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Looking Toward the Future

Posted Jul. 9, 2009

Cook assumes reins of leadership
Billy Cook
Billy Cook discusses forage management during a field day.
Billy Cook and the Agricultural Division's nonresident fellows
Billy Cook, center, works with the Agricultural Division's nonresident fellows, (from left) Jimmy Kinder, Mary Sue Butler Clyne and Bill Turner, to craft a strategic plan.

For Billy Cook, the deeply instilled values of a solid work ethic, honesty and accountability can be traced back to growing up in West Texas on his grandfather's ranch near the small town of Imperial.

While his formal education came years later, Cook says his real schooling came from working cattle through blistering summer days and drought conditions on the plains of Texas. There, Cook learned one of the hardest and most valuable lessons about being a successful rancher - oftentimes you have to make the best out of limited resources. It was an experience that continues to serve him well as he assumes a new position at the Noble Research Institute.

Cook, Ph.D., became the Senior Vice President and Director of the Agricultural Division this spring, taking over for Wadell Altom, who retired after 43 years of service.

"My upbringing helps me relate to producers and communicate with them on a personal level," Cook said. "Working at the Noble Research Institute, our focus is on helping agricultural producers achieve their goals through direct consultation, education and research. When you've been in the producer's shoes trying to make ends meet, you know how difficult it can be to reach those goals, so you understand the importance of providing them with the best possible guidance and information."

Cook left his grandfather's ranch and attended Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, where he received his bachelor of science in animal health management. He then transferred to Texas A&M University, where he earned a master of science in beef cattle production and a doctor of philosophy in beef cattle production and meat science, while assisting with the daily operations and management of a registered cattle operation.

After graduation, Cook served as general manager of the Beef Development and Research Center of Texas where more than 1,400 bulls were performance tested during the initial year of operation. Cook's time with the research center was valuable experience. He worked with hundreds of purebred cattle producers and thousands of commercial producers, which reinforced his desire to use his education and training to assist producers.

Cook had long been aware of the Noble Research Institute's work to support agricultural producers. The Agricultural Division's consultation program - which provides regional farmers and ranchers with access to no-cost consultants who can address the complete spectrum of agricultural issues - aligned perfectly with his career goals. "I wanted to work directly with producers in a setting closer than what was possible with a university or state extension office," Cook said. "The Noble Research Institute provided an opportunity to work one-on-one with producers. It was a unique opportunity that appealed to me."

Cook joined the Noble Research Institute as a livestock consultant in 1999. For five years, he worked with area farmers and ranchers, learning about their specific needs and confirming that the lessons of his youth were universal.

"Being a farmer or rancher requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice - no matter where you are," Cook said. "It was a real privilege to help producers find new ways of maximizing their resources in a way that made a meaningful difference to their lives and their families."

Cook was content to stay a consultant until an opportunity arose to move into management and build the division's new research team. The group would conduct research to support the consultants and would also collaborate with the Noble Research Institute's two scientific divisions to move plant science research from the laboratory to the field.

"The interaction with the producers was the best part of this job, no doubt," Cook said. "However, the opportunity to build a research program from the ground up and then utilize that research to benefit producers - that was a home run waiting to be hit."

As manager of the program, Cook helped shape and manage a multidisciplinary team of agricultural researchers, as well as provided oversight to the Noble Research Institute's research farms - 12,000 acres of living laboratory. The research team receives continual feedback from the consultants about agricultural issues important to area farmers and ranchers. "The consultants identify the questions that the producers need answered," Cook said. "Our research team gives them the ability to answer those questions. The research team starts with the questions and then designs multidisciplinary, applied research projects that approach these issues from both production and economic standpoints."

The research team is involved in various types of research from investigating the effects of specific tillage methods on stocker cattle gain to determining the feasibility of using switchgrass in a dual purpose stocker cattle and bioenergy system.

Five years passed, and opportunity again came to Cook. When Altom announced his retirement, Cook became the obvious choice to succeed him, combining experience in both consultation and research, and possessing a proven track record of leadership.

"Dr. Cook's experience with each of the key functions within the Agricultural Division, along with his skills, knowledge and leadership, made him the only choice for the position," said Michael A. Cawley, President and Chief Executive Officer. "I speak for the Board of Trustees when I say the division and all the farmers and ranchers we serve are in good hands."

As division director, Cook is hoping to revisit the lessons of his youth - helping agricultural producers do more with available resources.

"There are many questions facing production agriculture in the next generation. How do we continue to feed a growing population? How do we ensure the survival of those individuals who choose production agriculture as a career? How do we help producers adapt to future changes, and what are those changes?" Cook said. "The Foundation is already in place to help address these needs. Now we want to further leverage our skills and resources during these challenging times to make certain there is a viable and prosperous future for agriculture."

Cook outlined four key objectives: provide stewardship and basic agricultural advice to the increasing number of landowners who are embracing a rural lifestyle; offer sound counsel on the many production and economic issues facing agricultural producers (higher production costs, complicated legislation and succession planning); continue to conduct quality, multidisciplinary applied research; and foster mutually beneficial relationships with strategic partners.

"We've come so far in six decades, helping thousands of farmers and ranchers achieve success while fulfilling the vision of Lloyd Noble to secure the land for future generations," Cook said. "But I know our greatest work still lies ahead of us."

Cook retains the spirit of the young boy who grew up working cattle on a West Texas ranch and learned to truly appreciate the agricultural lifestyle.

"Livestock and agriculture have played an important role in my life," he said. "Likewise, the agriculture industry plays a significant role in our society, one which will only become more vital in the future. That's why it is so important for me to fulfill my duties here at the Noble Research Institute. Agriculture is not just my heritage, it's our collective heritage."