Category Archives: Chronicles of a Retiring Feed Yard Boss Lady

A Feed Yard Update…

It’s been six months since we shipped the last of our cattle to the packing plant and I shut down the feed yard. I remember someone saying to me last winter, “Anne, it’s going to be so depressing to look at an empty feed yard and think about what it used to be.”

I am a person that always looks forward — reaching toward what will be rather than looking back on what used to be. As a result of that, as soon as the cattle left the feed yard we began to build a plan for what Will Feed would be in the future. That meant tearing out the home pens to convert the facility into a combination crop farm and cattle receiving area to serve as our grass pasture headquarters.

Above: An aerial view of the feed yard. Below: the same land a few days before Matt planted the cover crop…

I am pleased to report that we have been very successful in this effort. My foreman and my cowboy worked all winter to make this conversion possible.

  • Feed bunks and water tanks were sold to neighbors to be used for other local cattle operations.
  • All of the left over concrete was recycled to be used to help maintain local irrigation canals.
  • Fences were reconstructed to fit the needs of our grass cattle operation.
  • Manure was hauled out by my favorite farmer to be used as fertilizer to maintain soil health on his crop fields.

On the 1st of July, my favorite farmer planted a cover crop where the home pens of the feed yard used to be. My original plan was to have this completed by the first of June, but we were slowed down by the weather and the final dirt work on the project. Matt has a solid plan for building soil health over the next several years and we are excited about the farm transition.

Photo credits to Katie Arndt Photography

I have learned many lessons in the past two decades living on a farm; but I think perhaps the most important one is the critical importance of having resilience. Change can be difficult, but packing your FAITH (fortitude, attitude, integrity, trust, and hope) allows for a successful journey.

I saw a t-shirt last weekend that read “Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits.” I think that this provides good food for thought as we make our way into a new week 🙂

 

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Auditing…

annebunkpb2I will never forget my first experience with a Progressive Beef audit. While our feed yard had participated in the Beef Quality Assurance Feed Yard Assessment for several years, my veterinarian filled the role of auditor under that voluntary educational program.  The Progressive Beef Quality Management System took auditing to an entirely new level for my crew and I.  While it ultimately provided a tremendous tool for improvement, opening my farm to an “outside auditor” made me uncomfortable.

My feed yard was my pride and joy, and my crew like family.  I am a perfectionist and hold myself to a very high level of accountability. A comprehensive audit often finds imperfection as it is designed to measure performance to a high level of detail.  It is my nature to take things personally and I viewed every infraction (no matter how small) as a slight on my own leadership.

The rational part of my brain recognized that growth and continuous improvement involved measuring performance at a detailed level. The metrics of the audit forced me to face imperfection.  The intellectual Anne knew that the road to excellence was never comfortable, and that perfect practice made perfect performance. The emotional Anne dreaded audit day.

Over the years that Will Feed participated in the Progressive Beef QMS, I learned that the positives of the audit outweighed the negatives.  The effectiveness of the tool as a means for continuous improvement significantly outweighed my personal stress. I’d like to report that I learned to relax, but I preach to my kids that integrity trumps all so I am simply going to say that I learned to accept the reality of audit day 😉

 Somewhere along the way, I recognized that audit meant: 

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  • Human nature insists that we perform better when we are held accountable for our actions.
  • True understanding comes when you realize that the little things count.  Dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s really does raise the level of care that you offer to your animals. Animals matter so details had better matter.
  • Daily dedication to a goal of excellence builds a positive culture. When you are dedicated to caring, awesome things happen.
  • Integrity is the voice that sits on your shoulder when you make decisions. You are more likely to listen to it when you live amidst a culture of excellence. Caregivers with integrity bring honor to the farm and lead to responsibly raised food.
  • Trust in our food supply plays a critical role in the stability of our country.  Verification of care inspires trust.  If it matters to you, it had better matter to me. We’re in this together.

One of the responsibilities for my new job is becoming a Progressive Beef auditor.  I am in the process of changing my position relative to who holds the clipboard.  I am hopeful that my past experience as feed yard boss lady will enable me to empower the feed yard crews that I audit to believe in the heart and spirit of an audit.

Getting better matters.  It involves accountability, understanding, dedication, integrity and trust; and results in a level of animal care that brings pride to the vocation of raising food.

 

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And Then There Were None…

Yesterday morning we shipped the final pens of cattle from the feed yard to Tyson.  A calm wind with temperatures in the mid-20’s provided an easy ship out environment.  Mother Nature also rewarded us with a beautiful sunrise toward the end of the process.

