How long have you had Internet access? Where has it taken you since you acquired it? They call it a world wide web for good reason. Nothing can keep a person connected and intertwined like the Internet does.
We got access in early 1996. Sure, it was a dial-up connection, and painfully slow if you were to send photos or files, but it was way cooler than not being connected. Tons of resources were out there at your disposal.
One of the first things I found was a discussion list for the cattle industry. It was run by a farm magazine and offered the chance to ask questions and get opinions from people in the industry with varying levels of expertise. You'd get everything from PhD-level professors to, um, people on the other side of the bell-shaped curve of education. This was way before smartphones, too, so all of it took place from actual keyboards and tower computers. Not to sound like an old grump or anything to you youngsters who can't imagine life without a phone at your fingertips.
One of the people whose opinion I put a lot of value in was a veterinarian in private practice in eastern Iowa. Dr. Mark Hilton was a well-known bovine specialist who was regularly quoted in news articles and frequently on the program as a speaker at industry meetings. I had never actually met Dr. Hilton, but he reminded me a lot of my swine veterinarian at the time. (My swine doctor was both a DVM and a PhD. When he earned his doctorate, I got him a hat that says "They call me Dr. Dr. . . But I can't even cure a ham!") Both of them were full of energy, with a sunny disposition and a desire to both teach and learn. Both of them also saw the value in making connections as friends as well as resources, too.
The other thing to really like about Dr. Hilton was the fact that he was kind of the official judge of pie on RAGBRAI, the bike ride across the state of Iowa sponsored by the Des Moines Register. Mark was known as "Dr. Pie." He would sample slices of pie each day of the ride and then crown a winner at the end of the week.
So, you're probably thinking: "How many slices of pie would a guy eat in a week? And wouldn't all that pie make a guy a little too chunky to ride a bike?"
The answers are: A boatload of pie, and a big NO. Dr. Mark Hilton is a stick! He'd eat a ton of pie all week and would still look like every "After" picture from a weight loss/fitness ad you've ever seen.
He did not appear to convert feed well, as those of us in the industry would say.
There was a discussion at some point on the list about choosing between cows that could produce calves that would gain well in the feedlot vs. cows that would have calves with outstanding carcasses. Many people seemed to feel it was an either/or choice. My feeling was that you can have both.
I wish I could find my actual answer to quote, but it was a relatively short entry that caught Dr. Hilton's attention. He said, in effect, that I explained in a couple paragraphs what usually takes a few chapters to cover. (At least one of my former English teachers would tell you that is the antithesis of my column construction!) He planned to print out my response and make good use of it.
Mark moved from private practice to a teaching position at Purdue University in 1998. He and I had stayed in touch since our first online encounter. In fact, when he came back to Iowa for a production sale of one of his past private practice clients, I took him a pecan pie made by my mother, Elsie. He thought it was probably one of the all-time best pies he'd had. "But I knew it would be good, because your mom has a pie-baker name! All those years on RAGBRAI, the winners all had names like Betty, or Elsie, or Delores. I never handed out a ribbon to anyone named Tiffany!"
When the bike ride was finished a few years ago, Mark and Matthew stopped by on their way home. They wanted a tour of the operation and also wanted to meet Sherill. One of the first things Sherill did when she visited Iowa six years ago was to spend an afternoon with Elsie. That's when pie lessons were given, and a deep appreciation for lard crust was fostered. Sherill made a couple different pies for the official judging of Dr. Pie. There was a black raspberry with a crumble topping and a lemon supreme.
Both entries were awarded the official Dr. Pie Seal of Approval With Distinction. We even sent some home with the Hilton's.
RAGBRAI also rolled through central Iowa in 2008. Mark and one of his sons were planning to do the ride, but there was always a convention that week where Mark was frequently a guest speaker. He decided to join the ride the day it came to Ames. What he needed was a place for him and his son to stay that night. He turned to me for some assistance.
My solution was bovine-based. Aggie is a retired employee of the Iowa Cattlemen's Association, where I served as a district director. She was the glue that held the place together and made everything function efficiently for a long, long time. It turned out that she also grew up about a mile or two away from my mother near Colo, Iowa.
