The Department of Poultry Science at the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has a 100% job placement record – that’s what drew Shannon Kellner ’97 to the program.

Head and shoulders image of former poultry science student, Shannon Kellner, who now works at Merck Animal Health.
As a former student and industry leader, Shannon Kellner ’97 values the dedication of the Texas A&M Department of Poultry Science in preparing students to meet the needs of the industry now and in the future. (Courtesy photo, Merck Animal Health)

Poultry meat and eggs represent a major industry in Texas and worldwide, creating a need for a strong workforce with scientific, technical and business knowledge in the various fields important to successful poultry production.

The Texas A&M Department of Poultry Science is unique in that it is one of the few stand-alone poultry science departments in the nation, poised to meet this need.

Demand for poultry science graduates is so high that former students like Kellner, vice president of the U.S. livestock business with Merck Animal Health, found career opportunities awaiting them when they graduated.

Kellner grew up in Lampasas and comes from a family of Aggies who was involved in farming and raised cattle, sheep and goats. He always knew he would attend Texas A&M and major in something related to agriculture.

He checked into the department after a neighbor shared some impressive attributes about its programs and student successes. He was impressed with the number of graduates, job placement rate and average starting salary for graduates. 

“It was a numbers game,” said Kellner. “I knew I wanted to be in agriculture, but I wanted to put myself in the best possible position related to job availability and competitive starting salary. After looking at different majors and options, I felt the best opportunities were in poultry. And when I got in, I loved it.”

We sat down with Kellner to find out more about his journey from poultry science graduate to being in a leadership role at an industry-leading animal health company that has donated more than $1 million to the College over the years.

What do you do as vice president of Merck’s U.S. livestock team?

Merck Animal Health is a global animal health business dedicated to improving the health, well-being and performance of both food and companion animals. We offer a wide range of veterinary medicines and vaccines as well as a suite of technology solutions including identification, traceability and monitoring products.

As the head of our U.S. Livestock business, I have the responsibility for the overall strategy, long-term growth and profitability of all portfolios in the food production animal species areas. As part of my responsibilities, I lead our commercial team for our cattle, swine, poultry, aqua, and technology solutions businesses as well as technical services, value chain and consumer affairs and marketing operations.  

My favorite thing about my job is helping people grow and develop while formulating transformative strategies that will drive our business forward into the future. It’s an exciting time to be in animal health as the intersection of biopharmaceuticals and technology solutions have come together to provide real value for our customers – giving them insights into the health and well-being of their animals.

What did your path from poultry science graduate to Merck Animal Health look like?

I’ve been with Merck Animal Health for 10 years and involved in the animal health industry for the majority of my career. I started my career working for Sanderson Farms as a broiler service technician. In doing so, I was exposed to vaccine protocols, dealing with health issues and interacting with allied sales representatives across multiple disciplines. I really enjoyed engaging with the sales reps from different companies and ultimately decided that it was a career path I wanted to explore.

From there, I took a job with Purina Mills as a poultry specialist, selling feed premix to the commercial layer sector across accounts in North Texas and Oklahoma and continued to get more emersed in the animal health side of things.

In this business, it is all about networking, and I am incredibly grateful for the Aggie network. I used that network to get a sales director position with Lohmann Animal Health. For that job, I had to relocate from Texas to South Carolina, which was a leap of faith at the time with one young child and one on the way. Moving away from the things you know and your family can be daunting, but my wife, Tresa, and I quickly realized that family was just a car or plane ride away. Because we made that leap of faith, we have met a whole new group of incredible people who have become close friends.

From there it was on to Merck Animal Health in DeSoto, Kansas. We currently live in Kansas and consider it home.

How did you work your way up to your current position?

I first joined Merck Animal Health as the business unit director for poultry. I was in that role for three years and was responsible for the growth, development and profitability of our involvement in the U.S. poultry sector.

I then moved to the role of associate vice president of the livestock business unit, where I was responsible for the growth, development and profitability of our involvement in the U.S. food animal sector. I was in that role for over six years until I advanced to my current position.

I have never been a big believer in hierarchy and have always been willing to speak my mind. I take my responsibilities seriously regardless of position and hold close to the concept of working hard, and if the company does well, I will do well.

Loyalty to my organization has always been core to my approach, but probably the most impactful thing is that I have always tried to learn from those around me, and I have had the privilege to get to know many smart and dedicated people who are involved in this industry. To be successful I have focused on surrounding myself with great people and tried to remove obstacles in front of them so they can be successful as well.

What does the poultry science department do to prepare students for industry success?

The department and curriculum are closely related to industry activities and preparing students to meet the needs of the industry now and in the future. The scrutiny that is put on high-value, low-cost production that students are taught is recognized by those of us in the industry and is a practice that can be usefully applied to any position a student may find themselves in.

Additionally, other species are looking at the vertically integrated model that poultry uses.   It is useful for students who are educated and familiar with this model, and often, it can help propel them into leadership roles.

Today, there is also a lot of pressure on the food animal industry from consumers regarding transparency. This is a space poultry has been in for years. The education can help graduates of the department be more desirable to companies looking to meet new food production requirements.

Do you have any key mentors you look up to?

I have always tried to observe and learn from everyone I come in contact with. In all cases, taking some tidbits that I could incorporate into my own approach or recognizing what not to do.

Overall, I feel that each of us has our own set of values. Everyone needs their own north star that guides them and provides consistency in their decision-making. My core values are rooted in my upbringing, and I feel that if you treat people as people and focus on their success – the rest will take care of itself. I have tried to stay rooted in my values as I have progressed through my career.

What advice would you give current poultry science students interested in pursuing a career like yours?

Make yourself and your ambitions known and build your network and keep it active. Never be afraid to take a risk and take on something that you may feel you’re not ready for. And of course, be willing to move. It can make a big difference in your career path and provide you with some terrific experiences along the way.

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