Cattle Forage Agronomist Elver Hodges Dies at 107, Leaves Indelible Legacy

ONA, Fla. — Elver Hodges blazed trails as the first scientist hired at the University of Florida/IFAS Range Cattle Research and Education Center. He introduced improved forages and management techniques for pastures.

Hodges passed away at the age of 107.

He died Sept. 25 at his home outside Wauchula, according to his daughter, Margaret Hodges Blanco. Those who wish to celebrate Hodges’ life can go to his visitation at 10 a.m., followed by a celebration of life at 11 a.m., Oct. 12, at Wauchula United Methodist Church, 207 N. 7th Ave., Wauchula.

An agronomy professor with the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences for 39 years, Hodges focused primarily on legumes and grasses in his research and Extension work.

“Elver Hodges was an icon in Florida’s beef ranching history,” said John Arthington, former  director of the UF/IFAS Range Cattle REC and now the chair of the UF/IFAS animal sciences department at the Gainesville campus. “As the first forage professor at the Range Cattle REC, his work was instrumental in converting unimproved pastures into the productive forage systems that are common today.”

Hodges left an impeccable impression on his former colleagues, family and friends, not the least of which was Arthington.

Arthington recalls a time, shortly after he was hired at the center, when he met Hodges, who at the time had already been retired for many years. Hodges wanted to know if Arthington was a forage agronomist or an animal scientist. Arthington replied that he’s an animal scientist.

According to Arthington, Hodges then said: “Well, let me tell you something right now. When you young guys come down to South Florida from the Midwest, the agronomists are always trying to grow alfalfa, and the animal scientists are always trying to artificially inseminate our cows. Pretty soon, they realize neither work in this country.”

“I’ve always fondly remembered that discussion, and today, I think he may be right,” Arthington said.

A few years ago, Hodges established an endowment for forage research at the center. At the center’s annual Friends of Ona reception, Jack Payne, UF senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and head of UF/IFAS, cited the success of the center’s endowment growth and complimented Arthington on those efforts. Hodges interrupted Payne.

“I wouldn’t say he’s doing that good of a job. He just signed a 5-year agreement with a 100-year-old man,” Arthington recalled Hodges saying.

Payne praised Hodges for his lifelong relationships with ranchers and cattle industry leaders.

“We all feel a huge void with the passing of Dr. Hodges,” Payne said. “He knew Florida’s ranchers, and they relied on his research. Well past the age of 100, Dr. Hodges went to the center regularly, and that should tell us a lot about his passion for cattle research and Extension work.”

It’s tough to list all of Hodges’ achievements in a news article. But here are some examples.

The Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame inducted Hodges four years ago for his many accomplishments.

For instance, as part of the UF/IFAS livestock and forage program, Hodges helped develop forages such as Pangola digitgrass, Pensacola bahiagrass and star grasses. This forage improvement program revolutionized peninsular Florida beef production.

In the early 1940s, the Florida peninsula’s open range provided little opportunity for cattle or forage improvement. But that changed in 1949, when the state legislature started requiring cattle to be fenced in. Another key to cattle improvements was the federal plant introduction program, through which scientists searched the world for new, beneficial forage species. This program brought grasses like Pangola digitgrass.

Hodges, known by many as “Doc,” was born Aug. 2, 1912 on the Sunshine Bottom family farm, in Nebraska, an area bordered on the north by the Missouri River and on the south by 500-foot bluffs.

The Hodges family raised corn, wheat, alfalfa and hogs. Lynch, Nebraska, 10 miles away, was the closest town by horse and buggy.

In 1934, Hodges earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Nebraska. After graduation, he returned to the family farm. The Dust Bowl ended his dreams of farming, and he returned to the University of Nebraska, where he obtained his master’s degree in agronomy in 1936. Continuing his education, Hodges moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey and attended Rutgers University. He worked at the University of Hawaii from 1939 to 1941 and then returned to Rutgers to earn his doctorate in 1941.

He then moved to Florida and served as an associate professor then professor with UF/IFAS at the Range Cattle REC from 1941 to 1980, retiring as a professor emeritus. Hodges then served as a professor in the U.S. Agency for International Development International Program to Malawi, 1980 to 1982.

Hodges met his future wife at the University of Nebraska, according to his daughter. They were married for 70 years when she died in 2008.

Andrea Dunlap, marketing and communications specialist at the center, described Hodges as “a man of faith.”

“Dr. Hodges was an inspiration to me through his life,” Dunlap said. “Thanks to his daughters and his caregiver, Debbie Kuhns, he was able to continue to participate in UF/IFAS Range Cattle REC events in his later years, attending many, if not most, of our programs. The Hodges family and Debbie are, and will always be, like family to us. Dr. Hodges was a treasure-trove of historical information, always willing to answer questions and share. I will always be grateful our paths crossed.”

Jim Handley, executive vice president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, called Hodges “a remarkable person who has had a tremendous impact on the cattle industry in Florida. It is a privilege to thank him for his more than 40 years of research, teaching and service to the Florida cattle industry.”

Click here to view a UF/IFAS video of a 2013 interview with Hodges.

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By: Brad Buck, 813-757-2224, bradbuck@ufl.edu

The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.

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