As I watched the last cattle truck pull away from the load-out chute, my emotions threatened to get the best of me.  I took a moment to remember back to the first of the lasts as I experienced the last of the lasts. This particular shipment marked the end of our feed yard era, and the finality of the moment left me drained.

I wasn’t quite sure how to feel with the knowledge that, for the first time in twenty years, I had no cattle directly depending on me for care.  An internal struggle waged as the uplifting element of freedom fought with the deep rooted desire to be needed.

Recognizing the necessity and wisdom in change is sometimes easier than living it out. Watching the cattle truck pull away forced me to face the reality in a way that I had not yet done. I took a brief moment to feel sorry for myself before I packed my FAITH and went back to work.

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In that transition moment from self-pity to resolve, I made the decision to be happy. 

While that decision does not preclude me from experiencing difficult moments tinged with sadness, it focuses my attitude on the positive and grants me the strength to make the most of the future.  LIFE is a verb, and I recognize that my ability to achieve happiness is directly related to how I chose to live it.

  • Staying true to my core values
  • Trusting both myself and God on the journey
  • Recognizing that there is so very much more left to do on the journey…

All of these things give my life purpose, and I am looking forward to cowgirling up to make the most of it.

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Macro vs. Micro…

I became familiar with the words “macro” and “micro” when I took my first college economics class.  I signed up for two economics courses during my tenure at Dartmouth, not because I was really very interested in the subject, but because understanding basic economics fell under the “Anne’s necessary life skills” category.

I never developed a love for economics, but the psychologist in me became fascinated with all of the ways that I could interpret the world under the concept of macro vs micro.  It fascinated me to see how the big picture (macro) relied on the small details (micros) in order to be effective. familypicturefall2016

Last week I talked about my 5 Nuggets of Wisdom from a feed yard Boss Lady.  The first nugget, Be prepared to develop yourself and learn how to problem solve, holds the key to living a focused life. I am a believer in setting goals and creating a personal system of accountability.  This ensures both loyalty to personal core values and a purposeful life journey.  While I always pack my faith, I remember that LIFE is a verb.  As such, I set myself up for success by constantly developing plans to help me attain my goals.

A goal without a plan is simply a wish…

Let me offer an example.

One of my career goals is to improve animal welfare for cattle.  I made this commitment the day that I began my journey as a cowgirl, and twenty years later it still remains my passion.  This goal provides the macro. I recognized in June of 1997 that I needed to learn many things in order to improve welfare in a meaningful way. So, I developed a plan that allowed me to create the micros to help accomplish the goal.

  1. Learn bovine psychology and build an understanding of a prey animal’s brain.
  2. Develop the ability to *think like a bovine* thereby gaining insight into what is important to a calf.
  3. Understand the beef industry life cycle and the resources that drive that system.

After I accomplished these three necessary prerequisites, I could then begin to figure out ways to improve the system of raising cattle in order to make meaningful improvement in welfare. I recognized that long-lasting and meaningful change came from within, so I began the process on my farm.

  1. I became my own cattle buyer so that I could develop relationships with my ranchers and follow the animals all of the way through the production system. Once those relationships became developed, we worked on improved nutrition, vaccination, and cattle handling to create a lower stress environment over the lifetime of the animals. This enabled them to thrive and reach their God-given potential.
  2. I forged a bridge with a packing plant (I actually did with two different packing plants during my twenty-year tenure) so that my ranchers and I could trace the quality of our beef and make management decisions on our farms to continuously improve it.
  3. I adopted a management system at the feed yard to hold my crew and I accountable for animal care on a daily basis. We began with the Beef Quality Assurance Program and eventually raised the bar to begin using the Progressive Beef Quality Management System.  At that time, we began allowing outside auditors onto the farm to verify our care.

denke3april-jpgToday, the animal care at my feed yard looks a lot different than it did that inaugural day in the summer of 1997.  Incremental but significant change occurred over time as the focus on appropriate micros ensured an improvement for a macro concept. The dedication to the goal of improved welfare quite literally drove my career as a feed yard boss lady.

Because of it:

  • I was willing to work harder than my peers in order to prove myself.
  • I weathered awkward moments with grace and class.
  • I recognized that not everyone viewed the world as I did, and worked to build bridges in order to further the cause.

