Journal of the NACAA
Volume 8, Issue 2 - December, 2015
The Evolving Role of Cooperative Extension in Utah's Central Bull Performance Test: A Case Study
- Chapman, C. K., Extension Professor/Livestock Agent, Utah State University
Cooperative Extension is often called upon to partner with outside organizations to develop various programs. The role that Extension plays in these partnerships can vary from primary leadership to one of tertiary advisor. Often initial roles change as the program grows and matures. This paper discusses one long-term program and how the role that Extension plays has changed over time. It also discusses how the lessons learned through this progression can be applied to other programming regardless of discipline.
For 43 years Utah State University Extension has collaborated with the Utah Beef Improvement Association (UBIA) in organizing and conducting a bull performance test, which measures post-weaning gainability; and a bull sale with the primary purpose of identifying superior beef genetics and integrating those performance genetics into commercial cattle herds in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.
Over the years the role that Extension educators have played evolved from one of nearly total leadership, to a role that mirrors the best educational traditions of Land-Grant Universities. The Land-Grant Extension model of working with producer groups to gather unbiased, scientific data, then putting that data in a form that can be used to meet industry needs is a model that has endured the test of time.
However, this journey has not always been smooth and many lessons learned have applicability across a variety of disciplines regarding working within group dynamics.
As Rasmussen (1989) stated in Taking the University to the People, “Cooperation is the hallmark of Extension’s relations with people…The educational programs it undertakes most often arise as a response to needs identified on the local level.”
So it was in 1971, when a group of purebred cattle producers approached Utah State University Extension to ask for assistance in developing a central bull test for the state. They had heard of the newly published beef improvement guidelines that detailed how to uniformly evaluate cattle from different herds and they wanted to try it out.
Some of these producers had been collecting performance data on their individual herds, but they wanted to be able to compare their cattle with similar herds across the state. Producers viewed Utah State University Extension as a willing and unbiased partner to help establish baseline comparison data. The hope was that the data collected would develop into a way to differentiate individual owners stock and assist in marketing respective breeding programs.
Even though founding producers established a non-profit corporation complete with by-laws, it took a number of years for the idea of a central bull test to gain the interest of a broader group of producers. One founder even made upgrades to his small farm feedlot to accommodate the bull test, with the hope that the test would succeed. For several years, the founding members brought bulls and heifers to the test, to support the cooperating feedlot. If the test was financially beneficial to the cooperating feedlot then the additional resources necessary to conduct the test could be found.
By the mid-1980’s, the UBIA Performance Bull Test developed into the state’s premier testing facility. Numbers of bulls participating in the test has increased since the beginning in the 1970’s from less than 100 to a high of 316 bulls in the 1997-1998 test.
Over the past 27 years, the period of time for which records are still available, the UBIA Performance Bull Test has assisted an average of 49 seedstock producers annually. Average enrollment per year has been 250 bulls representing nine breeds.
Extension Involvement and Association Leadership Dynamics
Utah State University Extension educators have always been an integral part of the UBIA Bull Test and Sale. For that reason, it was decided that the Extension Livestock Specialist, housed in the Southwest Region, was a logical person to act as the Executive Secretary/Treasurer for the organization, which was also located in the Southwest region of the state.
Since the livestock specialist had the educational background and understanding of the new Beef Improvement Federation guidelines and various networks for “support” services, the Extension Service quickly became entrenched in many leadership and cursory functions of the Association, such as acting as Treasurer and Marketing Director, that traditionally should have been carried out by board members or regular members of the Association.
In addition to collecting and analyzing the bull performance data, Extension educators and faculty, on and off campus, along with support staff, conducted the breeding soundness exams on the bulls and arranged for the bulls to be fitted. Extension educators also prepared advertising materials, printed sale catalogs and made all the preliminary sale arrangements at the feedlot. On sale day Extension personnel were involved in virtually every aspect of the sale from bringing bulls to the sale ring to loading bulls for delivery, collecting sale proceeds and dispersing those funds to sellers and even preparing and serving the barbeque for prospective buyers prior to the sale. The UBIA was very comfortable with Extension’s involvement being service based rather education based.
