Throughout Colorado and across many regions of the U.S., agriculture is a multi-billion dollar industry offering a vast expanse of career opportunities at many levels. And within agriculture as a whole, the field of animal science is among the more popular pathways to capitalize on those opportunities.
While those unfamiliar with the field assume that the study of animal science is predominantly for people looking to become veterinarians or vet technicians, the truth is there is a wide range of jobs in animal science.
What is Animal Science?
Animal science is a field that deals with the scientific, business, and environmental principles of domestic livestock and livestock production — including beef cattle, dairy cattle, swine, sheep, poultry, and horses.
Animal science is a unique area of study and professional practice where hard sciences like biology and animal genetics intersect with core concepts of business, management, sales, and marketing.
One thing is clear — studying animal science can open the doors to a career, including some less obvious opportunities.
What Kind of Jobs in Animal Science Are Out There?
For anyone looking to explore jobs in animal science, the best way to go about it is by approaching the field as a spectrum of possibilities, says Mike Anderson, chair of the agriculture department at Northeastern Junior College.
“On one end of the spectrum are people who are going to work in the production field of animal science,” Anderson says. “We are in a geographic region where the beef, cattle industry, cattle feeding, the dairy industry, swine production to some extent, and equine are prominent. So we have students looking to go work in the production units; some will be looking at management positions.”
Jobs in animal science, particularly livestock production, can occur in a number of different agricultural settings, from large operations to smaller family farms. “We still have a very solid connection at this institution to production agriculture,” Anderson says. “We have a pretty good percentage of students who come from family farms, ranches, dairies, livestock units, where their families are involved in producing animals.”
“Within that whole spectrum, there are a couple of specific areas where there are good career opportunities. One is in the actual animal production unit management,” Anderson says. “Particularly in the dairy and swine industries, there are lots of opportunities to go work for these large production operations. They need people who have a really good background in all of these areas that we touch on as a part of animal science.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Anderson explains, are those who decide to use the study of animal science as an entry into advanced study that can lead to a career as a veterinarian. While becoming a veterinarian takes several years of graduate school study, Anderson says now is an ideal time for anyone considering it as a career.
“One issue the entire country is dealing with right now is a shortage of food animal veterinarians,” Anderson says. “Many of them that are out there now are reaching retirement age. Obviously, it’s not an easy path to become a veterinarian, but there’s good opportunity.”
What Are Some Other Careers With an Animal Science Degree?
Livestock production and veterinary medicine represent some of the more well-known career paths for those who major in animal science. Anderson points to animal science careers that may not immediately be considered but are equally viable for animal science graduates.
One area related to veterinary medicine, but that doesn’t involve extensive advanced schooling, is animal health. “There are multiple levels of animal health one can enter,” Anderson says. “There are on-farm or production unit specialists who are doing animal health practices, short of what would require a veterinarian, right there on the farm.”
Additionally, a major in animal science can be ideal preparation for another area related to animal health that many might not think about — sales.
“Just like there is in human health, there’s a whole gamut of animal pharmaceuticals, vaccines, vaccination products, therapeutics, antibiotics, all of those kinds of things,” Anderson says. “Those companies want somebody with a good background in animal science, the biology of animals, and who understand the production practices that occur in the livestock industry. We prepare students really well for that.”
Another potential career path related to animal health that fits well with a major in animal science is nutrition. Anderson explains that graduates of the Northeastern program have taken various career directions within animal nutrition.
“Students will gain experiences here at Northeastern in nutrition and feeds and feeding that prepare them for several paths related to animal nutrition,” Anderson says. “There are students who might want to become a true nutritionist. That would involve coming to Northeastern for two years and then transferring to earn a bachelor’s degree. Ultimately, many of those professionals will also earn a master’s degree and even a Ph.D. So we have alumni who have come through the program who are now nutritionists.”
“One of the entry-level places where students can start, and actually do pretty well, is in the field of sales,” he continues. “In animal nutrition, there’s a whole host of opportunities working for animal feed companies, feed additives, retail, and there’s wholesale trade of feed ingredients as well. There are good opportunities for that.”
What are Some of the Unexpected Career Fields That Are Good for an Animal Science Degree?
There is an even broader range of more unexpected career paths for those with an animal science degree, including positions in advertising, marketing, public relations, and even government lobbying.
Wherever there are farms or farming operations looking to sell livestock and other agricultural commodities, there will be a need for individuals who understand how to market them. This is where an animal science degree can come in very handy, Anderson says.
“There are folks who work in the industries, and there’s the sale of livestock — then there’s the sale and marketing of meat, milk, eggs, where these animal science degrees are very valuable,” he says.
These opportunities are continuing to grow as more farming operations look to brand their offerings and distinguish their livestock and produce from others. Whether the products are sold wholesale to grocery stores and large grocery store chains, or direct to customers through online sales or local markets, it’s big business, Anderson says.
“An area that’s picking up a lot of interest and showing opportunities are in the smaller niche markets where a farm or ranch will brand their own specific product and do direct sales or partner with restaurants because their product is grass-fed or it’s all-natural or things like that,” he says. “So they need people to help with their branding and marketing plans for their products.”
This is where individuals with an animal science degree who also have skills and training in marketing, branding, advertising, public relations, or graphic design can set themselves apart in the job market.
