Tag Archives: Chris Leonard

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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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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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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Setting the Stage…

I first learned of Chris Leonard about 14 months ago when he called me for a phone interview.  He was writing an article and we had a lengthy visit discussing cattle marketing, modern beef production, and the use of beta agonists.

It became clear during our conversation that we neither shared the same perspective nor approached the politics of beef farming from the same angle, but I viewed the interview as a learning experience.  When I later learned that Mr. Leonard had written a book, I deemed reading it as a necessary intellectual exercise.

a

My goal is to provide good care so that this animal will achieve it’s utmost potential thereby growing great tasting beef all while using the natural resource of my farm wisely…

I have never believed that my job as a beef farmer ended when my animals were loaded onto the truck to leave the feed yard.  I recognize that my packing plant and its customers (grocery stores, restaurants, and ultimately each of you) are my partners in beef production.  With every decision that we make, we create both the economic market and the fundamental family beef eating experience.

Each one of us plays a role...

Each one of us plays a role…

The relationships that farmers have with both their rural communities and their packing plant partners are varied depending on their individual goals and resources as well as the type of food animals that they raise.   As with just about anything in our lives, all of these relationships are dynamic:  growing and evolving over time.

The idea of change can be both frightening and challenging, but it is the reality and often actually leads to improvement.  When I look at the modifications that I have made on my cattle farm in the last decade, I see positive progress.  Marked improvements in both animal welfare and beef quality offer the promise of sustainability for both my farm and my beef customers.

Good care and good nutrition makes for comfortable animals and great tasting beef...

Good care and good nutrition makes for comfortable animals and great tasting beef…

Chris Leonard stated publically this week that he believes the perfect outcome for modern food production would be to revert to the system of raising food animals as it was in 1982.  As a beef farmer, I believe that this would be detrimental to the welfare of the animals, my farm; and also the quality, safety, and cost of the food products that they provide.

From Beef Quality Assurance to Progressive Beef: My farm has made enormously positive advancements since 1982...

From Beef Quality Assurance in the 1990’s to Progressive Beef in 2013: My farm has made enormously positive advancements since 1982…

Suggesting such a goal tells me that Chris does not hold an in depth understanding of what I do every day as a farmer.  Further supporting this notion is the following quote that appears in the Prologue of the book:

The agriculture sector is one of the richest, most productive moneymaking machines in American life.  After all, a lot of the business simply involves sitting around and letting plants grow and letting animals get fat.  Mother Nature does the heavy lifting.  Then the farmer harvests the plants, kills the animals, and watches the money roll in.”

Chris Leonard, The Meat Racket

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The Lens of a Farmer…

When I moved to Cozad, Nebraska in the summer of 1997, I looked at the world through the lens of a young college educated urbanite.  Living in a small town and being intricately involved in the raising of food was not in my repertoire.  I came with a large number of ideas and very few applicable real world experiences.

Matt and I with my brother two days before we moved back to the farm in Nebraska...

Matt and I with my brother two days before we moved back to the farm in Nebraska…

My first years on the farm were marked by humility.  I spent quality time with a scoop shovel, learned how to ride pens checking cattle and how to run the feed truck.  I also spent time behind a desk with my eyes glued to the computer screen as the commodity markets scrolled across.  My life revolved around learning to ask pertinent questions and observing carefully.

A couple months later on the farm...

A couple months later on the farm…

I had no idea that caring for food animals and growing beef was so complicated…

In 2014, there is no part of agriculture that is simple.  I wear many hats to complete all of the tasks that fall under the job description of feed yard owner and manager.  It took me a decade to become comfortable and confident in the role of boss lady, and after 17 years I am still learning something new every day.

My job is to offer them optimal care while producing great tasting beef and wisely using the resources of our farm...

My job is to offer them optimal care while producing great tasting beef and wisely using the resources of our farm…

Sometime during my tenure on the farm, an evolution began to occur as Americans became interested in where their food comes from.  Not only did this interest manifest itself in the grocery store, but also in college classrooms all across the country.  The discussion of the right way to grow food was taken up, and today continues to be debated by academics as they do their best to observe the modern food production system from 10,000 feet.

From philosophical novelists like Michael Pollan to investigative reporters like Eric Schlosser and Chris Leonard, many urban dwellers have tried to offer advice on what is wrong with the modern food production system.  I believe that many of these critics are challenged by a lack of first-hand experience of being a farmer.  I consider that first hand experience to be a critical link to properly understanding the complexities of modern agriculture and the growth of food in 2014.

It is a great blessing to raise my girls on a farm in rural America...

It is a great blessing to raise my girls on a farm.  I hope that they too will feel the call to use their gifts by contributing to rural America.

I am the first to admit that there are many ways that food animal production can improve; however, I do not often find myself agreeing with the suggestions that come from these philosophical academics.  I find their descriptions of rural America and farming to lack a full perspective and understanding.  It seems as if they discover the story that fits their preconceived notions rather than the entire picture of how and why the modern day food production system operates as it does.

Chris Leonard has a new book that hits the bookshelves today called The Meat Racket.  In it, Leonard paints a dismal picture of both my farm and the small town rural America that I love with all my heart.  While a large part of the book discusses chicken production, a section of it encroaches into beef cattle farming and attempts to discredit the cattle feeding cooperative of which I am a proud member.BMG.jpg

The next few Feed Yard Foodie posts will take a closer look at the Meat Racket , as I share a different perspective on rural America and the growth of food through the:

Lens of a farmer…

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