Category Archives: General

Celebrating Success…

In the spirit of a little bit of friendly competition, all 21 Progressive Beef Certified Feed Yards are ranked twice a year according to how they scored on their last audit.  I have always held a particular fondness for being the best, so my crew and I embraced the challenge.

ProgressiveBeefLogoGreen

Last night we celebrated our victory with a steak dinner.  One of the things that I love best about my crew is that we are like a big family.  Work at the feed yard isn’t simply work, but rather it is a special part of our lives that we share with our families.

mattsteaks

My favorite farmer cooked New York Strip steaks on the Traeger grill…

steakdinner

I whipped up one casserole of cheesy potatoes, and another of green beans…

cake

My favorite blondes made a chocolate layer cake to top off the meal…

We enjoyed a great night of fellowship as our children and grandchildren played basketball, ran around the yard, and said hello to the horses — cats — and dog.

basketballjacee

It is nice to take time to share with those most important to you…

To say thank you for hard work and loyalty…

To appreciate the blessings that fill our lives…

crewmeg2

And MOST especially to revel in the knowledge that we make an AWESOME team!

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Alliances…

The Ivy League Basketball championship team gets an automatic conference championship berth in the NCAA tournament.  It is likely that many years no Ivy team would qualify for the trek to March Madness without the conference affiliation as larger schools with athletic scholarship possibilities tend to dominate the college basketball circuit.

Conference alliances of college teams are common place with membership bringing the schools recognition, monetary compensation, and the ability to bring the product of athletic entertainment to a broader audience.  The teams continue to maintain their own independent identities while also attaining the expansive status of conference membership.

Enjoying a little spring time afternoon sun...

Enjoying a little spring time afternoon sun…

My father-in-law and Archie built our feed yard in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s on the land that Archie’s family homesteaded on a generation before.  The feed yard is literally a combination of a dream and a tremendous amount of hard work.  We have the ability to house up to 3000 cattle at one time—this size was fairly average thirty years ago, but falls much closer to the small end of the scale in 2014.

The truth is that I love the small scale of my cattle farm.  Although I assume all of the responsibilities that come with being the owner/manager, I am still able to be very “hands on” with my animals working alongside my crew of three.  Exercising/acclimating calves, leading the processing crew, reading bunks and periodically checking daily cattle health are all things that I love to do.  I know that if I expanded the size of my farm that a lack of time would necessitate that I give up some of those “hands on” things.

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There are 4 X as many cattle as people in Nebraska…

The down side of a small farm in rural Nebraska is having a large enough supply of cattle to be able to build the brand and marketing program that I need to bring a responsibly raised and quality beef product to those customers that desire it.  I recognized many years ago that something was going to have to change for my small cattle farm to remain sustainable in the ever evolving industry of beef production.

I needed an alliance — I was the small Ivy League school that wanted a chance at the the big dance…I went looking for cattle feed yard conference to join in order to reach my goal of long term sustainability while still remaining true to my personal daily commitment to animal welfare and high quality beef.

He is good for all of us...

My oldest daughter is a lot like me, he is good for both of us…

My husband often looks at me with a patient smile on his face and says, “Anne, there are few people in this world that can live up to your standards.”

It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I am an incredibly particular person.  I set the bar high in a constant search for excellence.  I don’t settle, and I spend each day trying to inspire my daughters to share that same passion.

She's got a little of me in her too...

My volleyball playing cowgirl has a little of me in her too…

More than a year ago, my feed yard became a part of the Progressive Beef team, and joined the cooperative called the Beef Marketing Group.  Progressive Beef and BMG gave me the conference affiliation that I needed while still allowing the independent identity that I desire for my farm.  The alliance is a strong one, and I am proud to be a part of such an innovative and quality minded group of cattlemen.  Honestly, I view this affiliation as one of the greatest successes in my professional career.  I recognized what challenged my cattle business, and single-handedly found a way to fix it while still remaining true to the standards that make me uniquely Anne.BMG.jpg

My alma mater has never been able to make their Ivy League conference affiliation result in a win in the final game of March Madness, but Will Feed Inc. made the winning slam dunk with their conference alliance with the Beef Marketing Group.

