Genuine scholar. True gentleman. Incredible intellect. Mr. Politeness. Don Gill left a 38-year impact on Oklahoma State University. He shaped lives, transformed the cattle feeding industry and generated millions of dollars for Oklahoma and surrounding states’ economies through selfless service
Gill lived in Stevensville, Montana, until his father was deployed to Baghdad, Iraq. He lived there for 18 months with his family while his father was an agricultural education teacher for the Point Four Program. The Point Four Program was a part of U.S. foreign policy to spread technical assistance and economic aid to undeveloped countries under the Truman administration, according to the Truman Library. After obtaining his high school diploma through correspondence courses, Gill returned to Montana State University where he received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural education in 1957 and master’s degree in animal science in 1959.
He credits Oscar Thomas for instilling his passion for animal science. Thomas received his degree from Oklahoma State University and was a professor at Montana State University.
“Oscar guided me to animal science,” Gill said. “When he knew I was going to graduate in agricultural education, he convinced me I needed to get a master’s degree in animal science. He immediately offered me an assistantship.”
Gill worked two years as an assistant county agent with Montana State University Extension before pursuing a doctoral degree in animal science at Oregon State University. Upon receiving his degree in 1965, Gill moved to California and began his career in the cattle feeding industry.
“The Imperial Valley was the heart of California’s cattle feeding industry,” Gill said. “It was really where large-scale cattle feeding started in the United States.”
He worked with cattle feeders for two years until Oklahoma State University recruited him to fill an open Extension service position, Gill said. Gill began as an Extension animal nutritionist in 1966 with Oklahoma State University and stayed with the university throughout the entirety of his career.
“If it was not for Oscar Thomas,” Gill said. “I probably would never have taken the position with Oklahoma State. He convinced me this university had the potential to grow and be more successful than the University of California.”
A man of inquiries
When Gill left California, he said his friends gave him a list of things he needed to solve when he arrived in Oklahoma. On that list, he added, was to determine why so many cattle would become sick and die once they reached the California feedlots. Gill coordinated a symposium of animal and veterinary scientists to determine how to produce healthier calves for feedlots.
“The original intent was eight or 10 people,” Gill said. “The symposium kind of got out of hand and a couple hundred people attended it.”
The symposium was titled the preconditioning seminar, Gill said. The term preconditioning cattle was coined at this symposium, he added.
“The term came about between a strong argument with me and John Herrick, a veterinarian from Iowa State University,” Gill said. “A bunch of us were naïve enough to believe we could solve the problem with vaccinations and worming cattle before they were shipped. But John said ‘No, they will have to be conditioned before the move.’”
The preconditioning seminar would be one of many symposiums Gill would significantly contribute to while at Oklahoma State University, said Don Wagner, past OSU Department of Animal Science department head.
“He was one of the first to discover if you precondition calves, the calves would be healthier when they arrived at the feedlot,” Wagner said. “Also, the calves would grade better and have higher carcass value when harvested. Dr. Gill’s work would eventually lead to the development of the now widely recognized and popular Oklahoma Quality Beef Network.”
Gill said he would like to be recognized as a catalyst for bringing people together to solve problems and there is no doubt he has achieved this.
“Animal science at Oklahoma State became pretty famous for bringing people together and putting on symposiums,” Gill said. “We would invite everyone in the country who knew something about beef cattle.”
Gill helped coordinate eight symposiums during his career with Oklahoma State University. Each symposium revolved around a current issue within the industry, he said.
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“Anybody and everybody who had anything to do with the cattle industry showed up,” Gill said. “Including U.S. senators and representatives.”
Wagner said one could credit the success of the beef cattle symposiums to Gill’s reputation.
“Whenever Don was on a program, people were always anxious to hear him speak because he brought a unique perspective,” Wagner said.
The symposiums helped the department with its visibility in Oklahoma and surrounding states, Wagner added.
“In terms of putting the department of animal science on the map as a premier place for feedlot research, feedlot programming and Extension,” Wagner said. “Don did that through his enormous amount of experience, talent and uniqueness.”
A man of firsts
Gill said he was one of the first faculty members at Oklahoma State University to have a personal computer.
