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Kerr named new livestock and dairy specialist

Aug 2nd, 2013 | Category: Community

Focus of work with commercial dairy producers and small scale livestock owners

by Jessamyn Tuttle

When Washington State University decided to create its new regional Northwest Livestock and Dairy Extension Specialist position, they took their time finding just the right person for the job. Years after first being sought out, Dr. Susan Kerr is now working out of the extension office in Mount Vernon and excited about the possibilities of her new position.

Dr. Susan Kerr previously served as the WSU Extension Director in Klickitat County for 17 years. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Originally from upstate New York, Kerr earned degrees in animal science and veterinary medicine from Cornell. She spent some time as a large animal veterinarian, specializing in dairy cattle, but realized that she preferred to work as an educator. “My value system was not based on money,” she  said. She finished an education degree at Kansas State and began looking for suitable jobs. She had visited her brother in Montana and knew she wanted to live somewhere in the Northwest, so when a job opened in Klickitat County in Washington, she went for it.

Kerr worked as the WSU Extension director in Klickitat for 17 years in what was essentially a single-agent office. In addition to administration, she worked with 4-H, community development, family living, agriculture, and nutrition. When she was initially approached about applying for the position, her mother was very sick and she wasn’t ready to move. A few years later the position remained unfilled, so she applied and received the job, which she feels is a perfect match for her. “My background is animal health,” she  said, “it was an opportunity to use my knowledge, skills and training.”

The position is entirely extension, with no research component, and works with commercial dairy producers and small scale livestock owners. Kerr only began her new position on May 1, but she’s off to a running start, going on farm tours, meeting with colleagues, and gathering ideas. Right now Kerr is looking for feedback from the community on what programs they’d like to see and how best to disseminate information. At the moment, she’s putting together a course in small ruminant parasite control and a series on raising meat goats, while tentatively planning a November symposium on livestock feed production, so farmers can source more of their feed locally.

With folks who are just getting into livestock, Kerr wants to help them clarify their goals. Are they trying to make money or just wanting to have a few animals as a lifestyle choice? Either way they need to know what they’re getting into, but people hoping to run a commercial operation really need to think through the details, from certification and labeling to a strong marketing strategy. “You need to have a story that’s distinctive [to grow] a dedicated customer base,”  said Kerr. “What about your farm is going to make people vote with their money for your product?”

Not only does she want to encourage people to look at the economic realities of farming, but she wants them to learn about issues like breeds, diseases, fencing, and predators before they get too deep. “People need to do a lot of research before they get started,” she  said. “My favorite people to come to classes are the ones who haven’t bought their animals yet.”

In addition, she wants to teach people how to educate themselves. “There is so much junk on the internet,”  said Kerr. “I want people to be savvy consumers of education.”

She can also help with leadership training and communication building. “I want to help develop skills for people to network, share resources”, such as information on reputable breeders or where to get the best feed.

“I want to avoid suffering of animals and people,” Kerr said. Sometimes that means convincing people not to go into raising livestock at all. One of her most rewarding experiences involved being approached by an attendee at a conference who realized that raising goats herself would be far more work than she was prepared for, instead deciding to rent out her land.

For more information, contact Susan Kerr at (360) 848-6151 or kerrs@wsu.edu.

Published in the August 2013 issue of Grow Northwest

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