It was announced earlier this year that Chuck Hibberd, Nebraska Extension dean and director, would be retiring June 30.
Hibberd previously served as director of the Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff for 13 years and director of Extension and associate dean of agriculture at Purdue University for five years, before serving as dean and director of Nebraska Extension for seven years.
Nebraska Farmer recently spoke with Hibberd on his 37-plus-year career and how the role of Extension has changed during his time in Nebraska.
To get started, how did you get your start in a career in Extension?
I was on the faculty of the animal science department at Oklahoma State University, and I didn't have an Extension appointment during that time, but a lot of the work that I was doing with cow-calf nutrition and management was of interest to cattle producers in Oklahoma and beyond.
So, I started doing quite a bit of Extension work just to share my research findings. And I found that to be very rewarding. When something you discovered or something that you learned can be shared with others and that provides value to them, that's kind of a special deal. That's when I got hooked.
My first formal Extension appointment was when I moved to Scottsbluff as the director of the Panhandle Research and Extension Center in 1994.
Backing up a little bit, I wanted to ask about your background in agriculture. I understand you grew up near Lexington, Neb.?
I grew up on a farm actually, northeast of Cozad. We moved to town in 1962, and Dad went to work for Will-Feed feedlot, and helped expand that lot. Then he moved to Lexington and went to work for Jim Roberts and helped build up that lot. So, I was involved in agriculture from a very young age.
I was in 4-H in Dawson County with Harold Stevens. Anybody who knows the history of Extension and 4-H in Dawson County knows Harold Stevens. He was truly a tremendous leader and heavily influenced my values. Harold had a habit that if you were misbehaving, he grabbed you just above the right elbow from behind and gave you a squeeze. And that was just enough to get your attention.
When I came back to Nebraska in 1994, our first Extension gathering, I was standing there talking to somebody and I felt a squeeze just above my right elbow, and it was Harold.
What was the ag environment like in Oklahoma? What different kinds of production systems did you encounter?
One of the big things I noticed right away was the size and scale of beef production in Oklahoma, the big feedlots, and the really high-quality purebred beef operations. Oklahoma is a beef state, much like Nebraska. The forage types are different. The climate is different. You go 400 miles south, and there's a lot more hot weather.
One of the big differences between Nebraska and Oklahoma was the grazing of wheat pasture by stocker cattle. They buy Okie No. 2s out of the southeast U.S. and bring them up to wheat pasture, run them on wheat pasture for three to four months, and they'd be ready to enter the feedlot and just do great. The systems aren't dramatically different, but the components of the systems are very different between Oklahoma and Nebraska.
Of course, the Nebraska Panhandle is beef country, and I loved to tell folks that there are six people per square mile and 12 cows per person out in the Panhandle, and they like it that way. The other thing about the Panhandle was sugarbeets, dry edible beans, sunflowers, proso millet, all of these crops that I had little or no familiarity with.
I remember growing up on the farm in Cozad, and some of our neighbors had sugarbeets back in the day, but that all went away. So when I moved to Scottsbluff, the faculty there were heavily involved in research and Extension work on crops that I was totally unfamiliar with.
One of the well-known accomplishments under your leadership at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center was the expansion of the feedlot there. How did this expansion come about?
It really came about because the research feedlot of the Panhandle was getting dilapidated. We could still do decent research, but we couldn't do the precision research that they were doing at Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, New Mexico State and Colorado State in the early 2000s.
The feedlot managers and owners out in the Panhandle made it clear that they needed better data, better research from us. Ivan Rush was our feedlot specialist out there, and Barb Schlothauer was the director of development for the University of Nebraska Foundation in the Panhandle. The first thing we did was bring the feedlot operators together and ask, "What do you really need from us? How can we really be helpful?"