As I simultaneously raised my family, I shared my work with my three girls always reminding them to lead with your heart, but always take your brain along for the journey 🙂

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To the Young Women Wanting a Career In the Beef Industry…

annebunkpb2I am often asked about my journey as a woman in the beef industry. For all of the young women who have asked me for advice on the topic –This one’s for you…

5 Nuggets of Advice from the Feed Yard Boss Lady:

1. Be prepared to develop yourself and learn to problem solve. The complexities and traditions of the beef industry provide a delicate puzzle. Change is a given. It is your job to ensure that it is positive in nature.

  • Establish personal core values to live by
  • Gain an accurate understanding of the beef production chain
  • Create both long and short term goals to guide you on your journey
  • Develop plans to effectively work toward your goals
  • Recognize that you can learn something from EVERYONE

2. Be prepared to prove yourself. True leaders garner respect through work ethic and positive passion. Lead by example — Words only become meaningful after respect is earned. There are days when your body will ache and your brain will beg for refuge.  Ignore the discomfort and keep working. You must earn your place on the team. Everyone may not always like you, but over time your actions will convince them that they NEED you. Once they need you, acceptance and respect will follow.

Learn to sweat with a smile 😊 

3. Be prepared to deal with awkward moments — Do it with grace and class. 

  • There may be a time when a bull hauler (truck driver) exclaims “Hey, I’ve read about you. You’re the crazy lady who exercises her cattle!  What’s it like to work for PETA?” Smile, politely correct the PETA assumption, and go load the cattle.  The goal is to create the best experience for the animals — keep your temper in check. Trust me, it’s worth it.
  • There may be a time when you are in an auditorium with hundreds of cattlemen present. You are slated to present an award to a veterinarian who exemplifies many of the animal welfare principles that you have worked so hard to advance.  As the President of the cattlemen’s organization introduces you, he inadvertently belittles you by calling you a princess and misrepresents the project that you have spent a decade as a volunteer working on. Smile, shake his hand, turn to the audience and tell the veterinarian’s awesome story of animal care.

Recognize that IT’S BIGGER THAN YOU. It is about fostering positive change in your industry.   

4. Be prepared that not everyone thinks like you. Your job is to build bridges, not pass judgment. Building bridges requires both action and compromise on your part.  We are stronger if we embrace diversity and use it to create a more effective team. Figure out your own Anne Gates and go to work!

As a woman in the beef industry, you will have experiences that your male counterparts cannot fully understand. That’s okay.

  • It’s unlikely that a fellow male crew member knows what it feels like to work cattle during pregnancy when the little one crams her foot in between your ribs while also making your bladder a temporary punching bag. However, your crew is your team and they will likely do everything that they can to help you get the job done. They do not have to be you to empathize and care about you. Be grateful for them.
  • It’s unlikely that a fellow board member for your state cattlemen’s association will receive an “emergency” call informing him that his children had not been picked up from school that afternoon. While he won’t likely get the call, he can surely empathize with your husband who evidently forgot he was in charge of the after school pick up that day!

Building bridges creates a team spirit which incites positive movement.

5. Be prepared to make difficult decisions as you balance your family and your career. There are not enough hours in the day to do everything — You will have to prioritize.  After the cattle chores, the daily business decisions, and the volunteer work are completed, there is dinner to be made and the never ending laundry to be done. Most importantly, there is a beautiful family that loves and needs you.

Be a loving wife and an engaged mama — celebrate your greatest blessing by enjoying life with your family. 

The last twenty years have been an incredible adventure for me as well as a great preparation for the new journey that lies ahead. I have no regrets and many proud moments. It is truly a gift to get to use both your body and your brain to make a difference each and every day.

Cattle are amazing creatures and there is great honor in the role of cowgirl.    

 

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Accountability…

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the concept of accountability.  Many of the tasks that we do at the feed yard have to be completed regardless of weather or other extenuating circumstances.  Our animals and our farm hold us accountable on a daily basis.

I also live in a house full of teenagers.  My parenting style remains stubbornly loyal to a high level of accountability.  Over the years, I have found that children rise to meet expectations, and that learning accountability at a young age plays a huge role in creating a young adult who strives to be a positive contributor.

Last week, we shipped cattle on a bitterly cold -20 degree morning.  Yesterday, we traded below zero temperatures for a blustery 30 mile an hour north wind.  A weather front passed through as we were loading trucks dropping the temperature from 30 degrees to 13 degrees in a matter of twenty minutes.

horseswinterThe cold north wind is a real bugger when you are working outside.  It tends to make your eyes tear up and cry which wreaks havoc on visibility.  If you are really lucky, the tears freeze on your face before they have a chance to run off 😉  On days like this, I take the advice of my horses and (as much as possible) put my butt to the wind in order to shield my face.