The focus upon service rather than education occurred partially due to the fact that Association membership consisted of cattle producers who were exceptional at the husbandry side of seedstock production, but were inexperienced with the business aspects of managing an operation such as the bull test. Therefore, Association members were willing to leave the overall management of the test and associated sale in the trusted hands of Cooperative Extension.
The unfortunate part of this early Extension involvement with the UBIA is the loss of educational opportunities occurring as a result of the extended logistical support that fell to Extension staff. Very little additional education, outside of the development and reporting of the performance data, took place in the first 25 years of the program.
Changing of the Guard
In the late 1990’s, an Extension staffing change was made when the livestock specialist who had served as Executive Secretary/Treasurer of the UBIA retired. Not only was Extension personnel changing, but the methodology by which Extension educators interacted with clientele was also changing. The new faculty member viewed the UBIA as a partner that could serve as a vehicle to drive greater educational opportunities by extending the resources available to Extension. Using the bull performance test as a vehicle for educating cattle producers regarding animal selection, bull management and improved husbandry to increase profitability and thus, the sustainability of their cattle operations became the educational focus for Extension.
The opportunity for transitioning from service to education Instigated by the hiring of a new livestock specialist was fostered by increased turnover within the membership of the Association. Many of the original members began to turn the reins of their operations over to another generation. This next generation tended to be more business-minded and recognized that if the test were to remain viable and garner a greater market share, there had to be increased resources committed to expand the reach of the association.
Accordingly, the next generation was willing to seek innovation, increase member investments into the Association, seek out extramural funding, and to invest more of their own energy into the Association. Much as their predecessors who founded the Association had done, this new brand of leader/innovator recognized the value of Extension to assist them in moving their ideas out of the conceptual and into the implementation phase. As a result of a different mindset and a willingness to invest more of themselves into the process, the Association found the need to restructure, rearranging duties and responsibilities. The Association was then able to make significant strides toward increasing its visibility and garnering extended market share in a relatively short amount of time.
Association directors began to actively seek solutions. Up to this point, a $2 per bull enrollment fee, together with $20 for bulls making the sale were the only funds used for advertising. The directors increased the enrollment fee to $50 per bull under the premise that potential buyers would be exposed to all members’ bulls through increased marketing efforts, which would allow members to recoup the additional cost.
The Association sought and was awarded a marketing grant through the Utah Department of Agriculture, which facilitated increased visibility among commercial cattle growers by developing more professional marketing materials such as brochures, videos and print advertisement. The Association also purchased a portable tradeshow booth so it could better educate cattle producers about the benefits of performance-tested bulls during events around the state and region such as local and state cattlemen’s association conventions and the Utah Beef Cattle Field Day held annually.
A three-year trial video marketing effort with Superior Livestock was also pursued, which did not prove economically viable in the short term. However, this initial effort has encouraged future use of live, Internet-based marketing that is now a regular part of the marketing effort and has allowed for market expansion into much of the Intermountain Region.
Perhaps the most significant change in the Association/Extension relationship to occur during this time of transformation occurred as the Board of Directors moved to accept Extensions’ suggestions to move the marketing and treasurer responsibilities away from Extension. The suggestion was made to reduce university risk for Extension from the handling of fiduciary responsibilities for an outside entity, and to shift the marketing work away from Extension since neither is within the realm of Extension’s work plan.
Initially, two board members accepted the marketing and treasurer responsibilities. However, marketing was too large a task to be handled within the Board, so an outside marketing director was hired. This hiring decision proved to be the correct direction for the Association as the marketing effort has expanded into a significant web presence, soliciting affiliated corporate support for the test and sale, and development of both on-line and hard copy marketing materials that now extend not only to other states within the Intermountain region, but as far away as the eastern seaboard.
Various lessons can be drawn from this case study that possess applicability for a range of Extension programming.