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Refusing to take part in the “Food Fight”

Anne:

I do not often “reblog” other people’s writings, but this one is too good to pass up. We are blessed to have a diverse and plentiful supply of food — let’s make the decision to be thankful for food choices and respect all types of agriculture. Thank you Willow Lea Stock Farm!

Originally posted on Willow Lea Stock Farm:

Last night a woman who I like and respect quite a bit posted a rather lengthy Facebook status.  Tammy and I met several years ago at the farmers market where I’m a vendor and she is a regular customer.  Her status bothered me so much that it’s now 3:00 AM, about 5 hours after I read the post, and I’ve given up trying to sleep, gotten out of bed, and am at the computer in our farm office, trying to regurgitate the thoughts I’ve had since the initial read.

She’s a mom of two, and is making all of the food choices for her family.  Her post centered around her feelings of being torn between “seemingly opposing sides” of the “local, heirloom, organic, grass-fed, humanely raised, sustainable, non-GMO, antibiotic-free, free-range” farmers and those who farm using conventional methods.

I’ve left the comfort of my warm bed to try to explain…

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It Takes a Team…

This morning my family heads to Lincoln, Nebraska to watch our Haymaker Boys Basketball team compete in the Nebraska State Basketball tournament.  While our team is made up of many athletically talented individual players, it is likely that a successful tournament will depend on their ability to work as a team toward a common goal.

The 2014 Haymaker Boys Basketball Team...

The 2014 Haymaker Boys Basketball Team…

I laugh that the closest thing to a team sport that I did during my own athletic tenure was a relay.  There were many reasons that I chose swimming and running as my preferred sports, but at the core of my decision was a desire to rely heavily on myself rather than others.  I have always been an over-achiever, and my drive to succeed as an athlete left very little tolerance toward those who did not share the same intensity.

A desire for independence and self-reliance is a common personality trait amongst cattlemen.  We all have a myriad of opinions and beliefs on any given topic which is further enhanced by the clearly defined segments of the calf life-cycle and the production of beef (cow-calf, stocker-backgrounder, feed yard, and packing plant).  Traditionally, in addition to this natural streak of cowboy independence, there has also existed a sense of animosity between the segments.

The team experience that I shied away from during my teenage years as an athlete has been replaced with the mature realization that in beef production together we are better.  As much as I still pride myself on hard work and independent critical thinking, my adult years have taught me that collaboration is a good recipe for success.DSC04673

When the goal is responsibly raised safe and delicious beef, it takes a team.

That team starts with the cow-calf rancher and ends with the beef customer (You!).  As important as it is that I work with my ranchers; it is equally important that I work with my packing plant in order to bring a quality beef product to each one of you.  Cattle marketing from the feed yard to the packing plant is a complicated process…

When a group of cattle are ready for slaughter, they are generally sold to packing plants in one of three ways:

  • On a live (cash) basis where the worth of the cattle is negotiated prior to the weigh up of the cattle, and multiplied by the total number of pounds of the entire group of animals at the feed yard.
  • On a dressed basis where the worth of the cattle is negotiated prior to the shipment of the cattle, and this price is multiplied by the total weight of the carcasses after the slaughter process.
  • On a grid basis where the base price of the meat is determined by either the cash basis or dressed price of other cattle that trade (usually the week prior to shipment), but then final payment fluctuates with a series of premiums and discounts relative to the quality and weight of the beef that each individual animal provides.

    Here I am, many years ago, trying to learn how to cut up beef in my search to understand the entire beef production cycle...

