Swine research coordinator emphasizes “sharing-the-pie” team approach.
With quite an impressive array of research accomplishments in his nearly 20-year career at Kansas State University (KSU) in Manhattan, modest Mike Tokach prefers to reflect on the achievements of others instead of his own.
But his accomplishments are noteworthy, achieving the position of professor of animal science at age 36. And his publishing record reads like someone who has toiled for a lifetime at KSU, having authored or co-authored 166 refereed journal papers, 388 research abstracts, 611 Extension publications and four book chapters.
“A lot of our research is a collaborative effort because we work together and have a document we call ‘sharing the pie,’ which outlines each of our responsibilities as swine team members,” Tokach explains. “We review that about once a year to make sure everybody is still comfortable with their role on the team.”
Tokach ticks off the swine team members: Bob Goodband reviews all journal articles and teaches many of the swine classes; Joel DeRouchey teaches and is in charge of youth education and environmental trials; Steve Dritz, DVM, is the team's statistician and is in charge of offsite research projects; Jim Nelssen serves as the “front man,” who finalizes research project funding and deals with administrators and issues in the graduate school.
“I call myself the detail man,” Tokach says. “I formulate pig diets for our Kansas pork producers, review the protocols and diets for our experimental trials, review datasets and make sure everything is pulled together on diets and research.”
He stresses that the team approach is what carries the day more than any one researcher. “I always argue the success of our research goes back to working with a good team, so you can have a lot of things you can call your own. The reality is, a good team can get so much done that there is so much credit to go around that nobody has to worry about who gets credit.”
But Tokach has left his own mark, too. He says his most memorable and humbling accomplishment occurred in 2005, when National Hog Farmer recognized him as one of the 50 people who have made the greatest impact on the swine industry in the last 50 years.
Today, at just 45 years old, Tokach is Extension state leader and swine nutritionist at KSU. He is chiefly responsible for administering state livestock extension programs, in addition to coordination of much of the swine research efforts between fellow researchers and their consistently strong group of swine undergraduate and graduate students.
Early Interest in Swine
Tokach was born in North Dakota into a family who still runs a purebred Angus operation. For his career, he turned to the swine industry out of interest and necessity.
“I liked both pigs and cattle growing up, but I was the only one in the family who showed pigs at the county fair,” he recalls. The family ran a 150-sow operation with indoor farrowing pens and outdoor sow gestation pens.
Following completion of a bachelor's degree in animal science from North Dakota State University in 1986, Tokach obtained a master's degree in swine nutrition from KSU in 1988.
While there, he gained an appreciation for Extension work, noting how closely Jim Nelssen worked with pork producers.
He completed his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1991.
As a senior undergraduate, he and a group of college buddies toured several Midwest universities scouting for job and graduate school opportunities.
“One of the things we saw that was quite common was a lot of people who had degrees in ruminant nutrition, one of my other areas of interest at the time, who didn't have jobs, whereas all of the swine nutrition people were easily finding positions. So the practical side of me kicked in and said, ‘it looks like there is more opportunity on the pig side.’”
Taking an area Extension livestock position in northeast Kansas helped get his foot in the door at KSU. He worked as area Extension agent for eight years. He has been at his current position for 11 years.
From his parents, Tokach learned the value of production agriculture. There were times he and his four siblings challenged dad as to why they couldn't breed a few cows to raise show steers. The response always was the same: the family was raising seedstock for commercial producers, not the show ring, and it was those cattle that the family would have the opportunity to show.
Tokach says, however, those in production agriculture who don't appreciate the value of the show ring are wrong.
“In reality, there are an awful lot of our graduate students and future leaders in the industry who get their first exposure to the swine industry in the show ring. Almost every one of our best graduate students got started with show pigs, falling in love with pigs and then getting exposed to the commercial industry.”
Not having any other swine background entering KSU, many find the commercial swine industry provides many opportunities to work with a species they really like and for a rewarding career, he notes.
Helping the commercial swine industry remains a key mission of Tokach's work in Extension. “Our goal is to get producers access to the latest information and to adopt what works for their operation to improve their profitability.” Kansas producers fund many agricultural projects to ensure that goal is met, he says.
Every effort is made to ensure that research information is applied, so the work doesn't stop when the trial is finished and the data is presented at a professional meeting.
That aligns with the swine team's written mission statement: “To be the leading swine nutrition team in developing, evaluating, implementing and disseminating the latest technology to increase profitability of pork producers,” Tokach quotes.
Kansas' nucleus of tough, independent pork producers funded the lion's share of the cost of the year-old swine research barns at the university swine farm, where college students toil daily. Those producers provide financial support to research projects and look for results they can put into practice.
“The core group of producers left in Kansas are very good producers,” Tokach remarks. “They are some of the upper-echelon people in agriculture because of their business knowledge and very progressive nature.
“Being on the fringes of the Hog Belt, in order to raise pigs profitably, these producers have focused very strongly on cost containment, and it drives our research. They don't add cost to the production system lightly.