Regardless of the challenges, we complete the task. The cattle must be loaded and shipped at the correct time so that the packing plant can remain on schedule.  Many things hinge on us doing our job in an appropriate and timely manner.  Most importantly, being organized and competent allows for better animal welfare due to less time in transit and waiting at the packing plant.

wintercattle3Our animals are very cold tolerant.  Bred to winter in Nebraska, they remain much more comfortable out in the cold than I do.  This time of year, they grow very thick hair coats and their unique prey animal eyes allow them to function well despite the cold north wind.  The short 20 mile trip from my farm to the packing plant allows for a relatively seamless last life experience.

I know that my animals make the ultimate sacrifice when they go to the packing plant.  Their gift drives me to an extremely high level of accountability.  There is honor in that gift, and I owe it to them to try and make the process as easy as possible.  This is why we ship cattle in the early morning – It allows for the least amount of disruption for them as they move through the final part of the beef life cycle.

My cattle taught me many things over the past two decades.  The importance of accountability and dependability rise quickly to the top of the list.  Cattle have very basic needs – they are simple creatures.  The key to providing good animal welfare lies in the caregiver’s ability to provide for those needs on a reliable basis.

annewintercattle1I remember as a child my mom describing me as a dependable and hard working kid. Over my adult life, I have taken those traits and put them to work in a positive way.  I would describe all three of my own girls as dependable and hard working.

Part of that is a genetic gift from God, and part of it is growing up on a farm and seeing first hand the high level of accountability that is required to humanely care for food animals.

Accountability, dependability, compassion, and grit…

These are the traits that I am most proud of – These are the traits that make me a good farmer.

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The World Seems Different at -20 Degrees…

cold1We shipped cattle early this morning.  The thermometer read -20 degrees as I drove to the feed yard about 5:30am. My mind held an awareness of the cold because I knew it was there.  I bundled up with layers of clothing and carefully covered my face with a mask.

But really, the phenomenon of temperatures like that provides an experience much bigger than layers of clothing.

The world seems different at -20 degrees.

Silent, unrelentingly harsh and yet beautiful at the same time.

Perhaps you have experienced this before?

  • The air takes the description of raw and crisp to a new level.
  • Sounds of the gates, the cattle moving, and the normal night noises are more distinct.
  • The hardness of the ground pounds at your feet as you herd the animals to the corral.

I, at least, seem to have a higher level of acute awareness at -20 degrees.

  • My cowboy laughed at me when I pointed out the small frost formations hanging from our steel pipe corral fence.  They took me back to science class as they were similar in shape to the molecular models in my high school text books.
  • I had to stop myself from reacting nervously each time the Union Pacific trains passed by on the tracks about ½ mile south of our corrals.  Normally, I am desensitized to the sound of the trains; but they sound unnervingly strange at -20 degrees.
  • Each step on the hard and unforgiving ground felt different and I noticed a clarity of movement in my own muscles that I often overlook.

Today I found a new level of perception.  A bitter cold morning with blessedly no wind opened up a new prairie experience for me.

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With 8 pens still to ship, I am left wondering what I will notice next?

 

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F.E.A.R.

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I found this quote on Instagram a few weeks ago. My girls tease me that I am a quote nerd.  I proudly reply that my grandfather taught me long ago to appreciate the potent message delivered by a cleverly strung cluster of words 😉

While I did not personally coin this particular acronym, it well describes my experiences in 2016.

No one can claim immunity from fear, but fear only defines us if we chose to allow it.   

Fear of the unknown provides one of my greatest personal challenges.  I am a stalwart creature of habit, and I like to be in control.  As a result, my decision last summer to close the feed yard left me terrified. Over the course of 2016, I discovered that a decision takes on an entirely new level of enormity when it involves altering a 45 year old business.

The mental process of defining the cause of fear provides a critical survival practice for me.  While I may occasionally wish that I could forget everything and run; the act of facing the challenge ultimately provides the courage to rise above it. As I reflect on 2016, I acknowledge the personal struggle that marked most of the year.

I end this time period proud of my decisions and the actions that resulted from them.  2017 will bring change; however, I stayed true to my core values and consequently can look with both excitement as well as confidence on into the future.

Sherry Bunting did a wonderful job “telling my story” in a recent article in the Progressive Cattlemen magazine entitled As Will Feed Closes, Reflecting On Twenty Years In the Feed Yard.  You can read it by clicking here.

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Happy New Year to you and your loved ones! 

May 2017 inspire you to face everything and rise…

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