Studio lights shone on Kalyn McKibben sitting on a wooden barstool in a gravel driveway. A straw hat covered her long, blonde hair, which hid a small microphone clipped to her button-down shirt.
Hay bales, tucked behind a row of trees, lined the driveway a few paces away. Cattle grazed in the distance. McKibben sat up straight, laughing with the people around her: a video camera crew, her father and her brother. There, on the land she felt most at ease – the family ranch in northeastern Oklahoma, near Wyandotte – she told her story.
All eyes focused on her words and her giant smile that never seemed to fade. Not when she expressed excitement for the future of the beef industry and her place in it. Not even when the interview turned to the main subject of the video: the time she almost lost the chance to pursue that future.
When McKibben was 11 years old, she went out to check calves like she had many times before. But this time, when she stepped down from her horse, Angel, to shut a gate, something spooked the horse. The horse ran and dragged McKibben behind until her face hit a tree stump.
Her older brother, Thomas, found her, and the family rushed to the hospital in Joplin, Missouri, about 40 minutes away. From there, she was flown to Springfield, Missouri, where she underwent hours of surgery to reconstruct her crushed face and torn ear.
"The doctors had a whole list of things she may never do – walk, talk, live," said her father, Lyndon McKibben. He recalled having to physically pull his wife, Phyllis McKibben, from their daughter's side so that medics could fly her to Springfield. "That was the toughest day of my life," he said. "It's the toughest thing our family has ever gone through. There were so many uncertainties."
McKibben doesn't remember much of the crisis first-hand, but she does remember the day the eye doctor told her they needed to remove one of her eyes. The bad one was pulling nutrients from the good one, which could lead to blindness. The next day, a surgeon replaced her right eye with an implant.
McKibben went home to the ranch to recover. She was back on her horse checking cattle two weeks later.
In July 2015, the 20-year-old shared her story with the Southwest Center for Agricultural Health, Injury Prevention and Education to help others understand the importance of farm safety. The ability to participate in the future is a blessing, she said. And the experience proved to her that agriculture was the field she wanted to pursue.
"It's made her a driven person," Lyndon McKibben said. "She proves she can do more with one eye than most people can do with both."
McKibben was determined to step outside her comfort zone and meet people in the beef industry when she went to Oklahoma State University in 2013 first as an agricultural education major then as an animal science, agricultural economics double major.
At the 2015 National Cattlemen's Beef Association Convention, she learned about the Lloyd Noble Scholars in Agriculture program. She had originally wanted to "cowboy up" in Montana for the summer, but her role as a national beef ambassador required travel that would take her away from the hay field, so that wasn't an option.
During a tour of a JBS beef packing plant in Greeley, Colorado, McKibben learned she'd been selected as a Lloyd Noble Scholar. That summer, she created a fact sheet about persistently infected bovine viral diarrhea virus (PI-BVDV), attended a heifer development forum in Nebraska, and met Integrity Beef Alliance producers and updated the member database.
"If I had to sum Kalyn up into one word it would be enthusiastic," said Robert Wells, Ph.D.
, Noble Research Institute livestock consultant and one of McKibben's summer mentors. "She will be one of the beef industry's strongest advocates. Her positive attitude about life and beef is infectious, and she always has a can-do attitude and willingness to do whatever needed to get a job done."
Sometimes that meant going "off the livestock grid" to manage honey locust trees, identify plants and help with a tomato research project.
"In three short months, we crammed a lot of experiences in there," she said at the end of the summer. "It's been a look at everything that interacts with beef production from wildlife to forages to economics as well as livestock. This one summer at the Noble Research Institute has provided me a comprehensive view of agriculture."
Before starting her senior year, her mind reeled with many dreams for the future. She considered pursuing a master's degree in animal welfare and handling. She desired to connect with consumers about beef and give beef producers a voice by going into public policy. Most of all, she dreamed of returning to the family ranch after a few years in industry.
"My dream is to make a difference. I love that the beef community feeds the world, but I also love the individuals who make up the beef community and all we stand for."
— Kalyn McKibben
Facing the Future
It's been a little more than a year since McKibben shared her dreams for the future. Now she sees her future taking a different turn.
She returned to classes that fall and fulfilled her goal of working on a ranch in Montana the following spring. Then came graduation, which included the honors of "Outstanding Senior" from both the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and the Department of Animal Science.
A couple days later, the man she had fallen in love with (during conversations about their mutual interest in agriculture, of course) proposed. Now she works part-time for a start-up cattle marketing company based in Montana while helping on both her family's ranch and the ranch her fiance, Connor Grokett, manages three hours away, near Shidler, Oklahoma. Preparing to move her life west after a late-October wedding is not exactly what she saw for herself a year ago.
"In my mind, I was going to be this tiny lady competing with a bunch of old, white haired guys at an ag company," she laughed.
Working behind-the-scenes for a young business has sparked her interest in starting her own company. Maybe a country boutique where she could express her "funky" fashion style, she said while adding that her current attire (jeans and an old T-shirt) was most appropriate for the weed-eating she planned to do later. Preferably something to serve beef producers while connecting consumers with the people and practices behind beef.
"My dream is to make a difference," she said a year ago. It's a sentiment she repeats now. "I love that the beef community feeds the world, but I also love the individuals who make up the beef community and all we stand for."
Now she shares her love of beef production with Grokett, and the couple plan to build their own cow herd. "You can't always put a time table to the future," McKibben said. "But the one thing that has stayed the same is my passion for ranching and the beef industry."