Jeff Thorson retires after 40 years at Beef Nutrition Farm

jeffA servant leader is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Jeff Thorson. After a career of a little over 40 years, Jeff is retiring from his role as animal caretaker at the Iowa State Beef Nutrition Farm. His dedication and many years of hard work are deeply appreciated by the Department of Animal Science, the professors, students, and fellow workers at the Beef Nutrition Farm.

Jeff grew up outside of Cambridge, Iowa, and attended a technical school in Wichita, Kansas, for electronics after high school. He quickly learned that being in an office and on the road was not for him. So, after graduating, he returned home and started working for various farmers in the area. He then took a job at the Iowa State Animal Resource Station, where he stayed for about a year. Then, a position at the Beef Nutrition Farm became available, and as many would say, the rest is history.

“When I started there, we were feeding and weighing everything in 32-gallon trash barrels, then dumping it into the feed bunk. Everything was done by hand,” recounted Jeff. “We had a cow/calf herd at the time, too, and worked on pasture trials with them as well. It was always interesting because you never knew what the research trials would be, and they could always change.”

Over the years, Jeff’s job has evolved and now is ending with him wearing many hats around the farm. “In the beginning, I was in charge of feeding and cleaning pens. Then, when two guys in the mill retired, I took over making feed in 1991. I mixed all the rations, moved feed down, and had to be sure that everyone had the right feed in the right amount,” said Jeff. In the past few years, Jeff still oversaw the feed but also fixed anything that needed it, from waters to gates and fences.

Two of his favorite parts about working at the Beef Nutrition Farm were the people he was surrounded by and that no two days were the same. He said, “There is something that comes up every day to make it not the same as the last. That kept my job pretty interesting. I was also fortunate to work with some great people over the years. Between different managers, students, and coworkers, I had some very good help.”

Significant changes in the beef industry have also played a role in Jeff’s career. He said the main thing he has seen was the different trends with breeds and research focuses. “Before, most of the research we did was with frame size. The color of the cattle didn’t matter. We were focused on how we could grow them and put on weight. It was about efficiency.”

Now, under the direction of Stephanie Hansen, much of the research being done is on minerals in feed. Because of this, Jeff has learned to be more mindful when mixing the rations. He said, “Some of the trials have four to five different additives, so we have to be really adamant about being accurate. If we mess up the ration, then we mess up the research trial.”

One of the most impactful research trials for the beef industry was done at the farm, and Jeff was a part of it. Cargill in Cedar Rapids was throwing away corn gluten meal, a by-product from their processing plant. After a few calls to see if Iowa State could figure out a way to feed it, Jeff was getting in truckloads of corn gluten meal. “After the first couple of trials, we saw tremendous gains. The cattle were eating so much of it and gaining five to six pounds a day, which was unheard of. The research started getting published, and now it is shipped overseas, dried, and fed to cattle all over,” said Jeff.

Although things can get busy on the Beef Nutrition Farm, Jeff says they always tried to keep a good atmosphere. He recalled, “There were a couple of days that we were very busy and dragging behind on some things. Our manager showed up with a bag of Jolly Rancher candies and said, ‘I just want you all to be jolly ranchers.’ That made everyone’s day and is one of my favorite memories at the farm.”

His favorite activity in his job was pretty simple: walking and looking through the cattle every day to check the feed levels. He also shared how gratifying it was to teach other people to step in and do his job. “I’ve had so much control and taken on so much responsibility over the years that it was challenging for me to let go. Everyone understands I do things a certain way, but being able to pass that on and teach kids over the years has been special.”

After his last day of work on March 8th, Jeff is looking forward to traveling and having the freedom to get up in the morning and go where he wants. He joked, “My wife has been retired for eight years now, so she’s been waiting on me.”

When asked if he had any advice for students, Jeff replied, “Have an open mind. Even if you have been taught a certain way, someone else might know how to do it better. Adapt to your job and come at things willing to change. It’s the biggest thing I have had to do in my career.”

The Department of Animal Science would like to extend a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to Jeff for his many years of hard work, dedication, and service to the department. We wish you all the best in retirement!