    Here I am, many years ago, trying to learn how to cut up beef in my search to understand the entire beef production cycle…

Our feed yard has historically sold cattle on a grid basis.  Even back in the early 1970’s, we marketed our animals in this manner as it has always been our philosophy that the quality beef should ultimately determine the worth of the animal.  This type of marketing system has become more commonplace in the last 15 years because it carries with it certain advantages.

  1. Higher quality animals receive higher compensation which allows someone like me (and my ranchers) to be rewarded for superior quality.
  2. Information on the beef that my animals provide (carcass data) is shared by the packing plant so that my ranchers and I can continue to work on improving the quality of our beef.
  3. Cross segment food safety measures can be put in place to further enhance the safety of our beef products.
  4. Improvements in animal welfare can be carried out across the animal’s lifetime through teamwork and fewer logistical challenges during transportation as the cattle move through the different segments of the beef industry.
  5. Working with a packing plant helps to bring me (as a farmer) closer to my beef customers.  Together, we can work to answer your question of Where does your beef come from?

In the case of beef production, just as on the basketball court, it takes a team to bring success!

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Learning From the Best…

Author’s note: In The Meat Racket, Chris Leonard argued that the cattle industry was quickly becoming “chickenized” with a vertically integrated business system.  I believe that this is inaccurate.  The next group of posts will explain how cattle are marketed throughout their life-cycle with their beef eventually ending up on your dinner table!

CAB steer picture

The majority of cattle in the United States are marketed (sold) multiple times during their lives.  They begin their life-cycle on a cow/calf ranch where they spend 6-18 months.  About 1/3 of all heifer calves born each year in the United States remain on the home ranch to become mama cows and are not sold with the remainder of the calf crop.  Depending on the size and diversity of resources on the home ranch, the remaining calves can be sold at a variety of times throughout the year.

  • Some calves are sold at 6-8 months of age right after being weaned from the mama cow.
  • Some calves are weaned on the home ranch and either graze grass or are fed a supplemental diet of corn products and forage until they are sold at 10-12 months of age.
  • Some calves are weaned and remain on the ranch receiving supplemental feed and grazing grass pastures until approximately 18 months of age when they are sold to a feed yard.
  • A very small percentage of calves are kept approximately 24 months of age and harvested as grass fed beef.

    A bovine's life begin on a ranch...

    A bovine’s life begin on a ranch…

Depending on the age of the animal at the time of sale, it may be purchased by another ranch to continue its growth on grass/wheat/a variety of forage pastures or transported to a feed yard like mine.  Cattle can be sold at a Livestock Market Auction or through a private treaty deal direct to a purchaser.

More than ¾ of the cattle at my feed yard ship directly from the home ranch in a private treaty arrangement.  Over the years, I have learned to be my own cattle buyer as I searched for ways to improve the quality and efficiency of my farm.  I like to establish relationships and do business with the same ranchers year after year.  Together we can share animal performance and health information, limit stress (improve welfare) for our animals, and collaborate to ensure continual improvement in the beef that we grow.

Cattle gathered in corrals ready to ship from the home ranch to my feed yard...

8 month old cattle gathered in corrals ready to ship from the home ranch to my feed yard…

I learned how to be a cattle buyer from a gentleman named Willard Wilson.  I met Willard shortly after I went to work at the feed yard because he worked as a cattle buyer for my father-in-law.  Willard is a man of tremendous integrity and introduced me to the concept of doing business with the bond of a handshake.

Willard with my favorite teenager a few years before she grew to be several inches taller than her Mama!

Willard with my favorite teenager who is now several inches taller than her Mama!

Willard mentored me for almost five years before I began to act as my own cattle buyer looking for native Nebraska cattle to purchase from ranches that were closer to my farm.  While I lack Willard’s naturally outgoing personality and people savvy, I have been successful in slowly building up a group of ranchers who want to work with me tracing their animals from birth to harvest.