Extension Leadership vs. Producer Leadership
It is perfectly acceptable at the onset of a major program for Extension to assume the leadership role for the new endeavor. However, this early leadership can turn into something of a “crutch” which the clientele will use as long as allowed to do so. It is this crutch that prevents, or at least slows, capacity building within the organization and can lead to reduced efficiencies and possible ineffectiveness in accomplishing the mission of the organization.
Extension professionals involved in capacity building must remember that the purpose of the program is to “engender an entrepreneurial social infrastructure that establishes direction to guide development activity and enhances the community’s ability to successfully implement these plans.” (Brown & Swanson, 2003.) Thus, a portion of an Extension educator’s role as a change agent is to understand when a fledgling organization has developed ‘infrastructure” to the point where leadership roles can be assumed to move the organization forward to success.
As in many chemical reactions, once the catalyst has accomplished the reaction, it becomes inert in that setting, so it is in Extension work. Once we have helped our clientele develop the skills necessary, or once the organization has developed to the point that it may progress on its own, our task as Extension educators is accomplished and we can remove ourselves some distance and simply monitor; providing assistance on more of an “as-needed” basis.
This transition can be somewhat “painful” for the educator who has, to this point, been a major player in charting the organization’s course. The new organizational leadership will, most likely, not lead the organization exactly how the educator thought or perhaps wished it might. The key thing to remember as an educator is that the role of advisor is still well within the realm of Extension work. Thus, the educator continues to assist organization leadership as they accept the role of leading.
Maintaining Relevance Amid a Rapidly Changing Landscape
Relevance is a topic that has garnered much attention within the Extension community for the last several years. In their article entitled, “Is Extension Relevant for the 21st Century?”, Bull, et. al. (2004) begin by asking a very thought provoking question; “As a 90-year-old artifact of the days when an agrarian economy dominated society, is it possible for Cooperative Extension to still be relevant?” The authors conclude that, “Extension is a living, evolving, market-driven organization that responds to society's changing needs.”
While Bull, et.al. (2004) addressed Extension organizationally, Extension faculty must ensure that our programming efforts meet the description of living, evolving, and market-driven or our programs and, by association we, risk becoming irrelevant. Relevance is particularly true in today’s world of rapidly advancing technology and ever-expanding sources of information.
In the case of the UBIA, technologies such as ultrasound carcass measurements, pulmonary artery pressure (PAP) testing for susceptibility to “Brisket Disease” or “High Mountain Illness” and DNA screening for possible genetic defects have been implemented as commercial cattle producers began asking for additional state of the art information to help with their purchasing decisions. Other items, such as across-breed Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) are just now beginning to be accepted by large parts of the commercial cattle industry and will be the future changes which will keep the program relevant.
If Extension programs don’t meet clientele requests for up-to-date information individuals will find what is needed elsewhere, and Extension then becomes irrelevant.
Many times Extension is called upon to help producer groups organize to meet a variety of needs. As Extension educators work to provide assistance, it is a very real temptation to assume and retain the primary leadership of a fledgling organization. While admirable, this course of action can lead to reduced effectiveness of the program or organization, and thus should be avoided.
When working with volunteer leaders within producer organizations, Extension educators can have significant impact by helping others build capacity to lead their organizations forward. Extension’s role is to help others by cultivating effective leadership styles and identifying technologies that are on the cutting edge. By promoting leadership and building capacity within an organization, we can help others maintain relevancy while maintaining our own.
It is important to remember that Extension is an evolving organization, if we are driven by clientele needs and evolve with those needs, even long-standing Extension programs will remain vibrant and relevant in the 21st century and beyond.
Brown, D.L. and Swanson, L.E. (2003). Challenges for Rural America in the Twenty-First Century. Pennsylvania State University Press. University Park, Pennsylvania. p. 388.
Bull, N.H., Cote, L.S., Warner, P.D., & McKinney, M.R. (2004). Is Extension Relevant for the 21st Century. Journal of Extension 42:6. http://www.joe.org/joe/2004december/comm2.php. Accessed May 28, 2015.
Rasmussen, W.D. (1989). Taking the University to the People – Seventy-five Years of Cooperative Extension. 1st ed. Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa. p. 130.