Supporting the sheep industry: UW hires Stewart as Extension Sheep Specialist
In mid-March, the University of Wyoming (UW) hired Whit Stewart, PhD, to fill the long-vacant position as Extension sheep specialist.
Stewart is currently the Extension sheep specialist at Montana State University. He will start in Wyoming in late July 2017.
“It’s been about 15 years since this position has been filled,” says Mike Day, University of Wyoming Animal Science Department head. “We’re excited to welcome Whit to our team of Extension specialists.”
The position is a three-pronged appointment. Stewart will be responsible for Extension, teaching and research.
“Hiring this position was a priority because Wyoming’s sheep industry is in the top three or four in the nation in almost every category,” Day continues. “We have a progressive and involved sheep industry, and the industry contributes to our overall agricultural output. Sheep production is key to Wyoming’s agriculture industry.”
He adds, “It was crucial we have somebody to help lead industry advancement with our stakeholders, as well as someone to focus on teaching and research on campus.”
Coming to Wyoming
Stewart was raised in western New York on a cow/calf and ewe lamb operation.
“After high school, I worked for my Dad on a calf ranch in South Carolina before I figured I needed to get an education,” Stewart says.
He served for two years on a mission in Ecuador before pursuing an education, first at Brigham Young University-Idaho and then at Oregon State, where he earned his master’s degree in sheep mineral nutrition.
“I worked for a year as an Extension educator in Gillette when the opportunity came up to finish my PhD in a joint program with Texas A&M University in San Angelo and New Mexico State University,” he says. “That led me to where I am now.”
While he was raised in New York, Stewart says he has western roots.
“I was the first generation raised in the East,” he comments. “My parents bought the farm back there and had the goal to run their operation in the East, but the West called me back.”
Making the decision to apply for Wyoming’s Extension sheep specialist wasn’t an easy one for Stewart, with his history in Montana, but he sees abundant opportunity with the position.
“I am familiar with UW’s Extension system, and when I was here before, I had a great relationship with ranchers and the university. It was a great position, and Wyoming is a great place.”
At the same time, Wyoming’s influence in the sheep industry means there is room for growth in the Extension program.
“When we look at the number of breeding ewes in the state, Wyoming is third in the nation, and last year alone, we grew another 10,000 breeding ewes. It’s a huge state, and because there hasn’t been an Extension sheep specialist for many years, there’s ample opportunity to serve the industry,” he continues.
“People are hungry for sheep-specific information,” Stewart says, adding that he sees tremendous potential in cooperative efforts between Wyoming and Montana, where he can leverage his relationships and experience to benefit many sheep producers.
“It’s bittersweet to leave Montana,” he adds. “The sheep industry in Montana is a tight-knit community, and we’ve done a lot. We’ve also left work undone, but I feel good about the relationships that will continue those projects.”
He also hopes to establish cooperative relationships through the wool lab, long-term crossbreeding projects and genetics projects.
“We have close connections between the two states, and I think we can tag-team programming,” Stewart explains.
With a fledgling Extension sheep program in Wyoming, Stewart looks forward to building that program.
“There is a really progressive group of sheep producers in Wyoming, and I’m looking forward to really working with them on getting more bang for their buck when it comes to managing input costs,” he says. “There are a number of research and outreach themes that Extension can help with that may help increase profitability.”
Stewart also sees opportunity in the strength of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association (WWGA).
“The success of any Extension program comes from working with industry groups and producers, and I look forward to building the relationship between WWGA and UW,” Stewart explains. “I’ve already had numerous conversations with Amy Hendrickson from WWGA and look forward to collaborative efforts.”
As he comes to UW, he plans to get out in the field as soon as possible to get to know as many producers as possible and work closely with the sheep flock on campus.
Stewart will also work closely with the Laramie Research and Extension Center’s Doug Zalesky and UW’s Kalli Koepke to take an active role in the UW sheep flock.
“What fascinates me about the sheep industry is why we do the things we do and why we choose not to incorporate other things,” he says. “I really want to focus on how I can help producers make the most of established and emerging technologies for their operations.”
Stewart also notes that he looks forward to really connecting with producers from a needs-driven standpoint.
“I’d like producers to feel comfortable getting me on the phone, but patient with me because there is a lot of demand and work to be done developing Extension, research and teaching programs,” he explains. “I’m ready to take their input and do what I can to make this position the best it can be.”
He focuses on collaborative research and education, as well as meaningful programming.
“I’m super excited to also teach sheep production classes to motivate and inspire the next generation,” Stewart comments. “I want to have a positive impact on the sheep producers and industry leaders who will take over in the next 30 years.”
“There’s a lot of pent-up demand for sheep programming, and I’m looking forward to establishing long-term objectives and getting applied research going while not stretching myself too thin,” he adds. “I want to be clear that this isn’t going to be ‘Whit’s Sheep Program.’ It will be an active partnership with Extension educators, on-campus UW faculty, WWGA and producers throughout the state. We have the greatest impact when we all work together.”
“There are a lot of reasons that we’re excited for Whit to join University of Wyoming,” Day continues. “Whit was an Extension educator in northeast Wyoming, so he’s familiar with our industry.”
Day also praises Stewart’s PhD work and the Extension sheep program he has built at Montana State University.
“Whit’s experience will allow him to step into this job quickly and make progress to build a program that is a good fit in Wyoming,” Day says. “He’s going to be able to hit the ground running at the University of Wyoming.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at email@example.com.