With each handshake deal that purchases cattle to ship to my farm, I smile as I think of Willard and his natural ability to bring people together for a common goal.  My goal of collaboration with ranchers in procuring cattle for my feed yard started with this savvy retired Wyoming state senator who introduced me to the art of cattle buying.

The combination of private treaty sales and Livestock Market Auctions provides a vibrant market for these feeder cattle as they are sold off of the home ranch to another farm in the journey of beef production.

Cattle buying is an important component as we put together the pieces of the puzzle in raising high quality and great tasting beef.

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Winning the Day With Team Work and Faith…

Monday night our family trekked 60 miles north to watch the Cozad Haymaker Boy’s High School Basketball Team win the C1 District finals.  Their success earns them a chance at the Nebraska State C1 Basketball title next week.  My favorite farmer and I have been fans of our Haymaker basketball teams since moving back to Cozad in 1997, and this year the group of young men that represent our town have warmed my heart with an impressive search for excellence.

Faith, Perseverance, and teamwork propels them to achieve greatness...

Faith, Perseverance, and Teamwork propels them to achieve greatness…

Like many small town basketball teams, the Haymaker squad is made up of a cross section of athletes that call many different sports their own.  Each week during the long winter season, they don their Haymaker jerseys and take the court as their community cheers with passion.

The heart of our team is their ability to work together to achieve a common goal.  The unselfish mental and physical support that they offer to one another is truly remarkable.  They may not realize it, but this life skill is one that will bring them success for the rest of their lives.

Unity for the common goal and love for each other brings them success...

Unity for the common goal and love for each other brings them victory…

On the morning of the big game, one of the mothers of the players posted these words on her Facebook page:

There is an “F” word that is often easily said, but can seem so impossible to express: Faith. At times it can be buried so deeply, we wonder if we will ever be able to unearth it again. Faith can be difficult to find when faced with disappointments, worries, and sadness. However, those same times can be replaced with encouragement, joy, and a feeling of being content. And it’s all because of that “F” word: Faith.

Tomorrow night, two towns will come together to cheer their basketball teams on, one more time, during the 2013-2014 season. For one team, their season will end. For the other, it will be extended to the state tournament next weekend. I’m certain the phrase, “Have faith,” has been spoken, but has it really been expressed?

To our Cozad players: I have faith in your God-given talents and abilities, and know you will let them shine tomorrow night. I have faith in your peers, and know they will be with you, either in the stands or back home listening to the radio broadcast. I have faith in your teachers, who even though may not verbally wish you good luck, will be anxiously awaiting the outcome. I have faith in our coaching staff, who may have frustrated you at times, but did so with the intention of getting out of you what was needed. I have faith in your families, who have been with you on this journey, and will continue to be, regardless of the final score. Finally, I have faith in your biggest supporter….Jacob….who will encourage you, cheer for you, and be so proud to be sitting beside you on the Cozad bench.

The mother’s son, Jacob, transitioned from a star player to a fledgling coach when he sustained a life changing knee injury on the football field last fall.  While each one of our Haymaker athletes have given something special to our town this year, Jacob is my unspoken hero.

There was likely not a mother in attendance whose eyes weren't damp as Jacob cut the net...

There was likely not a mother in attendance whose eyes weren’t damp as Jacob cut the net…

  • It is his quiet presence that inspires bravery and unselfishness.
  • It is his mature guidance that creates strength of character and resilience.
  • It is his unwavering faith that guides his team to greatness.

    A gym full of small town community members that traveled the extra mile to cheer on their team...

    A gym full of small town community members that traveled the extra mile to cheer on their team…

Today I salute a special young man, a special team, and a special community.  I count my blessings to be able to call Cozad home.  It is in the heart of Rural America, and has a heart filled with people with tremendous faith.

Go Haymakers!

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The Victim, The Villain, and the Great Debate…

Chris Leonard joined our discussion on Sunday commenting on Setting the Stage.  He stated,

Farmers and ranchers are clearly the heroes of this book, as any casual reader will quickly be able to determine.”