My mission was to get to Ames with my grill and my food, then meet up with Mark and his son, Matthew. Then we'd head to Aggie's. First, we had to go to the opposite corner of town to find the group Matthew had gone with earlier in the week before Mark showed up. They were carrying all of Matthew's stuff.
Rather than get lost in town, I decided to meet up with the Hilton's on the route. My instructions to them were fairly simple: "Look for the guy in the subtle yellow dune buggy. Remember, it's the yellow one. Don't confuse it with all of the other dune buggies you'll see!"
Oddly enough, as I drove down the highway west of Ames, I was greeted by several people who called out, "Hi, Guy Number Two!" and even one who said, "Hey, Grillmaster!"
That was one of the riders from the group that stayed at the farm with us in 1996.
Aggie agreed to host the small group of Mark and Matthew Hilton, and me. I'd bring my grill and do some Lawn Clippings Pork Chops for them, as well as a couple other items, and, of course, PIE!
The pork chops were something I'd done a few years before when I went along and cooked for a bigger group on RAGBRAI. You take some pork loin, cut it into thick chops and then marinate it in a concoction for 48 hours before grilling the chops. The ingredients are not your typical list. There are coriander seeds, rosemary leaves, allspice berries, juniper berries, bay leaves, thyme, peppercorns and more common stuff like sugar and salt.
We started calling them Lawn Clippings Pork Chops in 1998 after I had brain surgery to control tremors in my hands. The year before was when the chops made their debut, without a name, and without my bionics. The RAGBRAI crew decided they kind of looked like something I had maybe dropped on the lawn on my way to the grill before looking around for witnesses and then throwing them on to cook. Prior to surgery, that could very well have happened.
The chops have always been pretty popular. Adding pie to the equation only makes it better. Aggie and Mark were both glad we had all made the connections we did by the time our evening was over.
Mark always had a bunch of questions and suggestions for me when it came to production practices in my cattle operation. He said he liked to use my experience in his class. The fact that he could cite "Guy Number Two" as a reference, and share a few of the other things I got myself into, probably didn't hurt.
That eventually led to an annual tradition. Dr. Hilton required his students to write a paper each year. It would be sort of a producer education brochure they could hand out to potential clients at their new clinic. He would select the entry that did the best job of clearly communicating an idea while showing that the student had a firm grasp on the theory and pursuit of excellence in all areas. The winner would be presented a certificate from the Two Guys Farming Institute for Excellence in Agricultural Thinking (TGF I EAT), signed by Dr. Hilton and Guy No. 2, as well as their very own Two Guys Farming hat with "I Know Guy No. 2" across the back.
Over the years, some of the students have even gone so far as to call me when working on their paper. "I figured it wouldn't be bad to quote you in my paper," the interviewer said as she introduced herself to me.
That's in the dictionary under "kiss-up."
Another one called one time with a question about daylight calving. I happened to be in the cattle lot when she called. A nearby heifer started bawling within the first 30 seconds of the call, which got a rise out of the caller. "You are for real, aren't you? He (Dr. Hilton) talks about you all the time, but we weren't sure if you really existed."
This was before the days of smartphones, so I couldn't take a selfie and text it to her to prove my existence. The background bawling had to suffice. I couldn't have timed that heifer's participation any better.
After 18 years at Purdue University's College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Mark Hilton is now moving on to a different gig. He is going to be a technical services specialist for Elanco Animal Health. That means he will be educating and inspiring beef producers instead of future veterinarians. That will also allow him to have more free time. He has a couple of grandchildren now, and both of his sons are also doctors. That means all three of them would be on call every third weekend. Getting together for family events was getting harder all the time. Mark has been on call every third weekend since about 1983 when he started in private practice. He has earned a break. His final Guy No. 2 hat was awarded this past week.
Thank you for your time at Purdue, developing another generation of practitioners and thinkers, Dr. Hilton. Our industry is better because of your participation. Your friends are better people because of your existence. I feel lucky to be part of both groups.
Guy No. 2