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Lifetime Of Commitment

Richard Willham has worn many hats in his long, prestigious career in the beef industry, including beef cattle geneticist, author, livestock historian and artist.

These many successes have garnered Willham, professor emeritus at Iowa State University, the honor of being the 2004 inductee into the Saddle and Sirloin Club, the beef industry's hall of fame.

The Saddle and Sirloin Club portrait gallery was established in 1903 to pay tribute to the beef industry's most significant and influential leaders. The portraits of the 341 members hang in the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center (KFEC) and the Executive West Hotel in Louisville.

Willham's portrait, painted by Richard Halstead, Evanston, IL, will be unveiled Nov. 14 at the Saddle and Sirloin Club banquet during the North American Livestock Exposition at the KFEC.

His nomination was spearheaded by Merlyn Nielsen, University of Nebraska animal scientist and his former student.

“He has a great affection for anything related to tradition, history and livestock,” Nielsen says. “So we knew this was very special to him.”

Academic Life

Willham describes himself as an “academic kid.” He received his bachelor's degree from Oklahoma State University (OSU) in 1954. His master's and PhD were both earned at Iowa State University (ISU) under the guidance of Jay Lush. He worked at OSU for three years — from 1963 to 1966 — in beef cattle breeding, starting a selection project involving Angus and Hereford cattle.

“This was the time when the performance movement was just gaining great momentum,” Willham says. “It was a very exciting time to be involved in performance research.”

In 1966, Willham went back to ISU and initiated research in beef-cattle breeding. He wrote the “computer cowgame,” an internationally recognized tool that teaches selection principles.

“Thousands of undergraduate students in animal breeding courses have used this simulation to gain insight into response to selection,” Nielsen says.

Father Of EPDs

The dairy industry was the frontrunner to beef cattle in the genetics field, using predictive differences (PDs) in sire evaluation. But, seeing the success of evaluating sires for breeding in dairy cattle motivated the beef industry to adopt a similar philosophy, Nielsen says.

The Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) wrote its first National Sire Evaluation guidelines in 1971. Before that meeting, Willham and two other researchers met and worked on writing the guidelines.

“One evening, we were working and discussing what we should call these genetic predictions,” Willham says. “We didn't want to call them PDs, because the dairy industry already had predictive differences.”

Willham suggested calling them expected progeny differences, or EPDs, since the goal was to measure the differences among progeny in animals. “Every time I hear the term now, it just sends chills down my back,” he adds.

Association Ties

Willham has served as a consultant to several breeds — including Hereford and Charolais. He says most of his work, though, was done for the American Angus Association (AAA) in helping initiate its performance records program.

“He assisted in setting up our AHIR (Angus Herd Improvement Records) program and helped develop the forms and computer programs we ran prior to 1970,” says John Crouch, AAA executive director.

In 1971, Willham developed estimated breeding values (EBVs), expressed as ratios with 100 being breed average. “It developed in the breeders a concept of breeding value,” Willham says.

This led to Willham working with AAA in 1972, to develop structured sire evaluation using reference sires.

“He analyzed the data and produced the first set of EPDs for the American Angus Association in 1974. And, from 1974-1980 continued to refine the process,” Crouch says.

In 1980, AAA published the first field data sire evaluation report along with the structured sire evaluation. In 1981, the two reports were combined.

“He was the driving force in the cattle industry who made way for National Cattle Evaluation as we know it today,” Crouch says. “No question in my mind about that.”

Interests, Accomplishments

Willham is also known for his love of history and art — especially livestock art. His interest in art stemmed from a humanities class his wife, Esther, attended. “She'd come home every night and teach me the course,” he says. “I've always had an interest in it, but our discussions really fueled it.”

He was the curator for the art exhibit “Centuries of Fascination: Art About Livestock,” at ISU in 1990 during the annual American Society of Animal Science meeting.

His livestock history class is titled “Our Livestock Heritage,” and has been taught at ISU and Colorado State University.

He wrote the 100-year history for the ISU animal science department in 1996, co-wrote the 25-year history of BIF with Frank Baker, and co-wrote the 100-year history of the Saddle and Sirloin Club with beef industry icons Dale Runnion and Harlan Ritchie last year.

“The beef industry really has been good to me,” Willham says. “It's kept me very busy, but it has been a lot of fun to work with.”

Editor's note: Nominators of Willham for the Saddle and Sirloin Club are responsible for raising money to fund the banquet and commission a portrait. Contributions can be sent to: ISU Foundation — Willham Recognition, in care of Maynard Hogberg, Department of Animal Science, 1221 Kildee Hall, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011.