They talked about the kinds of decisions that they were making, and back in the '50s, '60s and '70s, we figured out all of the big things that you could do to improve cattle feeding, but they needed to be able to discern whether a 2% or 3% or 4% improvement in gain or feed efficiency was real. So, there was a whole lot of fine-tuning work, which was critical to the industry, because in those circumstances, 2%, 3% or 4% gain is all profit. You're adding to the value.
Barb, Ivan and I went about the process of a fundraising campaign, along with cattle feeders, industry partners, bankers, all kinds of people that were committed to the feedlot industry in western Nebraska. Ken Green [general manager at Agra Holdings LP] was in the liquid supplement business, and he helped us immensely to raise money, and was a significant donor himself.
We put the package together. We thought about hiring a local welder to build the feedlot, but decided to go to a Kansas feedlot construction company that had built a lot of research feed yards around the country. They were expensive, but they were worth every penny, because we designed those pens to be as similar to feedlot conditions as possible, but also to make it really easy to manage the cattle and monitor weight change. We could bleed, we could take rumen samples, we could do all of this really intensive research.
One of the big things we installed was a watering system where we can monitor water consumption in each individual pen. We put in 60 new pens, so we can have a whole lot of treatments where we could study the effect of treatments on water intake. That's extremely important in western Nebraska. So, that was a big deal as well. We raised the money, and we built it.
Ken Green did a couple of other things for us that were really important. One, he helped us buy a micro ingredient machine, so we could custom mix our own premixes and study micro ingredients as well. He also helped put in a liquid supplement system. His company would mix custom, but with supplements for us as well. We could do almost anything in those pens.
The other thing that has happened over time is some of the other research feedlots on the High Plains have backed off a little bit on feedlot research. We've come to the point now where, we're not the only one, but we're one of the few universities that are doing high-impact, high-throughput feedlot research on the High Plains.
You also served as director of Extension and associate dean of agriculture at Purdue University. What were your key focus areas while at Purdue?
Purdue was established in 1869, the same year as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The difference was that Purdue had made a lot of early investments in agriculture. They were one of the early universities that was doing really good ag research. Of course, students and teaching were a big part of that as well.
It was also really helpful to me to have the opportunity to work in a state that is much different than Nebraska. Pigs, chickens, turkeys and ducks are a big deal in Indiana. They have a few cattle, but it's not as big of a deal. They have a huge ethanol industry, much like we do. The big difference was we're feeding all of our distillers to Nebraska cattle. Indiana had mountains of distillers grains that they didn't know what to do with, so Purdue ag was doing research on distillers grains for pigs and chickens and other poultry, etc.
Another big difference is the population density. Indiana has 6.5 million people and is about 50% of the size of Nebraska. What that meant was the issues, in many cases, that Extension dealt with in Indiana were exaggerated because of the population. So things like mental health were a growing issue, even back in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010.
It's a highly integrated industry. With Elanco being there, and other established ag businesses, it really was an epicenter in many ways of corporate leadership in the ag sector. It was a really interesting and fun opportunity to see a different way of doing things at different industries, sectors.
A lot of leadership in ag and commodity groups in Indiana are really strong — not that they're not here, but there's a really strong partnership between industry, commodity groups and government.
The governor at the time, Mitch Daniels, who's now president of Purdue University, one of his four planks in his platform was to expand livestock production in Indiana. Indiana is a highly populated state, and one of the governor's four main priorities was to expand livestock production.
That was also interesting because they did have local zoning, but what's different there is if somebody wanted to build a livestock operation, confinement, etc., as long as they met the requirements of the state DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality], the local municipality had to approve it. That's a much different setting than it is in many states.
The other part that I really liked was he instructed the Department of Environmental Quality to focus on the bad actors. Let's find the folks that are misbehaving. They're not taking care of their lagoons, that have had a frequency of lagoon spills over the years, whatever the case may be. That's what they did. That also made for a really livestock-friendly environment.
Read more on Chuck Hibberd's career and the growth of Nebraska Extension in Part 2 of this Q&A.