Dean of the UC Davis College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, Neal Van Alfen, said a recent Yahoo! story that suggested many ag degrees are "useless" does not reflect statistics accumulated by the university, according to an article by Tim Linden in Produce News Daily.
Van Alfen said graduates from ag sciences, physical sciences and math are tied at the top of the charts, with 88 percent reporting they are currently working in their field of choice. On the bottom end of the list are those with degrees in humanities, arts and cultural studies, with only 61 percent working in their field of choice.
Looking forward, an ag degree may even increase in value in the coming years as producing food in an efficient manner is going to be one of the bigger challenges facing the world, the Produce News article said. The world population is growing and more and more food will be consumed and will have to be produced.
“Food is cheap,” Van Alfen said, “but food prices cannot remain low forever. In the next decade food prices will have to go up.”
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“Rangeland has always been a passion for me – rangeland and livestock,” he said. “I like what grows there. I like the relationships. I’ve always understood it. I don’t care if it’s public land or private land, if it’s rangeland, I’m all in.”
McDougald earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from California State University, Fresno and a master’s degree in range management from UC Davis. He spent the first 10 years of his career as a rangeland manager for the Forest Service, then joined UC Cooperative Extension in 1978 as an advisor in Madera County for livestock and natural resources. He is currently also the director of UC Cooperative Extension in Madera County and the manager of the nearby San Joaquin Experimental Range.
McDougald’s family has deep roots in Madera County. On a drive from his Madera office to the San Joaquin Experimental Range, he points across the street and explains that his mother’s family donated land for the historic county courthouse, built in 1900. He discusses his family’s involvement in the local beef and timber industries. And before we arrive at the experimental range, we drive by the entrance to his family’s ranch, which has been home to seven generations of McDougalds.
“I’ve always had an interest in the ranch – and I would have come back no matter what – but I was lucky. I was able to come back to the ranch and work here in Madera too,” McDougald said. “This has been my office since the day I started working for UC Cooperative Extension.”
One of the major accomplishments in McDougald’s career has been helping to establish residual dry matter standards, which measure dry plant material left over from the current year’s growth as a way to gauge the health of rangeland.
Mel George, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Plant Sciences department at UC Davis, explained that these standards are an alternative to the range condition method, a once commonly used method, which George says didn’t work in California.
“Neil was instrumental in taking these new ideas – residual dry matter standards – to the Forest Service,” George said. “And then every federal agency of any consequence, when it comes to land management, also adopted these standards for local, state and federal lands in California.”
Today the range condition method has been replaced throughout the West with a more comprehensive set of metrics, but residual dry matter standards continue to be used by land managers in California as one way to quickly and simply evaluate rangeland, George explained.
McDougald also helped develop mountain meadow standards, determine values of rangeland loss in wildfires, and establish a system to determine livestock-carrying capacity for rural lands under the Williamson Act. These science-based standards assist in evaluating the health of rangelands and often support continued use of land for grazing.
Each year, McDougald’s seasonal routine mimics the historic movement of cattle in the area.
“In the spring, we work in annual grasslands because it’s beautiful,” he said. “And when it gets hot in the summertime, I go straight to the mountain meadows. It allows me to look at both annuals and perennials – that’s the fun part of it for me. I get to know all the cool-season plants.”
McDougald has brought this rangeland experience to address various aspects of natural resource management. In 1986, he was the first advisor assigned to work for the Integrated Hardwood Range Management Program, where his work focused on effective grazing in oak woodlands, forage production under oak canopies and monitoring grasslands. He later added a focus on rangeland water quality to his expertise, as a regional watershed advisor looking at beef cattle and pack stock. As part of a UC Cooperative Extension team, he assessed possible risks to water quality and then developed management practices to mitigate or reduce those risks.
His plans for retirement include some travel, more fishing and continuing to manage rangelands for his family’s ranch and the San Joaquin Experimental Range. The university has granted McDougald emeritus status so he will also finish up the research projects he has currently under way.
The California water news blog Aquafornia posted a video on YouTube today featuring Cass Mutters, the UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Butte County who specializes in rice, winter cereals and turf.
In the video, Mutters explains that UCCE has for years been engaged in reducing the amount of water needed to grow rice in the Central Valley. He gave two examples:
Variety development. A generation ago, it required 160 days to grow a variety from seed to maturity. New varieties require 140 days. This has resulted in a 15 percent reduction in water use.
Precision leveling of land. Laser leveling of land allows farmers to apply water very precisely and maintain a uniform depth of water in the field of about 4 to 5 inches. This technology has reduced water use by an additional 15 percent.