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John Birge Dobie
In Memoriam

John Birge Dobie

Senior Lecturer in Agricultural Engineering, Emeritus

UC Davis

John was born on his family’s 80-acre farm near Yakima, Washington. He graduated from Lower Naches school in 1933 as salutatorian of his class of 23. During each summer, he made approximately 6000 wooden boxes in which the family’s apple crop was shipped.

John attended Yakima Junior College, then Washington State College (WSC). He initially focused on mathematics but, as most math grads became teachers and John had little interest at that time in teaching, switched to agricultural engineering, focusing on rural electrification. He graduated in 1938 with high honors. John and Lois Neal, who met on a blind date in 1937, were married in 1939 and enjoyed a very happy life together until Lois passed away in 1990.

In 1939 John joined Pacific Power and Light Company (PP&L), working with farmers near Pasco, Washington. In 1942 he was loaned to Agricultural Engineering at WSC as Rural Electric Investigator for the Washington Committee on the Relation of Electricity to Agriculture (CREA); the previous investigator had been called to military duty. John completed his Masters at WSC in 1946.

When the war ended, John was expected to return to PP&L. However, PP&L was battling with public utility districts and wanted John to campaign against public power. John was not interested, so in 1946 he joined Agricultural Engineering at UC Davis, under various titles (initially Associate in the Experiment Station, then Specialist, then Research Engineer) funded by California CREA until 1962.

In 1946 it was difficult to find housing in Davis. During John’s first four months he lived in a hotel room while his family remained in Washington. Subsequently, John and family moved into a one-room apartment, upgrading in 1948 to a two-bedroom duplex, and in 1952 to a home on Miller Drive.

CREA was very dear to John. Established in 1924, California’s committee was made up of UC, state regulatory agencies, farm organizations and utility companies. Its objective was “to find and give publicity to efficient ways of utilizing electric energy on California farms.” Programs were centered in UCD Agricultural Engineering. It was common for the department chair to serve as CREA chair; another faculty member served as secretary. In 1967, John succeeded Jim Tavernetti as CREA secretary, continuing until he retired in 1980. The utilities funded research projects and 1-2 staff in Agricultural Engineering. In 1975, John completed a 50-year history of California CREA, followed by a five-year update in 1980.

In 1962, John became a tenured faculty member – Agricultural Engineer in the Experiment Station. The title of Lecturer (initially 10%, later reduced to 3%) was added in 1964. John shared responsibility for teaching AE12, Engineering in Agricultural Operations, until the course was canceled in 1972 due to declining enrollments. Beginning in 1974, he taught CT17/17L, Electrical Appliances and Systems/EA&S Lab, with annual enrollments of approximately 50/25.

Most of John’s CREA-supported work, through 1962, covered applications of electric power in agriculture: heating of poultry water, infrared dehydration of food, light for egg production, mechanical gathering of eggs, handling and drying poultry manure, manure pumping, effect of air ions on plants and animals, environmental dust control, and 4-H electric projects.

John primarily focused his subsequent work on harvesting, handling, storage or feeding of livestock forage, especially alfalfa. These projects involved extensive cooperation with faculty in Agronomy and Animal Science. 

For example, farmers found that chopping of hay allowed it to be blown into barns, reducing costs, but the higher density of moist chopped hay caused spontaneous combustion. To solve the problem, John developed dryers, and a probe to detect danger areas.

Also, stray wire left in the alfalfa field would get picked up by the chopper and cut into 1-3” pieces. Cows would ingest wire, damaging their stomachs. John felt that this was one of his most interesting projects. Magnets would pick up the wire, but pinned hay between wire and magnet. Fred Jacob designed a detector, and John a mechanical rejection gate. The combination was successful on stationary blowers used to load hay into barns. This work earned John and his colleagues an American Society of Agricultural Engineers (ASAE) paper award in 1954.

The livestock industry became interested in grinding and pelleting hay because pellets of 1/4-3/8” diameter could be bulk-handled like grain and required much less storage space than did loose forage. John produced pellets for Professors Jim Meyer and Bill Weir in Animal Science to conduct feeding trials. They found that pellets were poor feed because grinding eliminated most of the roughage value. Manufacturers then became interested in larger “wafers” of various dimensions and eventually in 1 1/4” cubes. John collaborated with many companies including Ford, New Holland, Massey Ferguson, International Harvester and John Deere. His work on cubing resulted in two sabbaticals, in England (1968) and Hawaii (1978).

In the late 1960s John and others in the department investigated rice straw harvesting, to reduce the need for field burning of straw and the resulting air quality impacts.  Following the first oil shock of 1973-74, he extended this work to utilizing agricultural biomass for energy.

In 1973 T.C. Kirby, President of Kirby Manufacturing, wrote, “It is our feeling that Professor Dobie probably without any question is the most knowledgeable man in the world today on cubing of alfalfa and any other cubeable materials. He is an extremely valuable asset to the entire industry and is very well known and highly respected in this field.” In 1974, John was elected a Fellow of ASAE.

John produced over 90 publications, the majority – extension bulletins, articles in trade publications, etc. – intended for farmers. He published with many collaborators, especially Extension Agricultural Engineers Bob Curley and George Miller, and Extension Agricultural Economist Phil Parsons. He also published with 20 other faculty and staff in Agricultural Engineering. He participated in a major pioneering effort by Agricultural Engineering and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, resulting in the 1974 report, “Energy Requirements for Agriculture in California.”

John was heavily involved with the Davis Faculty Club, serving on the Building Committee, Board of Directors, and as President.

Bruce Hartsough
Kay Resle
R. Paul Singh