a farm friend

Students also recently participated in a special project to bottle feed some calves, which was initiated after a yearly trip to Miller Dairy in Hutchinson, Kansas. Over the past several years the classes’ friendship grew with the owners, Orville and Mary Jane Miller. In late October 2018 their son, Brian, was critically injured in a tractor accident.

“We knew instantly that we wanted to help them during this challenging time so we offered to take care of some of their newborn calves,” the teachers said. “the students were behind this 100 percent—from having extra chores, to making get-well soon cards for Brian, to asking us for details on how he was doing.

“We never realized the impact this would have on our students and the pride they also got to feel by being able to help out our friends.”

Brian Miller has been able to go home and the teachers and students are thankful for the recovery he has made so far.

The students, the teachers say, love to bottle feed the calves, calling it one of their favorite chores.

Student Elliana Pierson says she loves doing chores.

“It is really fun,” Pierson said. “We are really lucky to have a farm at our school and the animals are lucky to have us! They get to have kids around them all the time to pet and feed them.”

Chores: No problem

Greene’s class does morning chores and McCaffree’s class does the afternoon chores. A fifth-grade class, led by Amy Barnes, does chores once a week.

The students feed, water and hay the baby calves. While helping with the bigger cattle, sheep, goats, a rabbit and an alpaca, the children feed and water the chickens and gather their eggs. Students also clean out stalls and brush the cattle.

With the help of a Bluestem Association for Student Education grant and money saved from greenhouse sales, the teachers were able to secure a chicken coop seven years ago.

“We wanted it to be near students so they could see the animals on a daily basis, so we placed it on the north side of the playground,” the teachers said. “We then got a small two-stall barn and placed some fencing around those buildings. After a few years, our first calf and a few goats, we knew that this was something we wanted to continue but on a larger scale.”

A plan was developed to build a 30-by-40 barn with stalls and runs, the teachers presented it to the Bluestem School Board in hopes the board members would allow them to purchase it with money from plant sales.

“Our school board and administration have been so supportive of the Ag in the Classroom project that they funded the entire project and allowed us to keep our money to purchase more animals and supplies,” the teachers said. “The students were able to watch the barn being built, so we had an additional learning opportunity that year.”

The barn has been in place for two years and continues to have the support from the community. Patrons have donated several calves, sheep and goats to the program. One local producer donated all the hay the program has needed for the past three years.

“We are so passionate about teaching ag in our classrooms that we have gone to several National Ag in the Classroom conferences,” the teachers said.

While attending one of the conferences, the teachers were inspired to start the Butler County Ag Day. Third- and fourth-grade students from surrounding Butler County schools attend a day on a working farm. Presenters such as the Bluestem FFA, Kansas Farm Bureau, Butler County Farm Bureau, Butler County Conservation District, Butler Community College agriculture program and Southwest Dairy Farmers partner to help students learn about different agricultural topics.

“We have had over 500 students attend each year and it has been a blast,” the teachers said.

For more information, pictures or to follow activities go to the Facebook page “Bluestem Elementary Ag in the Classroom.”

Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or dbergmeier@hpj.com.

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