“I have a lot of respect for our Kansas producers. Certainly, most of the younger ones have college educations, but most of the older producers have learned in the school of hard knocks, and they are very intelligent businessmen,” Tokach continues.
That drive to develop applied research attracts top graduate students, he believes. “We tell potential graduate students that if they are interested in applied research and working with producers, we may be a good place for them. But if they are interested in doing basic lab work, being in their office all day and not talking to producers, we are probably not a good place for them,” Tokach says.
Partnerships between Kansas State and commercial production systems have buttressed research. “We can partner the upfront cost, and the production systems bear a lot of the ongoing costs. We can put our knowledge and technical skills to work in areas they don't have, and they can bring forward their expertise on raising the pigs and building the barns,” Tokach explains.
“We manage the protocols for the pig trials and have weekly conference calls so we know what's going on at the sites,” he adds.
The farms benefit because they get immediate feedback on the research, and the university gets research that can be published and shared with the rest of the industry. Examples of this joint research work are arrangements with New Horizon Farms in Minnesota and J6 Farms in Kansas.
Future of Research
At the fall Leman Swine Conference (Sept. 20-21) in St. Paul, MN, Tokach will address his concerns about the future of publicly funded agricultural research. “What I am worried about is what's happened in other countries with the lack of public research and public information. We need to keep that base of research here in order to train the next generation of researchers. Peer-reviewed research is what challenges you and improves the quality of research that you do,” he observes.
The United States leads the world in agricultural research, but publicly funded research is waning, threatening the ability of universities to conduct unbiased trials. Some large commercial livestock firms, for instance, are conducting their own applied research trials and suggesting that they don't need universities to help in this effort. Tokach contends that most farm production staff don't have the expertise to properly design and conduct research trials on their own, and thus, false conclusions can be reached.
“Plus, if you don't provide opportunities for graduate students to work on applied research while they are in school, they won't have the training to help those production systems when they complete their education. We need to continually replenish our industry with young leaders who understand and value quality applied research,” he says.
Tokach says Great Britain probably best exemplifies what can happen when public funding for agricultural research dries up. “They shut down a lot of their agricultural research stations, universities quit doing pig research, diagnostic laboratories closed and swine nutritionists took different occupations. A tremendous resource was lost to their pork industry.”
Other cooperative models exist in the United States, but more are needed to avoid exporting this country's research base, at a time when South America is aggressively ramping up its research infrastructure, he notes.
Tokach says he grew up in a time when some city cousins didn't fully appreciate agriculture. They realized that farmers worked extremely hard, though they were often viewed as just dumb farmers, Tokash says.
“But it was not seen as anything but a noble profession. You were out for the good of mankind if you were a farmer. Now there has been so much demonization of agriculture. People are trying to portray that crop farmers and livestock producers are only out for the almighty dollar and that farmers will do anything to justify the means. It is frustrating because that is obviously not the case,” he adds.
Tokach laments he has two brothers back home who grow crops and raise cattle and hogs and work very hard for a lot less money than those criticizing the industry. Two other siblings are also involved in agriculture.
His list of advisors is lengthy, from his parents, who taught him the value of production agriculture and work ethic; to the skilled staff at KSU, who continually exemplify the value of teamwork; to Abilene, KS, veterinarian Steve Henry, who instilled in him a passion for pigs and other endeavors.
One of his advisors at the University of Minnesota, Gary Dial, DVM, introduced him to veterinary medicine.
Tokach's swine veterinarian wife, Lisa, keeps him balanced both professionally and personally.
From mentors and others, Tokach followed sage advice and took the job in Extension because it held promise, and shunned the company job that paid more.
He ignored those detractors who said there was no future in Extension because it was dying out, when in fact, Kansas Extension innovation helps the institution to flourish.
For Tokach, following his passion to help Kansas pork producers has been rewarded by producers' financial and emotional support for swine research programs.
“When a producer calls or sends an e-mail and tells you how much the K-State research advice has helped him, those are the little things that really keep me motivated,” he says.
Tokach chooses to stay surrounded by good young people to keep him energized and focused on the future. Despite warnings, there has been no shortage of quality graduate students during his time at the school.
Tokach provides his forecast of swine production technologies:
Sow gestation pens cost less to build than stalls, but the industry is not ready to adopt this change in technology. “The industry will be slow to adopt this change, but I'm afraid eventually that is where we will be. Feeding and management changes are going to require a lot more science and research to get there.”
Moves to achieve more industry efficiency via liquid feeding, feeding of boars and continued adoption of genetic advancements will come.
Changes in pig movement to capture energy efficiency are expected, meaning that pigs will be hauled locally to be fed out and slaughtered, instead of trucked from Georgia and North Carolina to the Midwest.
Increased backward integration in the pork industry, which Kansas pork producers have done for years — owning the land to grow the grain for their pigs.
“We are already seeing some larger hog operations leasing and owning land to control their supply of grain and the volatility of the grain market,” Tokach observes.