Animal philosopher

FARGO, N.D. -- Gerald "Jerry" Stokka is a new kind of livestock specialist at North Dakota State University -- sort of a people's philosopher for the industry.

FARGO, N.D. -- Gerald "Jerry" Stokka is a new kind of livestock specialist at North Dakota State University -- sort of a people's philosopher for the industry.

His specialty? Livestock stewardship.

Stokka says his entire career has prepared him for the position.

Originally from Cooperstown, N.D., Stokka got his veterinary degree at Iowa State University in Ames. He was a partner in Cooperstown Veterinary Clinic from 1982 to 1989 before heading to Kansas State University for a residency/master's program in production medicine. He stayed on the KSU faculty as a KSU feedlot specialist and extension veterinarian for 12 years. In 2001, he took a position with Pfizer Animal Health as a technical services veterinarian.

Then the NDSU position was created.


"It was an opportunity I couldn't pass up," Stokka says. "It fit my philosophy in life, and it fit my passion, so I'm here and glad to be with NDSU."

NDSU's livestock stewardship appointment is 70 percent extension and 30 percent research. He will bring a message of stewardship and responsibility. "I expect to engage with livestock producers, yes, but consumers and people of all types," he says.

He says he wants his extension colleagues to be passionate about their work in helping the livestock industry advance, but also passionate about stewardship. He also wants them to get involved in public discussions where criticism isn't supported by science.

An example, he says, is a recent news article that extolled the virtues of grass-fed beef -- a growing market niche that involves 3 percent of total livestock production in the U.S. The article incorrectly implied that corn-fed, feedlot beef might involve unhealthy living conditions for animals or damage to the environment.

Stokka thinks he can be helpful in directing research toward better stewardship in areas of breeding that could improve disposition and productivity. "We have some cattle that aren't the right temperament," he says. "Do we have to select against some of those cattle that don't have the right disposition to be around people?"

Another area of interest is low-stress handling of livestock, championed by researcher and author Temple Grandin and Tom Noffsinger, a veterinarian out of Benkelman, Neb.

One way to keep animals healthy is to use vaccinations, Stokka says, adding it's one of the things he would like to investigate because vaccines are shipped all over the country. "Are they being handled properly? Or are they subjected to some temperature abuse, or subject to different things that might make them ineffective?"

Legislature vision


Stokka's livestock stewardship position was funded by the North Dakota Legislature. "The idea of it is to attempt to bridge what I would call the communications gap," Stokka says.

"Between agriculture -- in my case, livestock agriculture -- and consumers, we've lost that communication over the last 50 or 60 years," he says. "Those of us engaged in agriculture directly are 1 to 2 percent of the population in the United States, we have consumers in New York and Minneapolis and elsewhere, who have no idea how their food actually got on their plate. No idea of the sacrifice, the input and the effort and the work it takes to get it there.

"Thus, what we see are articles, news articles, communiqués that criticize what we do -- that somehow we're harming the environment, that we're poisoning our food, that we're creating 'super bugs.' All that sort of stuff," he says.

"The truth is, we're better at what we do than ever before," he adds. "We have a responsibility to the land we operate, to the livestock we care for, and we have a responsibility to produce food -- not just for the United States, but for other people around the globe, as well."

At the same time, Stokka emphasizes he is not a "mouthpiece" for the status quo. If there are things that need to be changed and adjusted in livestock production, science helps that process.

The disciplines that classically exist in animal agriculture -- nutrition, reproductive physiology, meat science -- come together in Stokka's position, he says.

"What I'm attempting to do is blend our scientific disciplines, into animal husbandry and into philosophy, if you will," Stokka says. "What gives us the right to use animals for food, for fiber, for other things in the first place? We need to think about the big picture rather than our narrow little discipline. I think that's what the consumers want, I really do."

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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