After a successful career as a pioneering consulting nutritionist and rancher, Kenneth Eng provided a $2 million endowment in memory of his late wife Caroline. The money will fund ongoing beef cow efficiency research at three major land-grant universities. He is our 2013 Trailblazer honoree.
Eng began his professional career in 1962 with a young family, a fresh Ph.D. in animal nutrition from Oklahoma State University, and a research position at Texas A&M University’s (TAMU) Gulf Coast Research Station in Angleton.
He assumed he’d spend 30-40 years in academia, hoping to save enough money to retire to a small ranch where he could raise a few cows and horses. But anyone familiar with Eng’s full-bore personality could probably have told the Boone/Madison County, NE, farm kid that academia might not provide enough action for him.
Eng spent three years at TAMU (he would come back later to develop and head its M.S. program in feedlot management). He became Ralston-Purina’s first technical feedlot consultant in 1965. A few years after that, he hung out his shingle as one of the early consulting nutritionists who were helping boost the efficiencies of a surging commercial cattle feeding industry in the Southern Plains and western U.S.
Eng describes those days as “a boom time rivaling that of the gold rush in California and Alaska, and the early oil industry in Texas and Oklahoma, and the epicenter was Amarillo, TX.” In those days, he says, “every commercial plane you boarded to Amarillo was full of cattle people or those in allied industries. The motels, restaurants and clubs were full, and it wasn’t unusual for large business transactions to be consummated on a restaurant or club napkin.”
Eng admits the fast and furious pace consumed his life initially, as he scrambled from the High Plains to the West Coast, plus international destinations. He says his record was three days on the road without getting a motel room.
“In those days, non-ticketed persons could get into the gate areas, and we just met in the airline lounges. I cleaned up in the airport, changed clothes and slept on the plane,” he says.
But it’s a pace that he says came at a personal cost. “I let some folks close to me down,” he says.
Second time around
But Eng feels he got it right the second time around. He met his second wife, Caroline McDonald, who became an inseparable companion for 20 years. He says they spent only two nights apart during that time.
He says one passion they shared was a love of the land and the cattle business. He began downsizing his consulting business in the 1980s, and focused on personal yearling operations in the 1990s and cow-calf operations in 2000. Prior to her accidental death in June 2010, Caroline served as chief financial officer of Eng Ranches — their land, cattle, research and consulting operations.
“In the late 1980s, I reduced my consulting business. With a lot of help from bankers, we bought ranches when the land market was depressed. We often stocked our operations with cows from drought areas that were started in semi- or total confinement. It turned out to be a pretty good business model, and Caroline and I had a lot of fun. Good cattle prices and escalating land values made the investments successful, even though I made plenty of mistakes,” Eng says.
Before Caroline died in June 2010, the pair had begun to formulate a business exit strategy, but her death brought that to an end in a heartbeat, Eng says.
“Life is sometimes lonely and always less exciting without Caroline, but good friends and new investments have helped me make it through the night and cope with semi-depression,” he says.
Eng Foundation formed
He struggled for a way to remember Caroline and settled on the Dr. Kenneth S. and Caroline McDonald Eng Foundation. It consists of a total endowment of $2 million to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), Oklahoma State University and TAMU to fund research in cow efficiency.
Eng says the goal of the foundation is to improve the long-term economic sustainability of the U.S. cow-calf sector. He hopes his gift will spur the development and adoption of technologies to reduce costs of feed inputs by 25%, while maintaining productivity and beef product quality.
An integral component of the endowment is for the participating universities to provide an annual symposium at which research results are presented to the public. The first symposium, held in early September on the UNL campus, attracted about 200 attendees from 14 states for a daylong presentation by researchers from the three universities. Next year’s symposium will be held in San Antonio, TX, in September.
Larry Berger, UNL’s Marvel L. Baker Department Head and professor of ruminant nutrition, says Eng has been a visionary leader in the beef cattle industry for the last 40 years, willingly sharing his insight and knowledge with the industry. “He made his livelihood in the beef industry and is now supporting research on cow confinement so that others can make their livelihood in the beef industry in the future,” Berger says.
“With the establishment of the Dr. Kenneth S. and Caroline McDonald Eng Foundation, Eng has ensured a lasting contribution to beef production in honor of Mrs. Eng,” says H. Russell Cross, head of the TAMU animal science department. “The support of this foundation will allow us to develop a research program that we have described as ‘sustainable intensification’ in beef production systems.
“This program and similar programs in honor of Caroline Eng at TAMU and other land-grant universities will ensure a lasting legacy of innovation and contribution to the beef industry by helping the U.S. to remain competitive in a dynamic global marketplace,” Cross says.
The Eng Foundation also contributes to Wayne State University, where Eng began college on an athletic scholarship, and sponsors the Plains Nutrition Conference graduate student poster session awards.
Keep on keeping on
At 76 years of age, Eng isn’t slowing down. For one thing, you hardly ever find him without a cellphone wedged against his ear, chatting with friends and business associates about the latest industry news, figures or rumors. “I don’t text or email,” he says in his defense. “Each text or email message just leads to more messages. You can get everything taken care of in one phone call, so why would I bother?”
Since Caroline’s death, he’s further limited his research and consulting to concentrate on his cow, ranch and farmland investments. This summer he completed divestiture of his ranch properties in California, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, and has concentrated his agricultural investments in southern Mississippi.
His headquarters is now a sprawling property along the Pearl River, approximately 80 miles east of Natchez and 90 miles north of New Orleans. The agricultural focus of the facility is timber, beef cows, and recreational (hunting and fishing) and educational events. The property includes a lodge seating 300 and houses that accommodate approximately 65 guests.
He continues to write — both poetry and scholarly articles. He’s authored more than 600 articles during his career, including the “Beef Bottom Line” article for 30 years for Feedstuffs, which is now a sister publication of BEEF magazine. He’s penned seven books of poetry and produced 10 calendars.
His latest, and perhaps most ambitious, writing project is a sort of combination autobiography and 50-year history of the cattle industry. It’s both autobiographical and historical in that his professional career roughly paralleled the rise and maturity of commercial cattle feeding. The book is packed with Eng’s retelling of numerous interesting and hilarious anecdotes that occurred during his long and adventurous career.
Broken down by decades, the book sports a working title of “Often Flawed, Never Bored.” The book will cover the years 1963 to 2013.
“I feel incredibly blessed and fortunate to have been a participant and play a role in almost all facets of the industry for the past 50 years,” Eng writes in the book’s introduction. “Others have accomplished as much, but I seriously doubt anyone has had more fun, good times and excitement. I and many of my good friends had our share of wrecks and flaws, but we never let that stand in the way of a good time.”
The book is due out in mid-2014.
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