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MSU Professor Marks 37 Years Teaching Animal Science, Impacting MT Ranches


December 13, 2017 | View PDF

James Berardinelli, professor of animal science in the Montana State University Department of Animal and Range Sciences, helps students practice bovine artificial insemination and pregnancy checks on Monday, Nov. 21, 2016, at the Bozeman Agricultural Research and Teaching Farm artificial insemination barn. (MSU photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez)

Some things are synonymous with Montana State University: the bobcat, blue and gold and Montana Hall. In the MSU College of Agriculture and for many Montana ranchers, James Berardinelli may be on that list, too.

For the last 37 years, Berardinelli, professor of animal science in MSU's Department of Animal and Range Sciences, has taught students how to be familiar with the rear end of a cow. In more than three decades of teaching and researching animal reproductive science at MSU, about 2,500 students have passed through his classrooms and labs, some of them spanning generations from the same family.

Many of Berardinelli's students have taken skills they've learned from his classes and labs back to family ranches or to their professions. Over the years, Berardinelli's emphasis and instruction on new technologies in cattle breeding has helped transform many next-generation cattle producers, while impacting the genetics of Montana cattle herds through the use of artificial insemination.

"My teaching motto has always been that science excites me, and teaching science motivates me," Berardinelli said. "I learned early that incorporating research into my classes, along with my personal experiences while doing the research, is perhaps one of the most powerful tools to ensure success in the classroom."

Berardinelli said that throughout his many years of teaching, he has learned to adapt his teaching to various learning styles of a diverse student population.

"I have come to understand that concern, care and attention to the learning styles of students is my model for ensuring positive student outcomes and engendering lifelong learning skills," he said. "I hope that I have had a small impact on the growth and development of each student that I have come into contact with over the years; they certainly have had an impact on my career."

At MSU, Berardinelli teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in animal endocrinology, reproduction and assisted reproduction, and advanced reproductive physiology. His research focuses on the reproductive efficiency of large animals, the use of new protocols and cutting-edge technologies to facilitate breeding by artificial insemination and methods to help heifers and postpartum cows come into heat sooner.

In one particular class, Animal Science 421: Assisted Reproduction Technologies, students learn firsthand how to artificially inseminate cows and heifers and how to pregnancy-test cows and heifers using cattle owned by the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station. After four weeks studying the anatomy of the bovine reproductive tract and practicing proper handling and thawing of frozen semen straws in class, students spend the remainder of the semester practicing these hands-on skills on cows and heifers in the artificial insemination, or AI, facility west of campus on the MSU's Bozeman Agricultural Teaching and Research Farm. In this facility, students become adept at determining bovine pregnancy status by rectal palpation, and artificially inseminate cattle with the use of a steel pipette, also known as an AI gun.

According to Berardinelli, by the end of the semester, most students are able to artificially inseminate cattle in 10 minutes, at most.

"By the end of the semester, the goal is always that students are able to determine pregnancy and estimate the age of the fetus within a month, in less than 30 seconds," he said. "The class is unique in that it offers a comprehensive training of bovine reproduction, both in and out of class, and its impact on ranches across Montana is tremendous."

For the more than 28,000 farms and ranches in Montana, on-farm artificial insemination can reduce the length of the breeding season and increase the genetic quality of the herd. It also provides a more direct way to track reproductive lineage. Graduates of Berardinelli's class often return to family farms and ranches with skills that save money and time when it comes to breeding practices, according to Brady Richardson, an MSU undergraduate from Dillon, majoring in animal science.

"This class has been one of the best classes I've ever taken at MSU, without a doubt," said Richardson. "On average, artificial insemination costs anywhere from $10 to $30 per head, so that can add up quickly. The cost of calling in a large-animal veterinarian, combined with insemination costs, takes a toll on time and budgets. Having the skillset to preg-check and AI on my own is instrumental when it comes to overall management practices."

Berardinelli said that over the years, technological advancements in embryo transfer have had a big economic impact on ranches across the U.S., and that's a skill today's students are eager to learn because they know the value of on-ranch application.

"Embryo transfer has been very good to the economy of Montana, with multiple livestock fertility companies popping up in the last 10 years," he said. "The great thing about embryo transfer is that the benefits are immediately seen. In a matter of a couple years, a herd's genetics can be drastically changed."

In the past, the genetics of breeding cattle used to be limited by space and time: a bull could only breed a certain number of cows in his life, and he could only breed the cows he could get to, Berardinelli said.

"This changed with the advent of frozen semen and the ability to ship semen across the country and inseminate cows with that particular semen," he said. "Nowadays, one can essentially create a mail-order herd given the correct knowledge and tools."

Patrick Hatfield, MSU department head of animal and range sciences, said the economic impact of Berardinelli's classes on Montana livestock operations is significant.

"There's no doubt Dr. Berardinelli's research and instruction has made an on-the-ground difference for Montana's livestock industry, particularly within on-ranch artificial insemination knowledge and practice," Hatfield said. "As a land-grant university, MSU has a responsibility to teach next-generation agriculturalists a foundational curriculum with current technology and practices that will help them be successful in the field. This is exactly what Dr. Berardinelli has dedicated his entire career to, and MSU students and Montana's livestock industry are better off for it."

Reflecting on the differences in students spanning generations, Berardinelli said today's students have a much greater desire to learn these hands-on skills and techniques, and are able to adapt to changing information easier than previous generations.

"Back when I started teaching this class, the students were just beginning to have an interest in artificial insemination," he said. "Back then, it was considered by many ranchers to be an unproven science, hard to implement, and had unpredictable results. Students today see the practice as a route to rapidly improving the genetics and reproductive efficiency of their herds. This is especially important as livestock management is going to have new challenges in overall animal health, new diseases, and food security, and socially acceptable management practices."

Despite the changes in generations and technology, Berardinelli said the mainstay behind successful and resilient animal operations is science.

"There is a science behind animal husbandry, and the farmer or rancher is not simply guessing about what to do in regard to his animal's health," he said. "The best science will lead to the healthiest, most productive animals, which will usually lead to better productivity and profitability for producers."


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