It’s 8:30 a.m. on a perfect October Thursday at Swickard Family Farm out at 191st Street and Mission Road in southern Johnson County. And while hundreds of their peers are trying to shake off the sleep in their first hour classes, a dozen Blue Valley area high schoolers make their way through the towering barn and out to the paddock, gathering in the bright green pasture glistening in the golden autumnal sunrise.
CAPS students fed apple slices to their pigs, part of an effort to. But lest you get too jealous, know this: The students have a messy lesson to undertake. One of today’s tasks is to collect fresh fecal samples from the nearly 300-pound pig the students are raising as part of Blue Valley CAPS’ Veterinary Medicine program. The pig, which the class has taken to calling Wilbur, is getting near market weight. Which means he’ll be heading to the butcher soon.
“In good conscious, before we would sell them into the food chain, we would want to make sure that our natural dewormer has been working,” said program director Kelley Tuel. “I’m going go back and do some poo fecal analysis this afternoon to see what our worm load is.”
It’s the first year CAPS Veterinary Medicine has raised pigs. Tuel put in a request to Bayer’s animal health division several months ago to help fund the idea. To her surprise, the company came back with a $10,000 grant that allowed the program to purchase 11 Old Spot pigs — eight piglets, one adult male and two adult females. The idea is to raise them until they reach market weight, sell them “into the food chain,” and then use the proceeds to purchase more pigs for CAPS students to raise.
Raised in western Kansas, Tuel grew up around the farm. She showed animals in 4H as a kid, and was even named the Saline County Fair and Rodeo Queen. She took a break from her job as a biology teacher after her son was born, but started subbing for Blue Valley after he got a bit older. Three years ago, the district approached her about developing a curriculum for a CAPS veterinary medicine program.
In its inaugural years, the program has sought to expose students to a wide range of animal health careers. (Student Mary Selanders spent time a couple weeks ago shadowing a veterinary orthopedic surgeon who performed a procedure on a dog’s ACL, for example). But until this year, the students hadn’t had any major opportunities to experience animal husbandry.
Tuel connected with Dave Swickard, who operates the farm that’s been in his family since the 1880s. The farm focuses primarily on cattle and sheep, but Swickard had been looking to add swine into the mix. He saw collaborating with CAPS not only as a way to try out a new animal on the farm, but also to give students an up-close experience with production animals.
“Just getting the kids involved and understanding where their food comes from,” Swickard said. “The whole field to fork experience.”
The students head out to the farm several times a week and are in charge of keeping the animals fed and watered and ensuring their paddock is in good shape.
“Before we ever got pigs, they each had to research aspects of what we needed to know,” Tuel said. “It’s up to them to keep the pigs.”