When applying to Whiterock Conservancy in the winter, I could not have foreseen the diverse and incredible experiences I would have at the end of my first internship. With just two weeks left to spend in Coon Rapids, Iowa, I am still acquiring new skills and discovering parts of the property unbeknownst to me. Even more than a resumé-builder, though, this co-op experience has been a life-changer. I may be able to update my resumé with cool skills like the ability to build an electric fence around a pasture and herd cows into paddocks, but I can also say that I balanced a full-time job, two online courses, a tight budget to purchase food and other necessities, and thoroughly enjoyed myself while doing it!
I was fortunate to join the Whiterock team for my first co-op. It is always hard to wake up everyday and labor miserably at a job with people who make it even harder. My situation is far from that scenario. The everyday tasks I am assigned excite me and being able to work smoothly with my coworkers eases any anxiety about asking questions and making mistakes. One element that is paired with the type of work we do is that accidents happen. No matter how many years one has spent welding, handling chemicals, or farming, they are not immune to accidents and mistakes on the job. I may get the Gator stuck more often than Darwin, the farm manager for Whiterock, does, but that is because he has gotten a Gator stuck more times than I’ve even driven one. Although I may feel lousy for running over a hose while spraying herbicide and breaking it open, I am never reprimanded for mistakes; I am reminded to secure the hose before driving off, however.
You may ask how spraying a chemical herbicide is helping to improve the well being of the planet, or how rotating cows between several small paddocks is better than letting them run wild in a large pasture. While, at the surface these practices may not seem ecological, evaluating the reasoning and documenting the results leads us to how we are merging agronomy with ecology at Whiterock. One process we conduct at the conservancy is high-density grazing. A large pasture, usually with barbed-wire lining the perimeter, is split into small sections called paddocks with as few as 2 acres or as many as 10, depending upon the side of the pasture. Each paddock is enclosed using temporary paracord electric fencing or permanent high-tensile electric fencing. Cows typically spend 2-5 days in a paddock, again, depending on the size of the paddock. Then they are moved into the next paddock when they have finished grazing and are in need of more food. The reason for setting up small paddocks instead of letting them graze a whole pasture is to let the forage grow for as long as possible. When subjected to constant grazing and trampling, the grass does not grow back as tall or thick with as many nutrients because the cows are eating it before it is mature or trampling the saplings. By moving cows between small paddocks, there is more time for the field to go untouched and grow back as full as possible before putting the cows back in there. This is just one of many practices where Whiterock has merged the agriculture with ecological. My job in this scenario is to build and maintain the fences enclosing the cows, and to herd the cows around when they need to be moved. I had many other responsibilities at Whiterock, I just wanted to highlight one.
My time at Whiterock is coming to an end in just a short few weeks, and while I’m ready to sleep in my own bed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I am going to miss the gorgeous landscape of rural Iowa and the awesome work I got to do and the wonderful people I was able to work with. The lessons learned from this challenging time here will shape the person I become in ways that are already becoming apparent to me. I am eager to return to school to grow even more in my knowledge of the environment and as a person.