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MSU Club to Honor Kaercher for Career in Livestock

by Steve Grinczel

Published: Friday, March 20, 2020

At first, Maury Kaercher thought Michigan State University's Block and Bridle Club had the wrong person. Disbelief gave way to astonishment as the retired St. Joseph County (Mich.) Extension director learned more about how the honored guest at the club's Annual Recognition Banquet is selected.

"As I understand it, this was determined by Block and Bridle college students, not by senior citizens," a bemused Kaercher said last Friday afternoon while sitting in the kitchen of his farm house outside Kalamazoo. "I'm 75 years old and at one point you say, 'How many of those college kids even know Maury Kaercher exists anymore?'"

The banquet was to be held this Saturday night at the University Club of MSU, but like just about everything else involving gatherings of people around the nation, the event was canceled for precautionary reasons due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Nevertheless, the honor places Kaercher among some of his agricultural heroes and mentors at Michigan State, when he was a student or starting out his career, in what amounts to the Block and Bridle Club's de facto hall of fame.

"They have your portrait put up at the Block and Bridle for six years and then they take it down and give it back to you," he said. "Maybe I shouldn't question it, but I think most people would say, 'Why me?'

"I can give you a whole list of people who deserve this honor, as well, but I'm not apologizing for it. I'm grateful and glad there's somebody who actually thinks, after they review my life and time spent, I've done positive things for the livestock industry and many other facets, whether it's youth or education."

Kaercher said that just as in in the livestock industry, where the quality of the herd is determined by the females, much his success can be attributed to his wife of 53 years, Nancy.

"I got lucky enough to have somebody like her, who has been supportive with this career I've chosen the whole time, whether I was in the service or here at home," Kaercher said. "She's been an intricate part of that. Most men should admit that and if they don't, they're nuts."

Kaercher was preceded in the Block and Bridle honor roll by MSU faculty and Extension legends Dave Hawkins, Harlan Ritchie and Maynard Hogberg, who have been inducted into Saddle & Sirloin Portrait Gallery at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, the livestock industry's hall of fame and the highest honor individuals connected to livestock can receive.

"Certainly, with the people I see in front of me, I'm in a great great group of people," Kaercher said. "For young people, if you can find somebody who can be a mentor like that for you, how lucky can you be? When you're 18 or 20 years of age and you think you've got all the answers, just think that there's somebody (older) you may be able to talk to who can enlighten you on some things you won't have to experience in a negative way.

"That's the footprint I hope I've left because as you make your career, people can look back and ask what has this individual really provided as a stepping stone from generation to generation?"

Although Kaercher retired from MSU Extension in 2011 after 28 years—he was an agent in Kalamazoo County from 1984-2003—the former Michigan Cattleman's president will continue a 10-year stint as the executive director of the Michigan Sheep Producers Assn. through next year.

He's been managing the family's cow-calf herd, down from about 30-40 head to a manageable seven, since '79.

His organizational links to agriculture started, as so many do, in 4-H and he held a club calf sale on his folks' (now his) farm for around 25 years. After spending 1966-70 in the Navy, serving in Vietnam, Kaercher pursued an animal science degree at Michigan State.

He was on MSU judging teams and was a student-worker at the sheep and purebred beef barns. He graduated in '74 and then worked in various roles, including as an FFA adviser and a district sales rep for Camden, Ind.-based Select Seed Sales, before settling into Extension. He has been credited for his work in helping to initiate and institute practices and procedures to Michigan agriculture, sometimes with national impact.

Kaercher summed up his considerable role in agriculture on the eve of National Ag Week in one word: communication.

"I'm not so sure that I could say I made a specific improvement in the livestock industry, on, say, genetics or something like that," he said. "I would rather think that what I accomplished was figuring out how to bring the non-ag community together with the ag community to try to get them to understand that both have a reason to have ag.

"I've tried to make it so the two sides can have a decent discussion without having to draw lines in the sand, and that's gotten harder and harder because more and more people are stepping away, generationally speaking, from ag and food production."

Nevertheless, Kaercher is about more than just talk, according to longtime friend and retired MSU animal science professor Ken Geuns, who was supposed to introduce Kaercher at the banquet.

About 20 years ago, MSU and Michigan Cattleman's Assn. entered into a collaboration that helped revolutionize the livestock industry.

"He's very passionate about trying to educate people," said Geuns, who continues to work as a livestock nutritionist. "One of the things he spearheaded was a certified vaccination program for feeder-cattle. He probably wonders why he's deserving of this recognition, but this is a perfect time and a perfect venue to recognize somebody like Maury."

The vaccination program required farmers to be able to prove "they gave the shots," Kaercher said, and more than 1,000 calves were treated the first year.

"The beauty of it is, not so much we did that with Michigan Cattleman's Assn. when I was president, was the number of breed associations that took it upon themselves after they saw the need and the demand for calves that went through that protocol versus calves that didn't," Kaercher said. "The buyers were paying more money so not only was it more profitable, it was the right thing to do.

"I wouldn't say Michigan was the first to start that, but we were on the ground floor. Almost all the calves marketed today have been part of some kind of vaccination program."

Kaercher was also instrumental in getting birthing tents set up at the Kalamazoo and St. Joseph county fairs to demonstrate to non-farmers how food production begins on the farm. About 40,000 people go through the St. Joseph County birthing tent each year (Kalamazoo no longer has one).

Producers need to become better equipped at getting stories about how they go about their business, Kaercher believes, to consumers who benefit from it.

"It's critically important because if the non-ag community decides, in their infinite wisdom, to dedicate themselves politically to developing guidelines, laws and things of that nature that are anti-food production, because they're accustomed to getting all the groceries they want, if we don't educate them it could quite possibly could make farming impossible to have," Kaercher said. "One of the things I was going to mention to the college students—the animal science, ag and block-and-bridle kids—was never

apologize for being a farm kid because you're producing the least expensive, the most abundant and the safest food in the world. What we do sometimes is put our hands behind our backs and kind of apologize for what we're doing."

The ag community should build a platform as big, Kaercher said, as those of advocacy groups that are often in opposition to farming practices.

"Sustainability is a big word being used right now," he said. "But nothing is sustainable in this world without profit. I'm not saying profit should be first, but it has to be included into what is sustainability. I've had a lot of conversations throughout my career with folks who would rule that out as unimportant."

"I always believe the glass is half full and the American farmer will always provide a safe and abundant food product for non-ag consumers, but people get complacent and pretty soon somebody wrote some negative article and it was on the Internet so it has to be true. It happens all the time, right? I do have a Facebook page; I just don't happen to make comments. But when I read some of the stuff people put on there, I just shake my head in despair. If ag doesn't speak up, there could be some results in the wrong direction."

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