By Russ Quinn
DTN Staff Reporter
OMAHA (DTN) -- Gerald Stokka could be the first of a new breed of Extension specialist.
He is a North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension livestock stewardship specialist, a position that does not exist in any other university Extension service in any other state. His task is to combine animal science with the philosophy of modern livestock production.
"I want the 'what we do' but also the 'why we do it' to be understood," Stokka told DTN. "This is my passion."
Stokka also would like to be a bridge between livestock producers and the consumers who buy products produced by the industry. The communication between the two groups has eroded over the years and it needs to be rebuilt again, he said.
With more and more consumers wanting to know how their meat and milk is produced, what the animals were fed and how they were handled, the information exchange between livestock producers and consumers is even more important, he said.
"I'm excited to have Stokka join our faculty," Greg Lardy, NDSU Animal Science department head, said in the press release announcing Stokka's hiring. "He brings a wealth of experience to the position and will be able to assist North Dakota's livestock producers with the pressing issues related to livestock stewardship that they face now and into the future."
A native North Dakotan, Stokka is originally from a farm near Cooperstown, N.D., located in the east-central part of the state. He earned a bachelor's degree in animal science from NDSU, a master's degree in beef cattle production medicine from Kansas State University and his doctor of veterinary medicine degree from Iowa State University.
Stokka's career has spanned several different positions in a couple different states, all related to livestock production.
He was in private practice for seven years at the Cooperstown Veterinary Clinic and then went to Kansas State University to become an assistant professor and then later an associate professor as well as KSU's Extension veterinarian for 12 years. Prior to joining NDSU, he spent 11 years as a member of the Pfizer Animal Health veterinary operations team located in Cooperstown.
In July 2012, Stokka was named by NDSU Extension to be the state's first livestock stewardship specialist. The position was created by an initiative in the North Dakota Legislature in response to an increasing need for expertise to help livestock producers.
In addition, Stokka is also an active livestock producer himself. He and his brother have a commercial Angus cattle herd as well as a registered Red Angus herd in the Cooperstown area.
THE NEW POSITION
The livestock stewardship specialist position has two aspects: an Extension and research focus.
Seventy percent of the position has an Extension focus while the remaining 30% is research. His research will take a "systems approach" to livestock production, and he will be focusing on livestock interaction, behavior and disposition.
While his background is in the beef cattle industry and much of the focus of his position is beef cattle, he said he will also address the needs of other livestock. Sheep, hog and dairy cattle are all areas he will cover with his title.
With nearly a year on the job, Stokka said the new position has been about what he expected it would be, mainly because he had worked in university Extension in the past. A majority of his work in this first year has been with livestock producers, but he also has some interaction with consumers.
For example, he recently spoke at local wellness meetings, touting the health benefits of beef as well as explaining all the useful products the industry creates and uses. He would like to increase his communications with consumers and has plans to work through local Extension food/consumer science agents to expand his dealings with consumers.
When talking with livestock producers, Stokka always tries to get certain important points about stewardship across to them. These ideas are more on the livestock philosophy side.
"I start with the word 'agriculture' and the word 'culture' is in it, and we are a culture of unique people producing food," he said. "We have the wisdom and knowledge to grow food from the ground, which is not something everyone can do."
He also will touch on the thought that while agriculture is a business and farmers and ranchers need to be profitable or they will not be there, agriculture is much more than a business and it is truly a way of life. It is more of a philosophy of life for these people, and they are in it for much more than dollars, he said.
Stokka said he believes the emotional aspect of livestock production is important to understand. Everyone has a purpose in life and producers need to remember that producing livestock is a truly healthy and special process, he said.
Explaining the philosophy of livestock production to consumers who are often several generations removed from the farm is sometimes a difficult task for those involved in agriculture. While the science of raising animals can be explained with charts and tables, the philosophy of livestock production is a bit more abstract to explain to consumers of meat and milk.
Stokka hopes to be able to communicate to consumers both the science and philosophy of livestock production. The 'why' something is done in livestock production is very important to the consumer, and he hopes to explain it more clearly to them.
The uniqueness of this livestock stewardship specialist position was what attracted Stokka to the job.
"This position is really a much different position from other Extension and research programs," Stokka said. "Plus, I have great resources in my colleagues here just down the hall."
Russ Quinn can be contacted at email@example.com
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