It’s a farm tech’s life for me
A senior class project helped Cora Okkema discover a way to twine her love of farm life into her college studies.
Farming and being part of a small, rural community are important to Cora, who is graduating seventh in her class from Montabella High School.
The middle child of Tjerk and Ramona Okkema, she emigrated from the Netherlands in 1999 with her family to a dairy farm north of Six Lakes.
Farming in the Netherlands
Cora’s parents met in the Netherlands in 1982. Her mother, from New Hampshire, was visiting through a 4-H exchange program and her father was a Dutch native who managed the dairy farm where he grew up. They married nine years later and started a family on the Okkema family homestead.
Dairy farms in the Netherlands are relatively small, most having no more than a hundred cows. It was difficult to support the needs of their young family under Dutch government regulations, which controlled how much milk farms could produce.
The Okkemas had American friends in the Netherlands who talked of the strong agricultural base in Michigan. Moving to America to expand their farm production seemed like a wise business decision. And that it was. Starting with a mere 17 cows, the farm has grown into a successful 700-head dairy operation.
Life lessons on the farm
Life on a dairy farm isn’t easy, but hidden rewards outweigh the trials, according to Cora’s mom, Ramona, who lived on a dairy farm in New Hampshire as a child.
“Raising kids on a farm teaches many life lessons — the value of hard work, cooperation and doing what’s necessary, when it’s necessary,” she said. “Working together as a family prepares them for future interactions with people.”
There’s never a dull day on the farm for the Okkema children, who are actively involved with daily chores.
Cora cares for the sheep flock and around 60 calves, cleaning pens and feeding them grain and milk.
She feels there’s a natural bond that develops from being so closely involved in caring for an animal’s daily needs. When baby lambs are born during the bitter cold of early spring, she ventures to the barn to wrap them in wool “lambovers,” or sweaters, tube-feed them colostrum and secure their bedding. Some eventually become her favorites and are given special names.
“Caring for the animals is a huge responsibility for me,” Cora said. “Unless you’ve cared for and nurtured a newborn animal, especially when it’s sick, it’s hard to explain the tie you develop. I’m so thankful that I’ve had this opportunity.”
Her younger sister, Evelyn, 14, works alongside Cora in the barn, as did her brother, Dirk, 19, before he left for Dordt College last fall. Dirk helped with much of the field work, as well.
The three siblings prepare animals for the annual Mecosta County 4-H Fair each year. Cora has showcased a variety of livestock – rabbits, pigs, lambs and cattle – during the 10 years she’s been in 4-H. She also has exhibited pottery, plants and photographs.
Last year, Cora received one of the top three awards in 4-H – the MSU 4-H State Award for Community Service and Citizenship – in recognition of her volunteer efforts.
Track and field standout
Even with her busy lifestyle, Cora makes sports part of her routine.
She played volleyball and four years of basketball and track and field. Her high school throwing records in the discus (116-9’) and shot put (36-4’) earned her first-team all-conference track and field honors for the last two years. She contributed to Montabella’s team conference championships in 2010 and 2011 and finished third in the discus at last year’s Division 4 state track and field meet.
Cora works hard to improve her throwing techniques. She and her brother, Dirk, practiced together on the farm before he left last fall for college.
Choosing a career path
Cora always knew she wanted to make a difference in the world of farm animals. But with countless agricultural career options, choosing a field of study wasn’t entirely easy.
“I want to know why things happen, what gets manipulated to produce a certain outcome or what can be done to make something happen or change something,” she said. “I’m very logical, a thinker and a discoverer.”
She considered studying parasitology at Cornell University under Dr. Dwight Bowman, who has studied animal parasites his entire career. Okkema was welcomed into Dr. Bowman’s home and laboratory during a campus visit last fall.
“Cora is really interested in the positive side of the dairy business and wants to make a mark in that field,” Bowman said. “I think whatever she decides to do, she will.”
Project offers new direction
A hands-on senior class research project in artificial insemination (AI) of farm animals gave Cora new direction in agricultural studies.
Brian Plank served as her mentor and helped her earn her certification. In addition to working as a certified AI technician, Plank collects data — used for genetic testing to strengthen breeding lines — on top-of-the-line bulls at the Michigan State University Bull Test Station on his family’s farm in Crystal.
“Cora worked with me three to four days each week last August,” Plank said. “She works hard and caught on right away. In fact, she has a couple heifers due sometime in May.”
Working with Plank and doing research for the written part of her senior project forced Cora to delve deeper into the history of AI breeding and its importance in farming.
She learned that AI allows farmers to determine cattle performance and physical traits to improve their products because only semen from high-end bulls is used. It eliminates the need to rely on a bull for breeding, and cows may be bred with bulls from around the world.
“There probably aren’t many girls who would choose AI for their senior project,” Cora laughed. “Once I understood the entire process, I knew it was the field I wanted to study.”
Being an AI technician isn’t Cora’s ultimate career choice. She wants to be a part of the process, but in a laboratory, where she can research and study in the field of biotechnology.
Biotechnology – a field Cora feels has barely begun to unravel – would allow her to genetically engineer cell and tissue cultures to improve AI breeding programs.
She will demonstrate the AI procedure May 17 in front of a panel of four judges. A 3-D reproductive tract will provide a visual look inside the cow as she performs the procedure on a dairy cow. She is hoping to surprise judges with a live result of her work from last August — a newborn calf.
Iowa-bound, but never far from the farm
Cora has decided to study biotechnology and agricultural science at Dordt College in Iowa, where she will join her brother as a thrower on the track and field team, as well.
She has many activities and events planned before she heads to Iowa. She will participate at Mecosta County 4-H Fair, take an educational trip to Costa Rica and attend Michigan State University’s Exploration Days and a Christian camp at Lake Ann. She also will serve as a camp counselor at Mecosta County 4-H Camp for her fourth season.
The emotions of going off to college will be somewhat difficult for Cora. She can’t say whether her path will lead her back to Michigan, but she is certain she’ll never stray too far from her farm upbringing. She has no doubt that it will serve as the foundation for everything she does as she journeys into the future.
“I’m an adventurous person, always open to new opportunities,” Cora said. “I’m the type of person that if I get a calling to go somewhere exciting, most likely I will.”
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