Jeff Wiegert doesn’t want to be the poster child for where swine specialists can originate, but he does feel that his backstory has some merit in being shared.
He is just a couple months into a new position at Texas A&M University as an assistant professor and swine Extension specialist, after completing his doctorate this spring at North Carolina State University under the guidance and mentorship of Mark Knauer.
Wiegert’s path to being a swine specialist began in the Midwest, but not with hogs. “I was raised in suburbia,” in St. Charles County, Mo., on the western edge of St. Louis, he says.
Suburbs to swine world
From those suburban beginnings, Wiegert went on to the University of Missouri, not with the intent to study swine — or any specific species, for that matter. “When I got to Missouri, what I really wanted to do was to better understand how animals work. I didn’t exactly know what that meant, but I was always interested in animals.”
That interest in animals got Wiegert to narrow down his Mizzou study choices between animal science, and fisheries and wildlife, “and I went with fisheries and wildlife because I didn’t know anything about livestock, and I thought I was going to be like a fish out of water in animal science,” he says.
That venture didn’t last too long. After a semester on the conservation side, he took an introductory zoology course taught by Trista Strauch, the adviser who had earlier helped Wiegert narrow his field of study.
“She taught that class as more of a comparative anatomy and phys[iology],” he recalls. “I talked to her, and I said, ‘This is exactly what I’m interested in.’ And she said, ‘Well, you know, Jeff, it really sounds like animal science is the place for you.’ ”
He was talked into taking an introductory animal science course, he says, “and she was 100% right. It was a fit.”
From that foot in the door in animal science, and his exposure to classes in nutrition, genetics and reproduction, Wiegert got to the point of thinking ahead to potentially going to graduate school in animal science.
Again, Wiegert reached out to Strauch for guidance as to what would make him shine as the best possible candidate for graduate school. She suggested that he needed to get research experience, and Wiegert isn’t sure if the next turn was due to fate, luck, divine intervention, “or just Trista being really, really amazing at her job.”
Strauch suggested that Wiegert speak with Tim Safranski, a Mizzou professor who was starting a study. Fate or luck, Strauch knew what Safranski was working on, not only because they are coworkers, but also because they are husband and wife.
“So, I started working with Tim,” Wiegert recalls. “We started out in the farrowing room, and then I had some opportunities to get in the lab and do some lab-based work. At that point I was still thinking I wanted to be a ‘lab rat,’ and that was such an educational experience for me because I realized I love the farm, and I didn’t care to be in the lab.”
Once he’d made the decision to go into animal science, what was it that drew this St. Louis suburban kid to the swine world, and not one of the other species? “That’s a really good question,” he says. “I actually don’t know that I have a great answer, other than I’ve been around a lot of animals, and I just really enjoy being around pigs. … I really enjoy the intimacy of pig production; you know, you are on the farm every day interacting with the animals.
You’re the one responsible for making sure they’re receiving the right feed, and you’re setting the sow feeders at the right places. You’re in the farrowing room monitoring everything. It’s a very management-intensive type of production system.”
Wiegert was drawn to the close interaction producers have with the pigs. “I just think they’re absolutely fascinating,” he says. “That sow-litter dynamic is so interesting. I’m just passionate about pigs.”
Setting sail for the future
Continuing the fish metaphor from his initial venture into fisheries and wildlife, Wiegert credits Strauch with “baiting the line” and Safranski “setting the hook” for continuing down the animal science path. For the last year to year and a half that Wiegert was at the University of Missouri, Safranski allowed the aspiring researcher to be a “shadow.”
“I would pop up in his office and talk to him about stuff, and I used that opportunity to learn as much as I could about pigs and the industry and the way things are done,” Wiegert says.
“I think that as we get more and more students without a farm background, that it will be those professors like Tim, who go out of their way to encourage and accommodate student curiosities, that will provide the pathway into animal science and onto the farm. We see that already playing out. My experiences are a good example of it.”
Wiegert says to take Billy Flowers at North Carolina State University (with whom Wiegert worked with while getting his doctorate at NCSU) as another example of the reach and impact that a professor can have.
“Most students going into N.C. State have never seen a pig before; and by the time they finish the first intro to animal science lab at the swine farm, the swine unit manager’s email inbox is full of messages from students wanting to work at the farm. … I think that that’s the great example of how we get students interested in and excited about livestock production.”
