No one lives and breathes Jackrabbit yellow and blue quite like the 98th Little International Honored Agriculturalist, Kevin Vander Wal.
After graduating from South Dakota State University with a bachelor’s degree in animal science in 1988, Vander Wal became the assistant manager of the SDSU Beef Unit in 1989 before transitioning to the manager role in 1990. Thirty-one years later, Vander Wal still serves as the manager of what is now known as the Cow/Calf Education and Research Facility (CCERF).
Growing up on a cattle feedlot and crops operation, 4-H initially developed his interest in pursuing a career in cow/calf management. Throughout college, Vander Wal was also active in Block and Bridle, the livestock judging team and Little “I” before graduating and starting his career at the CCERF.
Vander Wal’s involvement in the beef industry does not stop with his work at SDSU. Along with his wife, Kari, and sons, Dallis, Collin and Lane, Vander Wal maintains a registered herd of Shorthorn and Shorthorn Plus cattle near Volga, South Dakota. His commitment to the Shorthorn breed is further evidenced by his activities within the American and South Dakota Shorthorn Associations. In 2015, he and his wife were awarded the American Shorthorn Association Builder of the Breed award for their efforts in both raising quality Shorthorn cattle and serving as advisers for the South Dakota Junior Shorthorn Association.
Little “I” has consistently been a family tradition for Vander Wal. While attending SDSU, he exhibited in Little “I” for three years with Kari beating him in beef fitting during their final year. Sons Dallis and Collin were also active in the event, with Dallis winning overall showmanship in 2017 and Collin serving as the 97th manager. Furthermore, Vander Wal’s parents, Ed and Gina, were named the Honored Agriculturalists in 2008, and his brother Dave received the Pete Pritchett Award in 1994.
Every year, Vander Wal ensures the beef division at Little “I” runs smoothly. From hosting exhibitors at the CCERF to selecting trainable heifers and bulls for the event, Vander Wal lends a helping hand wherever he can. For his efforts, exhibitors at the 96th Little “I” unanimously voted him as the Beef Hardest Worker Award recipient.
During his time at the CCERF, one of the biggest milestones Vander Wal has played an active role in has included the construction of the new, state-of-the-art facility in 2016. Drawing up one of the very first blueprints of the building himself, Vander Wal, along with several faculty members, industry professionals and SDSU alumni, brought the vision for a new facility to fruition.
Vander Wal finds one of the most enjoyable aspects of his job to include helping connect students to real-world applications of their classroom experiences through programs such as the annual, student-run bull sale. His tireless commitment to the success of not only the bull sale, but of the entire 160-head Angus and SimAngus herd is proven through his long hours and dedication to the long-standing reputation of the herd’s genetics.
Sports have always played a big role in Vander Wal’s family. From T-ball in the pre-school days to present-day college football for Lane and coaching high school basketball for Collin, Vander Wal has always been enamored with good coaches. While not a sports coach himself, Vander Wal has always considered himself a “cattle coach” for his student employees. He sees a parallel between his employee team and any college sports team; the roster changes a little every year and there are wins and some losses, with the losses making his team better. Vander Wal also believes in how coaches prepare their athletes for life more so than the game, which he reflects in his coaching of student employees. Over the years, Vander Wal has been a coach to numerous student employees, noting that any student who signs up to deal with crabby cows on -20° nights while in college are a special kind of people.
“Kevin is an individual that cares so genuinely about the education and success of his employees,” said Jaycen Timm, a three-year CCERF student employee. “He sets the example of how we should strive to be as good people and is the boss that shows that you’re appreciated, making you want to work ten times harder. He is the most influential and positive role model I’ve had here at SDSU.”
From the SDSU herd to his own, Vander Wal is known for much more than his impact on the South Dakota beef industry. His commitment to SDSU and student education proves a testament to the real influence of an agriculturalist.