Agriculture loses livestock leader with ‘big vision’ | Harlan Ritchie | Michigan Farm News

Agriculture loses livestock leader with ‘big vision’

Category: People

by Paul W. Jackson

Steer History 2
The progression of cattle during the last 50 years shows the impact of Dr. Harlan Ritchie.

A man who changed the cattle industry died April 27.

Dr. Harlan Ritchie, Distinguished Professor of Animal Science at Michigan State University (MSU) was cited as a well-respected legend in the cattle industry by several people who knew him well, and his influence reached from Michigan around the world.

"Harlan was a phenomenal educator," said his friend and business partner Ken Geuns, who worked with Ritchie at MSU and later in partnership on a beef cow-calf operation. "He had an incredible ability not only to have a thorough grasp of basic science, but to translate that into production-oriented information to students, Extension, and industry. He was highly sought after as an educator and to do programs and workshops throughout the state and the world."

Ritchie is widely regarded as the man who led beef's transformation in composition, size and growth potential.

"In the last 50 years, Harlan probably had as much impact on Michigan animal agriculture as anyone," said his colleague Dr. David Hawkins. "He was a visionary who tried to anticipate trends in the livestock industry and consumer habits. He was certainly ahead of the curve, and he brought Michigan to the forefront of national recognition with his activities nationally and worldwide."

Ritchie came to MSU in 1957 as an instructor as he pursued his doctorate.

"I enjoyed my work so much that I never left," Dr. Ritchie wrote in a book entitled Breeds of beef and multi-purpose cattle, authored in 2009, "and (I) remained at Michigan State for my entire 47-year career in animal science."

Typical of his attitude toward cattle, he wrote in that book "The legendary American humorist, Will Rogers, once said, 'I've never met a man I didn't like.' In this author's case, I've never met a breed of cattle I didn't like. Expressed another way, I believe that every breed of livestock has at least one valuable feature that is worth preserving."

That attitude served him well throughout a long and distinguished career in which he officiated national cattle shows, wrote hundreds of scientific articles and papers, and spoke at livestock programs around the world. In 1994, Ritchie was inducted into the Saddle and Sirloin Portrait Club, the highest honor awarded in the U.S. livestock industry.

"Words cannot fully capture the impact he made on the beef industry worldwide, and specifically the impact his teaching and research had on all phases of beef production management," Guens said. "In the 1960s, he was faculty coordinator at the Michigan Purebred Beef unit at MSU, and Dr. Ronald Nelson, a very progressive leader, gave Harlan free rein. So he, with the help of others, changed MSU's beef cattle program to the point where it became the Mecca of where producers could go to find quality Angus bulls. At one time, the MSU Angus herd was considered one of the elite herds in the country."

It was before that, however, that Ritchie began to understand that cattle had to change, and his foresight would change the industry.

Halran Ritchie

Harlan Ritchie, judges the lightweight Herefords at the 1974 4-H Ak-Sarb-ben Livestock Show.

Photo Credit: Omaha World Herald

"Until the mid-1960s," Geuns said, "cattle were small-framed and at lighter weights, and that didn't make sense to him. He said we needed to do something to create more growth, more lean tissue and red meat, and not as much fat. He told me stories about judging cattle shows with that goal in mind, and said he was getting virtual threats for the cattle he selected. Apparently a certain percentage of the cattle producers at that time thought he was off his rocker."

That's to be expected, Hawkins said.

"Anytime someone proposes such radical changes, there will be naysayers," he said. "Harlan's vision proved to be correct for the industry, and because of his leadership, the industry progressed beyond that vision to a leaner animal that matured earlier."

During his career, Ritchie also traveled the world to promote his vision.

"He was one of the first Americans to go to Europe to assess their cattle's origins," Hawkins said. "When I arrived at MSU in 1965, he and Dr. Nelson had started the Angus, Hereford, Polled Hereford, and Shorthorn herds. They also brought in Simmental and Limousins and Chianina, and they envisioned the change to the larger-framed, growthier cattle."

Before long, cattlemen embraced Ritchie's vision and changed their way of looking at genetics, which began the transformation into the animals in production today: leaner (but not as lean as they were in the 1990s), larger and able to grow faster to market weight.

"Several others shared his philosophy," Geuns said, "but he was the leader of the movement. He translated that philosophy into useable information, and basically educated people about why it was important to change the look of the U.S. cattle population."

Not only was Ritchie a leader among cattlemen, he was known as a classy gentleman.

"The combination of his intellect, vision, practical experience, yet also his kindness, humility, inclusion of everyone, and love of helping others is what set Dr. Ritchie above all others," said former student Rachel (Williams) Cutrer, who posted those words on Geuns's Facebook page.

"He was an absolute legend," said Michigan Farm Bureau's livestock specialist Ernie Birchmeier. "He was an amazing and incredible educator who had a real love for cattle and the people who raise and care for them. He was a kind and humble gentleman whose impact on the world cannot be underestimated."

For all the talk about Ritchie's vision, there is one thing that proved he could see his own mind as well, said Dr. Maynard Hogberg, retired chair of animal sciences at both MSU and Iowa State University.

"Harlan's strength was teaching," he said. "He toyed with going into administration, but with the type of conflict endemic to it, he finally realized that wasn't where he saw himself being happy. He had a major impact staying with the livestock community and teaching. We need someone with the vision he had, who can communicate as well as he did. He had big vision, and he was happy when his boots were dirty."


Ritchie leaves behind his wife Leah and three sons—Bill, Don and Chris, born by his first wife Lou, who died in 1993.

Visitation for Dr. Ritchie will be Friday, May 6 from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. A Memorial service follows at 2 p.m. Both will be at the University Lutheran Church, 1020 South Harrison Road, East Lansing.