Benny, Jordan, Noah and Rose are the four cattle that arrived at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences in early April. The students named the two male and two females after returning from spring break.
"We've had a cow here and there, but we've never had four quality animals that we are raising for a specific market date," said Maggie Kendall, an animal science teacher at the school at 3857 W. 111th St.
The cattle will graze on 12.1 acres on the northeast corner of 115th Street and Pulaski Road from now until November. Principal William Hook hopes the grass-fed cows gain upward of 40 pounds per month, bulking up this summer in the field of rich Timothy grass.
The animals were donated to the Ag School from the Nebraska LEAD Program. The group was founded with the help of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln to promote agriculture, primarily to young people.
Several members of the program toured the Ag School last fall. They were impressed with the urban campus and its focus on preparing city kids for careers in agriculture, food science and other traditionally rural fields, Hook said.
Several farmers on the tour work in the beef cattle industry and offered to help the school in any way they could. Hence, the donation of the four young cows. The donation is quite generous — Benny alone cost $1,575 at auction, Kendall said.
The addition of grazing cows to the Ag School is three years in the making. The pasture was once a tree farm used by the Chicago Park District to supply its 580 parks. But the program had run its course, and Hook was given permission by the Park District to clear the land.
The few remaining trees were cut down and sold as firewood at the Ag School's farm stand. The ground was tilled. Hay was planted, and the fence was mended to prepare for livestock.
A dry run was conducted late last year as several of the Ag School's horses were given first crack at the pasture. Initially, Hook fielded calls from concerned residents. They worried that the horses had escaped from the barn.
The calls eventually stopped as word of the new pasture spread through the community. After a few weeks, neighbors began to call Hook and thank him for building the pasture. Many residents said the grazing horses brought a sense of calm to an area otherwise filled with buzzing streetlights, city buses and hurried traffic.
Hook said he believes the grazing cattle will have a similar effect. He also expects the presence of the cows to more effectively drive home the lessons on cattle, beef and ranching that are taught at the Ag School.
Geno McKenna, 17, of Beverly, is studying cows in the classroom. He hopes to pursue a career in agriculture education and worked last summer in the barn at his high school.
"I just think that it is cool that we have cows," McKenna said.
Tim Wallace, 16, of Mount Greenwood, hopes to become a veterinarian. He said having cattle at his high school exposes him to more animals, which he believes will better prepare him for a lifetime of working with pets and livestock.
"I'm really a hands-on learner," Tim said.
The Ag School already partners with several suburban restaurants, supplying pork, tilapia and eggs from animals raised on campus. School officials hope to forge a partnership to provide beef to another nearby restaurant once the cows are ready for market in November.
The money raised will be used to buy another set of cows next spring, Hook said.
Hook said the students will enjoy some of the homegrown beef at the annual senior picnic next year. One of the hogs at the school already is slated for an end-of-the-year pig roast this year, he said.
Both Geno and Tim realize that the cows will be shipped off to market in the late fall. They expect it will be a sad day at the school, but they also said such life lessons are commonplace on the farm.
Tim, a former vegetarian, credited the school with teaching him what goes into each and every hamburger.
"It kind of makes you appreciate it more," Tim said.