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Yelling out eartag numbers was a good STEM exercise for Jenny Schlecht's daughter and nephew. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

How 5 year-olds showcased STEM skills on the farm

I was pushing calves into the crowding tub the other day when, above the clanging gates, the drone of the hydraulic chute and the symphony of bellering calves, I could hear two little voices screaming numbers.

Really, we couldn't have found a better job for two 5-year-olds than hollering out eartag numbers to their grandpa, who would type the numbers into the computer on the scale. My daughter and my nephew have voices that can cut through just about any cacophony. And, more importantly, they know their numbers well enough to be trusted to yell out each calf's new identification.

One of the big pushes in education, and thus in schools and youth organizations, in recent years has been getting children interested in subjects related to STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. As I looked around the barn as we processed the recently weaned calves, STEM was everywhere.

Science was in the shots the calves got, each one representing years in laboratories and tests before they could hit the market.

Technology gave us the computer hooked up to the scale — a big advance over scribbling down numbers on a dirty notebook that would have to be transposed into a spreadsheet later.

Engineering made possible the hydraulic chute, which allows gates to open and close and sides to squeeze tight with only the movement of little joysticks rather than the brute strength often required of manual chutes.

Math — oh, math was everywhere. It's the numbers on the eartags, the count of the calves, dosages of the medicine, the weights of the calves and the ratios to determine their average daily gain.

As we moved the calves back to their pens and bedded them down that night, I marveled at all the places I found STEM. When planning the feedlot a few years back, we spent night after night drawing diagrams of the new pens to get them just right. My husband planned out every gate to serve more than one purpose. Moved this way, it creates a sorting pen; turned that way it transforms the feed lane into an alleyway; moved again it closes up a pen. The geometry of the place is amazing to behold.

When it comes time to buy calves to fill the pens, we spend our nights using the futures market and approximate input costs to determine purchase price points to ensure a profit. Our algebra skills come in handy those nights.

The feed in the feed lane is precisely measured every morning to contain the nutrients the animals need, as determined by a feed nutritionist who has studied the science of cattle diets. Different sizes of rations are determined based on the number of animals, requiring multiplication or division.

STEM is inescapable on farms and ranches — numbers, inventions, things to build and things to discover. Rather than subjects in books, the skills are tangible, the importance undeniable.

I can't find any studies to verify my suspicions that farm kids get a jump start on STEM skills. But they get to see how plants grow and how reproduction works. They experience technology and engineering every time they climb into the tractor or combine. They get to practice their numbers by screeching eartag numbers over the din of a working facility and their counting by helping determine how many calves are in the pen.

Those two little kindergartners, so anxious to help in any way they can, may not appreciate right now what they're learning as they sit beside the chute and yell at the top of their lungs. But, hopefully, they'll take on-the-farm lessons with them as they sit in classrooms. The next wave of innovation on the farm will come from farm kids just like them.

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