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Dan Cunningham

Personnel Profiles

Dan Cunningham

Cunningham has educated, represented Georgia poultry farmers

The U.S. broiler industry has grown from producing 600,000 to 9 billion birds annually in 2010. Georgia is the top producing state in the nation producing about 1.4 billion or 15% of the world's supply.

The success of the industry is mirrored on the walls of one poultry expert – Dan Cunningham. Glancing at the photos, plaques and awards hanging on the walls in Cunnigham's office offers a little insight into his 21-year career with UGA Cooperative Extension.

A photo of a small post office in Glen Flora, Texas, hints at his past. His mother worked as the postmaster there and Cunningham remembers helping fill the 60 boxes with letters. "The whole place was no bigger than this room," he said from his office on the UGA main campus.

A few miles down the road the Cunningham family grew row crops and raised livestock and poultry. "I've spent my whole life on a farm," he said.

Farming took Cunningham to Texas A&M for two poultry science degrees before leading him to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for a PhD in genetics. His career brought him to teach at West Virginia and Cornell before he landed at UGA in 1990. He started as an extension specialist and within two years he was promoted to Extension coordinator for the department.

"Over that period of time I worked on a lot of the issue-oriented programs," he said.

Environmental issues like water quality and litter management; zoning ordinances and setbacks; and animal welfare issues have given him opportunities to educate the public about agriculture.

"UGA became spokespeople for the farmers in a lot of these regulation meetings," he said. "The number of people who know anything about agriculture is very small. We aren't just educating farmers about the science of agriculture, but the community as a whole."

As Georgia's poultry industry grew, citizens put pressure on planning commissions to develop regulations on where poultry houses could be built. Cunningham fought for zoning laws that would protect poultry farmers. Many Georgia poultry farms have low acreage and strict zoning would mean they couldn't have houses on their land. "We were working for reasonable regulations, in essence we don't want to regulate them out of business," he said.

Cunningham works with animal welfare issues, too, by performing animal welfare audits for companies who adopted policies.

"We go in on a regular basis and look at their practices and determine if the animal's wellbeing is assured," he said. "Companies providing chicken to commercial vendors need these certifications to sell their products." Consumer pressure for humane meat animal care started in the U.S. in the late 90s.

Cunningham has travelled across the state developing nutrient management plans to regulate the application of poultry litter. "It is a good fertilizer for land, but needed to be applied so it would not contaminate waterways and well water and would minimize any risk to streams, lakes, and rivers in Georgia," he said. "Because of our scientific background we could draft regulations that were scientifically based, once we drafted these regulations we needed to go out and educate our industry – we held programming that probably reached 4,000 folks."

Helping farmers

Georgia's poultry industry continues to grow and new farmers come on the scene every year. Cunningham's economical analysis publications for new growers are very popular.

"From a natural standpoint, introducing them to the business, I had to address the economics side of it as well as the science," he said. "I found it easier to convince farmers to adopt a new technology if I could point out the economics as well."

Awards embossed with FFA and 4-H emblems encircle the photo of the post office. Cunningham invested time in 4-H and FFA poultry programs. "It has been really important to me," he said. "Watching these young people come through presenting presentations and then seeing some of them come to us as students and then watching them progress to poultry professionals has been extremely satisfying."

Cunningham calls his Extension career "satisfying."

 "Working with people and helping them be successful in their lives has produced a lot of satisfaction for me," he said. "I couldn't imagine doing anything else."

His award for making a hole-in-one at Hole #8 on the university golf course suggests he may be spending some time outdoors after he retires. "I am looking forward to having a lot more free time," he said. "Possibly playing a round or two."

(Written by April Sorrow, a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Released May 2011.