Other opportunities are found in agricultural and animal agriculture industry representation and marketing. Anderson explains that all livestock breeds have a national breed association, and there are even individual associations for cattle producers, pork producers, and poultry producers. All of those associations need professionals with solid education and training in animal science to work to advance the organization’s interests effectively.
“These are folks who are involved in marketing, advocacy, leadership, and in some cases representing an industry or trade group,” Anderson says. “We just had a graduate of ours who’s doing work in lobbying in government for the industries that are represented really in all of agriculture, but especially animal agriculture.”
What Does the Future Look Like for Jobs in Animal Science?
Graduates with an animal science degree will be well-positioned for future careers based not just on the professional paths they find today, but also on new and emerging areas of employment.
Anderson points to career fields that are allied with animal science fields, such as land management, environmental conservation, and the rapidly-growing area of agricultural technology.
“In areas like rangeland or grassland management, and that could be for wildlife or livestock, there’s going to be a greater demand for people looking at environmental aspects of animal agriculture,” Anderson says. “How do we handle animal waste in a sustainable way? How do we reduce energy demand in livestock producing units? There are careers that don’t even have a name yet in that area that will surely be there in the not too distant future. And of course, management of data — the ability now to track animals and create databases, trace our food from the farm to the plate — we’ve had some students enter that type of field as well.”
Today’s farming operations aren’t what they were a century ago. In decades past, a high school graduate could go back to the farm without much technical training and do well; Anderson says that isn’t the case anymore. “Today, somebody raising livestock also has to be a financial expert, a nutrition expert, a genetics expert,” he says.
And when it comes to animal genetics, that represents another high-growth field for someone with an animal science degree that will continue to grow well into the future.
“Animal genetics and genomics is another area where there’s a lot of opportunity right now,” Anderson says. “It’s just exploding in terms of what we understand about livestock genetics and selecting for particular traits, engineering for sub-traits, and in some cases, cloning. All that is creating a need for well-trained people.”
How Does Northeastern Prepare Students for Jobs in Animal Science?
Students in the Animal Science Program at Northeastern can work toward everything from a certificate to the terminal Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree to the Associate of Science (A.S.) degree, which is typically what students who are looking to transfer to a four-year university earn.
Anderson explains that in terms of what types of career fields graduates of the program go into, it’s a relatively equal split between livestock production, animal nutrition, animal health, and marketing. That said, there are particular areas that the program emphasizes and plans to expand.
“One area we focus on pretty strongly is cattle reproduction,” he says. “We teach artificial insemination, we teach reproductive management, and we teach equine or horse reproduction. There are lots of opportunities for hands-on training in those things.”
“We’re going to be teaching ultrasound technology in reproductive management, there are a couple of different ways you can determine whether a cow is pregnant or not, and we’re going to teach students how to utilize ultrasound technology,” Anderson says.
Another soon-to-be-launched program offering that Anderson points to that will benefit animal science majors is precision agriculture.
“Those skills are going to be important in animal agriculture,” he says. “For example, we teach drone operation and utilizing data from imagery. My son just went to work for a company, they’re basically an agronomy company, but they use drones to fly over large cattle feedlots and help them monitor real-time inventory. They take pictures of cattle and more rapidly assess how many there are. We’ll probably be able to utilize drones in animal health and be able to monitor body temperature; we’re not doing that currently, but the technology is on the horizon, so we’re pretty excited about having some precision agriculture courses here.”
Students in the program also can engage in co-curricular programming designed to teach them skills in livestock evaluation and selection. That program also features a student team that competes in livestock judging and evaluation across the country, and they have established an impressive record of success.
“They physically evaluate the animals and have the knowledge and skills to know what’s most important when it comes to making informed judgments,” Anderson says. “Then they have to defend those judgments to one of the official judges. This helps them hone those skills to a very high degree.”
What Sets the Major in Animal Science at Northeastern Apart?
More than anything, Anderson says students looking to major in animal science at Northeastern can expect a learning environment characterized by an excellent curriculum, expert faculty who personally invest in their students, and opportunities they typically wouldn’t find in their first two years at a four-year university.
“I’m certain that we have probably the largest and most comprehensive program in the region,” he says. “We have 12 full-time faculty, which allows us as a small school to have people who are focused on their technical areas. We have small class sizes so that we can provide our students more one-on-one attention. Here, the faculty also serve as the academic advisors. We’re going to help students all the way through their academic pathway into their careers.”
The Northeastern faculty also are connected to production agriculture in their personal lives, Anderson says, either farming or raising livestock, distinguishing them from faculty at four-year universities where the emphasis is on scholarly research.
“Our faculty actually do that work in their personal lives, which lends a lot of integrity to the teaching they do in the classroom,” he says.
“We provide a lot of hands-on offerings in our courses that you wouldn’t necessarily get in the first two years of a four-year university pathway. It enhances a student’s opportunities when they are prepared at a higher level in those first two years,” Anderson says. “What we focus on here is teaching, which I love. It’s a great place to work because of the students we get; people don’t get lost or feel like a number. I think if you asked students, the one thing they’d say they like most about their experience here is that connection with the faculty and the hands-on opportunities they have. That makes Northeastern special.”