Terri Licking | Thedford, Neb.

Women in Ag: UNL Extension leader doing it all in the Sandhills

Bethany Johnston of Thedford, Neb., is too young to remember the iconic symbol of 1942 — posters of Rosie the Riveter pumping her bicep declaring “WE CAN DO IT!”

Rosie symbolized the move of women into the male-dominated workforce to assist in winning the war.

Bethany is also too young to remember the iconic quote of the 1970s, “You’ve come a long way baby.”

She may be too young, but she, like many women today, live these icons on a daily basis without even realizing it.

Bethany Johnston is the UNL extension “unit leader” for the Central Sandhills District, which is comprised of Blaine, Thomas, Hooker and Grant counties, and overseen by the Panhandle Research and Extension District out of Scottsbluff.

Unit leaders may be the terminology used in extension, but for us lay people, they are our local county agents.

They too are immortalized by Norman Rockwell’s portrayal for the Saturday Evening Post in his painting titled “The County Agent.”

At UNL, the unit leaders are pretty well divided among both genders, but what sets Bethany apart from her female counterparts is that her expertise is beef and range, and not the usual domesticated venues.

Bethany has lived ag from day one.

Her parents, Mike and Deb Sitz of Burwell, are Angus seed-stock producers. She and her siblings — older brother, Jesse, and younger sister and brother, Johanna and Ransom — are all 4-H and FFA alumni.

“Don Phillipps, or ‘Chief’ as we called him, even taught my dad in FFA at Burwell. He was great in showing us the diversity of ag. I would not be where I am today without ‘Chief.’ I caught the range judging bug from him as well. I won second individually at regional’s one year, then the next year our team won regionals.”

“Today’s range management is more complex than just learning the plant’s name,” she continued. “Balancing cows and grass is a give-take relationship. When the grass nutrients are the highest, which is best for the cows, it is hardest on the grass. Rest the grass, then the cows are eating a lower quality diet. Throw in drought, grasshoppers and an early spring freeze, or hail ... you have to be quite the manager to balance the plant’s and cattle’s needs.”

Bethany after high school was interested in following her older brother to UNL, and even though she looked first at animal science, of which her brother was majoring, she did not want to be tagged as she was at Burwell — “Jesse’s little sis.”

She had liked cooking, math and chemistry, so she enrolled in food science. She got her bachelor degree in food science in 2001. During her junior year she had taken a fresh meat class with Chris Calkins.

“A small recession had hit when I was graduating college. Jobs were tough to come by, so when Chris asked if I would be interested in a meat science master degree, I said, ‘yes,’ for two reasons: (1) I understood the beef industry from birth to the feedlot. I didn’t understand what happened when the cattle became the final product. (2) An assistantship pays for your classes, gives you a small stipend monthly, and I would be working with the professor who ‘discovered’ the flat iron steak, through the muscle profiling work. All producers need to understand what their clientele needs and what the final consumer is wanting.”

She received her master’s in meat science in 2003. After college she worked at the feed store in Burwell until the opening as unit leader for the Central Sandhills came along.

She began her duties Oct. 25, 2004, headquartered in the Theford office.

Central Sandhills laid claim until July 2012 to consisting of five counties, with four county fairs, and three offices in two time zones. Then throw in the 10 days of Nebraska State Fair.

Bethany is the first to admit she could not do it without the help of Sue Pearman, Youth Extension Educator, who oversees the 4-H curriculum, and their office manager, Sally Sawyer.

In the district, there are some 200 youth involved in 4-H. For six weeks every summer — end of July to Labor Day — she oversees or volunteers in a multitude of ways during the county and state fairs. During the school year, she helps with the day camps for youth from a multitude of schools held at the State 4-H Camp near Halsey.

Range Judging contests she helps set up and score for at the local or state levels. She is on the committee and helps the second weekend in October, conducting the Annual 4-H Foundation Trail Ride and Benefit Auction in the national forest near Halsey, where over 100 riders enjoy the beauty of the world’s largest hand-planted forest. The ride and auction helps support the State 4-H Camp.

She also assists in the ranch practicum classes UNL offers from June to January for area producers, teaching them the approach to beef systems with hands-on sessions at Gudmunson Sandhills Lab, Whitman and West Central Regional Center in North Platte.

When the need arises, she organizes workshops such as “After the Fire” Workshop, held after 27,000 acres of crops/rangeland were destroyed in October 2011. Speakers she recruited assisted the 29 landowners in learning post-fire grazing management, conservation criteria and emergency loans/crop insurance.

Other duties she assists with through the year is the Range Beef Cow Symposium, Sandhills Leadership, where selected youth from all the counties’ schools are shown a little taste of what is beyond high school and women in agriculture, which she has taught at for several years.

She now serves on the WIA Advisory Council. Bethany was on the Sandhills Cattle Convention Committee that helped plan the 73rd annual convention that was held May 24, 2012, at the Thomas County Fairgrounds. She not only helped plan it, she and fellow UNL Extension Educator Jay Jenkins from Valentine showed attendees how to do value cuts from chuck.

When asked for her personal thoughts to add to this story, Bethany said, “There are small differences that will make big differences in your checkbook. I believe UNL specialists are underutilized. They are a great resource for beef producers. For example, all the hay going to Texas is driving up prices at home. For free, a producer can borrow the hay probe from the Extension office. They can send in the hay samples to be tested (a small fee). A beef nutrition specialist can take this information and balance your feed rations, again, no charge. It could be as easy as feeding the higher quality hay after calving, or adding rumensin in your cake.”

“Agriculture is booming right now,” she continued. “What a wonderful time to be a farmer or rancher. The younger generation isn’t just considering moving back, they are moving back. I believe your kids should explore the world, but the longer they are away, the harder it is to come back. Now is a great time to make changes to an operation ... when you are making money, not because you are in crisis mode.”

Aside from supporting the youth and the farmers and ranchers in her four counties and across the state, Bethany would claim her most rewarding roles are found at home. Shortly after Bethany moved to Thedford in 2004, a young cowboy caught her attention and since May 13, 2006, she has been a partner with her husband, Joel Johnston, on his family’s ranch south of Thedford, helping he and his parents, Jim and Judy Johnston, when she can.

Her most priceless “job” of all, though, came along in 2010, when she became a mother to daughter, Jordie.

Add to her busy life, managing juvenile diabetes and Bethany herself could be an icon for all women, urban and rural, as she has certainly come a long ways in what she loves — agriculture — and she indeed does it all. ❖


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The Fence Post Updated Jun 2, 2014 03:30PM Published Jun 4, 2014 08:23AM Copyright 2014 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.