“I had a lot of research money from outside,” Gill said. “I wanted to order a Radio Shack Model 2 computer, a Daisy Wheel printer and an extra disk drive. It cost $5,200.”
He said he forgot he had turned in the request, but two months later the paperwork came back confirming he could buy the technology.
“Jay Murray said, ‘You do not know what kind of revolution you have caused at Oklahoma State,’” Gill said. “The engineers had been fighting for years to get a computer in the department, but the computer center had blocked it. But because the money came from an outside source as a grant, they could not block me. I got that computer.”
A man of education
Another reason Gill’s impact was so great on the cattle feeding industry was because of his graduate students, said Keith Lusby, former Oklahoma State University faculty member.
“Dr. Gill’s impact on not only my career but my life has been immense,” said Zeb Prawl, Zinpro Corporation account manager and former graduate student. “Without that education and experience under Dr. Gill, I most likely would have never gotten into the animal nutrition business at all.”
Gill had 16 graduate students during his career at Oklahoma State University
“Dr. Gill was the best kind of mentor,” said Heather Depra, beef producer and former graduate student. “He could take very complex concepts and make them applicable to things we were doing every day. He was always very practical and applied with science and our research.”
A man of innovation
Agriculture was in a recession during the ‘80s, Gill said. The dean at the time, Charles Browning, called all the county agents together to spend two days brainstorming about what they could do to increase the profitability of agriculture.
“I had been doing research on how grazing cattle could obtain more energy out of grass, how they could consume more grass and how they could digest it better,” Lusby said. “We had done some trials feeding really small amounts of protein to stocker cattle during the summer. We were receiving some really impressive gains, especially in July and August by feeding a pound of soybean meal. I took it in and showed it to Don. He looked at me and said, ‘Do you know what this means?’”
The collaboration of Gill, Lusby and Wagner eventually led to the development of a feeding program. This feeding program would increase the profitability of agriculture, specifically in Oklahoma cattle production.
During the midsummer, Bermuda grass and other native grasses are low in protein, Gill said. If a protein supplement was added the result was a dramatic increase in feed efficiency and rate of gain in the animal, he added. Adding an ionophore would increase the rate of gain even more, Gill said.
“That is how the Oklahoma Gold and SuperGold feeding programs came to be,” Gill said. “There is no question it works really well.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recognizes one national Extension award recipient each year. Gill and Lusby received the award in 1990 for conceiving, developing and promoting the Oklahoma Gold feeding programs, which generated millions of dollars back to Oklahoma and surrounding states’ economies.
“If you look at the people who had the most impact on the cattle feeding industry in the history of the Oklahoma State University Department of Animal Science,” Lusby said. “I do not think you can come up with many who have had more of an impact than Don Gill.”
In 2018, Gill was honored as a legend in feedlot nutrition by the Plains Nutrition Council. Gill said it was an honor to receive this award because of those who have received this award before him. Some of those names consist of Glen Lofgreen, John Matsushima, Bill Garrett, Fred Owens and others.
“Don Gill in his own unique way has contributed as much to the image and reputation of the department as anyone else has,” Wagner said. “He is a true legend and ranks up with the best of the best at Oklahoma State.”
In honor of Dr. Don Gill receiving the 2019 Totusek Arena Hall of Fame Chairback, the OSU Animal Science Alumni Association is requesting support in honor of Don Gill to the Don Gill Endowed Scholarship. To contribute, visit www.OSUgiving.com and search “Don Gill Scholarship” or call Megan Bryant at 405-385-0743.
If you are interested in attending the 2019 Gala Reunion or participating in the online Scholarship Auction to support animal and food sciences students at OSU, please visit www.asaagala.givesmart.com or contact the ASAA at 405-747-1977 or [email protected]. Walk-in registration is available the evening of the Gala Reunion. Take the opportunity to browse, bid and buy these one-of-a-kind items. Featured items include OSU décor, western artwork, ribeyes and much more. This is also your last chance to purchase an ASAA Lifetime membership before prices increase at midnight April 6! Visit www.osuanscialumni.com/members to become a member of the ASAA today.