As I read his remark it occurred to me how varied our perspectives are, as I failed to find a hero amongst his hundreds of pages of rhetoric.  Perhaps there were moments of personifying farmers and ranchers as victims, but I found the negative underlying tone of the book incapable of creating a hero.  As with any story that depicts a victim, the author must also define a villain.

The past thirty plus years have seen a tremendous amount of change in the way that meat gets from the farm to the grocery store.  Consolidation occurred as a search for economic sustainability advanced all across the food production chain.  Tight margins, volatile markets, increased government regulations, new food safety standards and variable weather all came together to create a complex set of challenges that taxed even the most seasoned entrepreneurs.

We aren't just farmers, we are entrepreneurs constantly searching for ways to keep our way of life sustainable...

I am a farmer, and I am most certainly  not a victim.  Rather, I am an entrepreneur constantly searching for ways to keep my way of life sustainable…

Mr. Leonard argues that the resulting consolidation has crippled both the farmer and rural America.  He believes that the integration and collaboration resulting from greater merging at the packing plant level has negatively affected market trade.  In particular, he casts Tyson Foods as his villain.  He writes:

“People didn’t see the radical transformation that was taking place on American Farms, but the benefit invisibly accrued to their food budgets with each pound of Tyson chicken, beef, and pork they brought home.  But this benefit wasn’t free.  Consumers got savings up front, but they paid for it over time.  Essentially, consumers traded away the U.S. farming system in order to get the up-front savings from industrial meat.  Each new Tyson farm, and each new Tyson meat factory, ate away at the fabric of a profitable sector of Middle America’s economy.”

Chris Leonard, The Meat Racket

In my opinion, the modern food production system is not made up of victims and villains.  Rather, those of us that remain in 2014 are a testimony that teamwork, innovation, and tenacity can lead to a system that grants consumers a varied choice of safe foods at an affordable price.  The U.S. farming system still exists; it simply has changed to meet evolving consumer expectations.

I not only grow beef, but I also am a mom who cooks it to feed to her family...

I am not just a beef farmer, but I also am a mom who cooks that beef to feed to her family…

Vertical integration now predominantly exists in the poultry industry, while more collaborative relationships between farmers and packing plants in both the pork and beef industries have slowly begun to take the place of the traditionally contentious relationships of the past.  While this does create a new normal, I do not look upon it with a pejorative lens.

These types of new relationships allow for increased food safety measures all across the animal’s lifespan, as well as the ability to work together to attain improved animal welfare. They allow for innovative farmers to be rewarded for higher quality meat and better farming practices; and they create a mechanism for the farmer to better connect with his/her customers.  The result drives innovation and team work which benefits all Americans.

The latest Tyson effort to ensure good animal welfare on the farm...

On a personal note, I have gotten to know many of the executives and managers on the Tyson team over the past year as I have served on Tyson’s 3rd Party Animal Well-being committee for their Farm Check program.  I have found that these people share many of the same priorities and aspirations as I do.  We are driven individuals who work passionately toward the end goal of producing safe and affordable food.  We do not always agree, but there is a level of respect that permeates our relationship.  I know that I learn from them, and I certainly hope that they benefit from my contributions.CPB_FINStripcut

I believe that together we bring integrity, innovation, and ultimately better food products to your table.

  • For more information on the history of Tyson Foods and pertinent facts about the company’s core values and market share please read the company’s fact book.
  • For an economic expert’s opinion on the market debate brought up in The Meat Racket, see Dr. Michael Dick’s perspective on Agriculture Proud.

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Meat Racket Communities…

“In 1931 Springdale was a tiny crosshatch of streets populated by modest houses and small stores.  Even eighty years later, the architecture of Springdale is utilitarian, and it speaks to a meager past where the greatest economic ambition was to put food on the table and little else.  Today, the tallest buildings downtown are the grain silos, and the commercial strip downtown is a squat roof of one-and two-story rectangular buildings that look as though they were designed by architects who felt that tilting their heads upward was overly presumptuous.”

