Every so often, I need to get on my soapbox; this is one of those occasions. What's happening at your and my alma maters is a subject we in the cattle business should start to think about.
First, I'll establish the fact I spent a fair number of years at three different land-grant universities pursuing bachelor, master and doctorate degrees in animal science. I also spent more than five years in Extension work; I'm not exactly an uninformed bystander.
Second, I have a lot of friends at land-grant schools — people I respect for their knowledge of livestock production, nutrition, breeding, physiology and meat science. These people have tremendous knowledge and the ability to convey that information to producers.
This isn't meant to be critical of them; in fact, many of them share my concerns. They fight regularly to stay alive in a system that seems to appreciate their contributions less and less. They're the ones whose names you and I recognize and associate with our university. Their ranks are thinning.
Morrill Act of 1862
Land-grant colleges were established by the Morrill Act of 1862, which gave each state 30,000 acres of land per member of the state's delegation in Congress. In turn, the states sold this land to establish a college focused on agriculture, engineering and military science — the priorities of the day.
What these universities produced for U.S. agriculture was a place for research, training for young minds, and dissemination of new information to agricultural producers, in a system that was the envy of the rest of the world. It created a highly efficient agricultural production structure admired worldwide, and, not surprisingly, many countries send their brightest minds to study here in graduate programs.
But, the land-grant system is broken in some states; at the very least, it doesn't relate to producers as well as in the past. There's even talk of doing away with the colleges of agriculture in some major agricultural states.
I can cite many examples where animal science departments and staff have lost contact with their state's producer organizations and passed up recruitment opportunities at youth livestock events. They've even failed to show up at a state breed sale just a few hundred feet from their office.
Do you recognize ag faculty?
A former college teacher of mine who is retiring this fall says that, as an incoming freshman, he already knew a majority of the animal science faculty members through his involvement in 4-H and FFA. I suspect many livestock producers today wouldn't recognize the department head, by name or face, and have little contact with staff members.
Part of the problem is the system is a victim of its own success. It fulfilled the government's desires for a cheap food policy. As long as we enjoy ample supplies of high-quality, safe food in this country, government funding for agriculture research will not be a priority.
This has forced universities into the “research business” to seek research money from other sources. That's compromised the land-grant mission of unbiased research and information. It also has eliminated much of the good, applied research that needs to be done.
Additionally, part of the problem is self-inflicted. A misguided tenure system several years ago placed teaching and Extension well below research. The ability to bring in research dollars became the focus for advancement.
I imagine counting published research papers is much simpler and less subjective than evaluating the quality of undergraduate teaching or Extension outreach education. This has forced teachers and Extension staff to be good researchers; and the system awards good researchers with the administrative jobs (department head and dean positions) as promotions.
Is there any surprise we've spiraled downward to departments overloaded with narrowly focused researchers who can't relate to producers?
Am I old-fashioned?
I've done a little soul-searching in writing this piece. I've challenged myself with the question, “Am I getting old-fashioned?”
I don't think so. I'm not against cutting-edge research, but I think there's still an opportunity and need to balance research with teaching and Extension.
In the past, Extension filled an unofficial role of public relations. Producers were quick to pick up the flag and support their university. Could the recent trend contribute to universities' problems when state legislatures struggle with funding?
Another issue we need to wrestle with is one of preserving the past vs. preparing for the future. In agriculture, we're guilty of this every once in awhile.
As the pork and poultry industries consolidated and integrated, the role of the land-grant university in providing information to these industries diminished. It's not a cause-and-effect issue, however.
Is consolidation a solution?
Consolidation is driven by the desire to gain business efficiencies and meet consumers' demand for consistency. Hoping to keep the beef industry from consolidating by preserving the old land-grant system is an empty dream.
The solution may be in consolidating the land-grant system itself. Rural public schools and clustered county Extension programs provide the model. Does every state need a specialist in every discipline? Does every institution need to fund, equip and update expensive labs to conduct basic research?
From almost any angle we examine the situation, the cattle business increasingly is going to feel the impact of all of this in the coming years. As an example, Cornell University has no intention of replacing two scientists nearing retirement who played a major role in the genetic evaluation system we enjoy in the seedstock business. That will reduce to two the schools working on national cattle evaluation; a few years ago, there were four universities in the so-called Genetic Consortium.
Where we get the good information we'll need to compete in the future is something to think about.
Wayne Vanderwert is the executive director of the American Gelbvieh Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.