While he was a professor at Virginia Tech, Gary Minish became a household name in the cattle industry.

The former department head of animal science is coming back to Blacksburg later this month for a celebration honoring his impact and continued commitment to the university, 15 years since his retirement.

Minish was one of the first to champion leaner, more heavily muscled, and faster growing cattle over the less profitable, smaller, and fatter cattle of the 1950s and early ‘60s. His influence helped shape the modern beef cattle phenotype, long before the introduction of genomic technology.

His accomplishments in the field were so extensive that he was inducted into the national livestock hall of fame in 2012  — the Saddle & Sirloin Portrait Gallery — receiving over 100 endorsements for the honor. In 2015, Minish was also inducted into the Virginia Livestock Hall of Fame.

Following the induction of this year’s new members to the Virginia Livestock Hall of Fame, Minish will be honored by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at a luncheon on Sept. 28 at the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity house. The celebration will honor Minish’s lasting legacy at Virginia Tech, including the scholarship endowment set up in his honor and his past work as coach of the livestock judging team.

Starting next year, Minish’s scholarship will be awarded to select incoming animal and poultry sciences students who have 4-H and FFA animal judging team experience. The scholarship endowment was started with funds raised during Minish’s nomination to the Saddle & Sirloin Portrait Gallery. Over the years, Minish and Virginia Tech alumni affected by his work have contributed to the fund.

Minish hopes the scholarship will attract and retain more prospective judging team members to Virginia Tech. It is a cause he champions after witnessing the difference the hands-on involvement made in the lives of his students who now have flourishing careers.

“A lot of them attribute the skills that they gained from being on a livestock judging team to be the skills that they needed to be in their careers,” Minish said.

The 1980 Virginia Tech intercollegiate Livestock Judging Team that placed first in beef cattle judging and reserve grand champion team overall at national contest.
The 1980 Virginia Tech intercollegiate Livestock Judging Team that placed first in beef cattle judging and reserve grand champion team overall at the national contest.

Raised on a purebred beef cattle farm in Iowa, Minish himself competed in and won livestock competitions. As a teenager, he won the Iowa State Fair and the American Royal Livestock Show in Kansas City, which paid for his undergraduate degree at Iowa State University.

While pursuing his Ph.D. at Michigan State University, he worked closely with renowned cattle expert Harlan Ritchie on developing a scoring system for judging cattle on frame size, muscle, and fat.

He graduated and was offered professorships at multiple universities. He chose Virginia Tech and joined the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty in 1962 as an assistant professor and livestock judging team coach.

Early on, Minish began fielding invitations to speak at breed association conferences. By his second year at Virginia Tech, he was invited to judge major market steer competitions.

He also managed the Virginia Tech herd and and evaluated carcasses  at the meat processing facility on campus, experimenting to identify optimum cattle type.

“I could see obviously, that at that time, we had a lot of early-maturing cattle were producing over-fat and light-muscled carcasses, and that needed to change,” Minish said.

They were commonly called “belt buckle” cattle because they only grew as high as your belt buckle. Over the next several years cross breeding and selective breeding corrected this problem, but went too far in the opposite direction. 

Cattle were so tall, they looked as if they were walking on stilts, said Dan Eversole, director of Beef Cattle Programs in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences who witnessed the cattle industry trends firsthand in early adulthood.

“When you stood behind these cattle, you really couldn’t see people’s faces,” Eversole said. “We were basically selling and buying cattle by the inch.”

Minish realized the inefficiency and introduced breeding that created the modern cattle body type that produces the ideal ratio of muscle, fat, and frame size.

Minish’s findings were all the more impressive considering he did all of this based on phenotype, categorizing the way cattle looked visually for carcass merit.

Today, the cattle industry relies on genomics and data, according to C.G. Thornhill, president and general manager of worldwide cattle exporting company T.K. Exports and a 1975 graduate of animal science. These advancements are crucial for better margins, and they can be traced directly to Minish’s work.

“The profitability is very slim in [cattle],” Thornhill said. “So therefore, the more efficient you are, the better the opportunity to make a profit in the business.”

Minish’s knowledge quickly spread through the industry. He was sought after for conference appearances and as a judge for every major livestock show worldwide, including the Steer Show at the International Livestock Exposition in Chicago. He also co-authored an influential textbook in 1979 called Beef Production and Management.

At Virginia Tech, Minish was the first director of Virginia Tech’s Agricultural Technology program, which offers a focused associates degree for careers in the agricultural and turfgrass industries. Over the course of his career, Minish served as an academic advisor to more than 1,000 students, coached 20 high-performing intercollegiate livestock judging teams, and served as founder and senior advisor to the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity.

In 1994, Minish was appointed head of the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences, which was merged under his leadership and designated a University Exemplary Department by the provost for three years straight. Under his leadership, the department hired 10 new faculty members. He also served as associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech as undergraduate enrollment doubled to more than 650 students. In the classroom and among the faculty, Minish was known as personable, funny, inspiring, and good at handing out nicknames.

“He could inspire you in whatever way to get the best out of you,” Thornhill said. “He was sort of like a college football or basketball coach — he could analyze the student pretty fast.”

Minish retired from Virginia Tech in 2001. Following a worldwide search in 2004, Minish was appointed dean of agricultural sciences at Southern Illinois University, where he remained until his retirement in 2010.

Minish now lives with his wife, Roberta, in Plano, Texas. He still frequents livestock events and keeps in touch with former students, admiring their successes in higher education and industry.

“I spent over 40 years in academia,” Minish said. “And the time with the students was the most memorable and most rewarding.”

— Written by Erica Corder