Chris Leonard, The Meat Racket

The above quote appears in the second chapter of The Meat Racket.  I think that it does a nice job of illustrating the author’s tone relative to portraying rural America.  This tone is reiterated throughout the book in descriptions of towns ranging across the Midwest from Arkansas to Kansas.  These caricatures are often followed by a commentary on how large agricultural businesses (most especially Tyson Foods) are destroying the character of rural towns.

Home to about 4000 people, and proudly marked on a local grain elevator---the tallest building in town...

Home to about 4000 people, and proudly marked on a local grain elevator—the tallest building in town…

While Springdale, Arkansas is 604 miles from Cozad, Nebraska the appearance of my town seems to structurally fit Mr. Leonard’s above description.  From the crosshatch of streets with modest homes and small stores to our grain elevators and downtown buildings, the looks of Cozad speak to the universal pragmatic nature of a farming community.

The Meat Racket’s surface description captures the physical anatomy of rural America, and intertwines it with the author’s supercilious undertone.  However, this superficial recounting missed what I believe is the most important component of small town America.

They are both the heart and future of our community...

We unite to support each and every one of them because they are our heart and our future…

Mr. Leonard, when you described our small towns you missed the core—you missed the heart—it is not in the architectural makeup of our buildings, but rather in the compassion and faith of our people.  Our community sustains because of teamwork and “home town pride” and I found that no where in your book.

When they "Win the Day" on the court, they bring both hope and pride to our towns as their hard work and faith determines our sustainability...

When they “Win the Day” on the court, they bring both hope and pride to our towns as their hard work and tenacity contributes to our sustainability…

  • I believe that the true heart of rural communities is our youth.  Recognizing this, our citizens bind together to nurture our young people, and in return, the younger generation sparks optimism and creates an ongoing sustainability for the town.
  • The agricultural businesses that are the pulse of our towns invest not only in local farmers and the economy but also encourage their employees to volunteer within the community.
  • There is a quiet pride that lives in the members of a small town, a sense of teamwork and loyalty that transcends cultural and socioeconomic boundaries.  This phenomenon is stronger than any one company and is the driving force of day to day life.

    They don't just work on the court and in the classroom, but they also take part in the family farming businesses that are the pulse of Nebraska's economy...

    Our youth don’t just work on the court and in the classroom, but they also take part in the family farming businesses that are the core of Nebraska’s vibrant economy…

Although structurally my rural community fits the author’s description, apart from this physical description, I can find no other accurate representations in the book.  Our town does not depend on one large company to tenuously hold onto survival.  Rather, we are a myriad of compassionate individuals who pool our talents in order to create a caring community atmosphere all while working to ensure a sustainable economic environment for our farms and businesses.

Rural Americans do not need a patronizing investigative reporter to inaccurately portray our towns in order to build momentum for increased government regulation of food production.  What we need is the faith and trust of our urban customers, and their willingness to believe that farmers, alongside our packing plant partners, raise food with integrity. 

Small town communities evolve over time just as farming and food production do — some people will choose a rural lifestyle and others will not.  That ability to choose is one that makes America special.  The best decision that I made in my adult life was to move to a small community in Nebraska and learn to be a farmer.

“Even in 2012, there is a sense that somehow, without small towns and rural communities, America has lost a piece of itself, even though most people today would never want to actually live on a farm or in a rural community.”

Chris Leonard: Chapter 2, The Meat Racket

I made the choice to be a farmer and have successfully made my life in rural America...

 I am living proof that there are still Americans who choose to make their lives in small town America.  My town of Cozad (along with many other rural communities) are testimony to the fact that rural America offers a unique life style that still appeals to some Americans.  Farmers are proud of what we offer to our country, and hope that our urban counterparts realize that we care about both them and the food choices that they make at the grocery store.

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