Wiegert’s exposure to and tutelage from the likes of Knauer, Flowers, Eric van Heugten, Sung Woo Kim and Todd See at NCSU opened him up to varied specialties, but he says even at the beginning of his experiences in the swine field, while earning a master’s degree at Virginia Tech, he was most interested in the pregnant sows, lactating sows and their litters.
“That’s always been kind of my cup of tea,” he says, so much so that his master’s degree work was on the effects of gestational heat stress and following those gilts through to see the impact on their litter of the effects of the milk nutrients and on the second generation. He was fortunate to do his master’s work at Virginia Tech with Michelle Rhoads, reproductive physiology professor, and Mark Estienne, Extension specialist in swine physiology.
Upon completion of his doctorate, with a dissertation in sow lactation, at NCSU, he had also exhausted the course of his 30-hours-per-week staff position in swine Extension and turned his thoughts to the next chapter in his life — the one that brought him to Texas A&M.
Looking toward the future of his work in Texas, he looks back what he learned from doctorate adviser Mark Knauer at NCSU. Knauer’s training was in breeding and genetics, “and he still does maintain a lot of genetic research, but also completes many studies in swine feeding and nutrition,” Wiegert says. “I think Mark’s a good example of the idea that if something is worthwhile to pork producers, then it’s worth consideration [for research]. I think that I’ll always lean back on that philosophy.”
Next chapter begins
With the great team and experience he gained at NCSU, it could have been easy for Wiegert to want to stay in the Southeast U.S., but his Extension position was set up as an “exaggerated graduate assistantship, with the understanding that when I finished my degree that I would be moving on.”
When the Texas A&M position opened up, he felt the job description fit him to a T. “It incorporated both teaching and producer interaction, and the ability for me to maintain my own applied research,” he says. His official Texas A&M position is instructional assistant professor and swine Extension specialist: 65% teaching, 25% Extension and 10% service.
Wiegert says he’s walking into a Texas A&M swine program that is turning around, as the department had made the commitment to “reset” the swine herd. One of his first main objectives is to repopulate and set up the breeding herd, “and set up a production farm that’s going to be able to supply and meet all of our research and teaching needs.”
Wiegert sees this as a unique job in that he’s filling a position that has been vacant for some time; but from his discussions with Cliff Lamb, head of the A&M Department of Animal Science, and from the general pulse of the university and the Texas Pork Producers Association, he finds that “there is a lot of support and eagerness to get these things up and running, and to do good work.”
“One of my first responsibilities is going to be revitalizing the swine production and management course [at A&M] that hasn’t been taught here in a couple of years,” he says.
He will also play the role of swine coordinator for A&M undergraduates, and his Extension appointment will involve working with Texas pork producers. He says A&M has been lacking a swine Extension appointment since Jodi Sterle left the university for Iowa State University in 2011. Chad Paulk had been at A&M until the end of 2016, but his appointment was research and teaching in swine nutrition and production. “My appointment is more of producer education integration,” Wiegert says.
He acknowledges the challenges ahead, “but I thought that this was something I wanted to be involved with,” Wiegert says. “This can be a great way for me to have an impact — not just on the industry, but on this university and the students at this university.”
Thinking of industry’s future
Revitalizing the swine program at A&M obviously will take hard work by Wiegert and his fellow faculty members, but also work from the undergrad and graduate students on the campus in College Station.
“Our total enrollment is about 70,000 students, and our Department of Animal Science is huge,” he says. “There are students here who want to be involved with pigs, and there are students who don’t yet know that the swine industry could be a viable and successful future for them. I think that we have students who, if given those opportunities, could go out and have a really big impact on the industry.”
Acknowledging that the role of a land-grant university, such as A&M, is to conduct research and provide information that is relevant and useful for today’s agriculture, Wiegert also sees a role in making sure the industry of the future is in good hands.
“I see a big part of our role [of land-grant universities] is to train students,” he says. “So, we’re having this whole conversation right now about a ‘rising star,’ but we always need to be thinking about who’s going to be the next replacements. … We have to continue filling the industry with more and more good people.”
Wiegert is excited about the challenges that lie ahead for him, as well as for the swine industry of Texas and beyond. He wants to reach out to young people, who like himself maybe never dreamed of working in the swine industry.
He is hoping to be the Trista Strauch, Tim Safranski, Billy Flowers or Mark Knauer to the next generation of swine researchers.
“Maybe I’m a poster child, maybe it’s just a sign of things to come,” he says. “What’s an effective way to reach young people that don’t have livestock or farm backgrounds, how do we get them involved and excited? And I think that my story actually is a really good example.”