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Ends 33 years service with Extension

By Staff | Jan 28, 2010

Dennis DeWitt, a longtime cattle field specialist for ISU Extension, discusses feed at a recent feedlot meeting. He is retiring from his position, effective Sunday.

SPENCER – It’s no secret that the world of livestock production has seen its share of changes in the past three decades.

Yet for Dennis DeWitt, Iowa State University Extension livestock field specialist, one thing has remained constant – that job is assisting producers to ensure profitability.

DeWitt, 61, will retire from his post on Sunday after 33 years. He said simply, “It’s time.”

DeWitt summed up his job simply as livestock producer education.

“I have helped producers by providing research-based information,” DeWitt said, “in order to provide them with the tools they needed to make decisions that would bring more profitability to their families.

“I’ve also provided information on diseases and how to reduce risks through a bio-security program. Basically, I have taken questions on (everything from) nutrition to weaning, feeding and marketing.”

DeWitt’s field area changed during his three decades with ISU Extension. He is currently serving 12 counties. “How did we survive before computers and cell phones?” he joked.

When he interviewed for this job in February 1977, ISU officials asked him what he saw as a major problem in the livestock production industry. His answer at that time was “profitability.”

“… and if they were to ask me the same question today, I would answer in the same way,” he said.

DeWitt has spent much time over the years traveling from town to town presenting educational workshops and fielding questions from producers.

Besides, the basics of workshops has changed from pencils and paper to palm pilots; from monotoned mimeographed copies to colorful, laser-printed handouts, he said.

The industry itself has changed enough that he has had to keep himself educated on the various issues that arose over the years. He did that by reading land grant university reports, attending research meetings of the American Society of Animal Science, attending Midwest Animal Science research meetings, reading research reports and attending semi-annual ISU training sessions.

“Back in the 1970s there was only one growth implant for feedlot cattle – diethylstilbestrol. Today, there is a minimum of 33 different growth implant combinations available,” he described.

“Today, the best way to add value to a beef operation is through age and source verification. It starts at the cow herd and ends with the consumer.”

He also said that it seemed like there was always a new disease every few years that beef producers needed to worry about.

“For cattle, it was BVD, also known as ‘the cow that destroyed Christmas.’ It tested positive for BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease) and cost (the industry) millions of dollars and changed the beef industry in the United States.

“We still have ramifications from that today. It has impacted the profitability due to the resulting import and export restrictions.”

DeWitt went on to say that the swine industry has also seen its share of changes, including the decrease in percentage of back fat, going from 1.9 in the 1970s to less than .9 percent of back fat today.

“That has changed due to genetics,” he explained. “There have been tremendous changes in the type of pigs raised. At one time the ideal market weight for a pig was 210 pounds. Today, it’s more like 310 pounds. Today the pig is mostly muscle, it’s very lean.

“The weights of beef, pigs and sheep have all increased, mostly due to the lack of price discrimination at the harvest facility.”

The swine industry faced a pivotal point in 1998, he said.

“The price fiasco radically changed the industry, and there was, (at any given time) no market for many pigs. It created a mass exit from the pork industry. At that time I continued to tell swine producers to reduce their numbers to the lowest level on which they could operate, and reduce feed costs as much as possible.”

DeWitt also said he has seen a downsizing of the sheep industry during his years with ISU Extension.

“During the summer of 2004 there was no sheep market,” he remembered. “About one-third of the sheep people in Iowa exited at that time, never to return. Those that remained in the sheep industry expanded as much as 200 percent following the price crisis, and are profitable today.”

DeWitt credits the late-Riley Gillette, a Fostoria area sheep producer, with his involvement in that industry.

“Riley emphasized the need for sheep education in northwest Iowa,” DeWitt said. “I was told (that he would be in my office) when I first started here, and those people were right.

“His name still comes up among the many people I come into contact with. He made that industry important in northwest Iowa, and got me involved in it.”

DeWitt said he especially remembers the implementation of three programs within Extension livestock education during his tenure. They stemmed from three producers approaching him with three different problems.

These included:

  • The Iowa Lakes Controlled Grazing Program, formed to maintain or improve pastures in lower productive lands.
  • The Heifer Development Program, formed to develop heifers into productive beef cows.
  • The Adding Value to Cull Cows program that was created when ISU Extension and Iowa Lakes Community College personnel joined together to give producers ideas and practical ways to increase profitability with their cull cows.

DeWitt said he feels good about being part of the formation of these programs.

“Those people came to me looking for help, and I listened,” he said.

Today, he said, producers have the advantage of the Internet to find information, but, he noted, producers need to be careful of what they read because not all information found on the Internet is factual.

“They have all of this information at their fingertips, but they really need to be careful to know what is true and what is not,” he said.

DeWitt’s education

DeWitt graduated from Semco High School, in Gilman, in southeast Marshall County, in 1967. He later enrolled into the animal and meat science program at Iowa State University.

“As an undergraduate student at ISU, I knew I wanted to work for Extension, and that I’d need a master’s degree to be a livestock specialist,” he said. “When I completed my master’s degree there were no positions available. That was in the early 1970s.”

DeWitt then went to work for Wilson Foods in Albert Lea, Minn., working with the grade-and-yield and contracting programs, and did carcass evaluations. He also did some short-term meat sales during his time there.

A livestock specialist position opened up in Spencer in 1977, being vacated by former specialist Gene Rouse, who transferred to Ames to become an ISU state beef specialist.

“I applied because I always wanted to do that, and fortunately, I got the job. I had a great education for it through ISU,” he said.

DeWitt said he will miss the one thing he focused on primarily throughout his 33-year tenure with ISU Extension – providing education to livestock producers to help them improve profitability.

His next main venture is to run his newly-formed consulting company, Livestock Profit LLC, which he will operate from his home base of Spencer. He is also a certified lay speaker in his church, and plans to do more of that kind of preaching, along with getting more involved in flower gardening.

His family includes his wife, Sara, to whom he has been married for 41 years. They have two children, a son, Lucas, who is married with three children, and is an elementary school principal in Spencer. Their daughter, Joellen, is married with three children and teaches English and adult high school placement in Auburn, Neb.

Contact Karen Schwaller by e-mail at kschwaller@evertek.net.

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