Tag Archives: Where does your beef come from?

Making Beef…

Virginia, Rachel and I spend roughly 15 months raising each calf that originates from the Evert Ranch.  During those months, the calf will grow from 70# to 1300# — gaining the first half of those pounds from a combination of mama’s milk and grass at the ranch and the second half of those pounds on a grain and forage casserole at the feed yard.  It amazes me to think that good nutrition, planning and care can be so effective, but each year the Evert calves get better and better.

Evertcalves7a.jpg

We measure performance on the cattle at each level of the production chain.  Virginia is well-known for the “clipboard” that she carries around — making notes on the calves during their time on the ranch.  Each calf receives a visual tag at birth that correlates to its parents so that genetics can be measured.  Things like disposition (how the calf acts around its human caregivers), phenotype, frame scoring, and general health are all combined to determine the total quality of the animal.

When the calf changes address and comes to the feed yard, I tie the visual ranch tag with an EID (electronic identification tag) that allows us to trace performance at the feed yard as well as at the packing plant.  I track three main things: overall health, total pounds gained, and dry matter feed conversion.Evertfeedyard2.jpg

When the calf leaves my farm, it travels about 20 miles to the Tyson packing plant in Lexington, Nebraska having spent its entire lifetime within a 50 mile radius.  At that point, the EID tag allows the transmission of carcass data which provides over-all beef quality scoring for the animal.  This data collection includes carcass weight, meat tenderness score, steak measurements, and total leanness of the animal.  The carcass data is the final piece of our report card as beef producers, giving Virginia, Rachel and me information that we can use in the future to continuously improve quality.

Evertfeedyard1.jpg

Because animal welfare, food safety, and sustainability are important to me, I look to my packing plant partner to share both my passion and my dedication to excellence on these topics.  In addition to supplying cattle to Tyson, I have the unique opportunity of serving on their Farm Check Animal Well-Being Advisory committee.  As a member of this board, I work to understand and improve animal welfare throughout the entire production chain.

The latest Tyson effort to ensure good animal welfare on the farm...Tyson plays a critical role making beef.  As the last stop for the animals that Virginia, Rachel and I raise, their cooperation and hard work finishes the circle in the production of responsible beef.

  • Their impressive food safety and animal welfare auditing practices provide a fitting end to the hard work that goes into raising a healthy food animal.
  • Their commitment to transparency allows for the sharing of information both back to the farmer in the form of carcass data, and forward to the beef consumer who wants to understand the company’s commitment to sustainably raised food.

I believe that the future of food production lies in the building of strong partner relationships.  It is a complicated and difficult task to grow safe, healthy, and great tasting beef.  As a team, we are able to put the pieces of the puzzle together in the ever important journey of continuous improvement.

annemattbeef1

Our next blog post takes us into the world of retail and food service – the last critical step of bring beef to your plate 🙂

3 Comments

Filed under Beef Cattle Life Cycle: Ranch to Retail, General

Heading For the Hills…

My favorite blondes did not have school last Monday so I had company as I headed north to get feeder cattle near Halsey, Nebraska.  My girls spent many years traversing across Nebraska visiting ranches and getting cattle before they were old enough to be in school.  With my “baby” being a 5th grader, I have made many treks alone since those days.

sundoghalsey.jpg

The drive from Cozad up to Halsey is a beautiful one full of wildlife and picturesque scenery.  I know that wherever their lives take them, my girls will take those memories of quiet beauty with them.  This vast land where cattle and wildlife greatly outnumber people brings a sense of peace that refills my cup.

As I drive around my farm and then head north to the Sandhills, I always wonder why our urban countrymen worry so much about sustainability.  The healthy ecosystem balance found in out-state Nebraska is readily visible to any passerby, and the farmers and ranchers that tend to the land do so with a blend of natural passion and stubborn pride.

sandhillscattle.jpg

I think that perhaps many urban folks would feel better about where their beef comes from if they spent a day driving around rural Nebraska.  It might be hard to find the farmer/rancher in all the vastness of the countryside, but his/her hard work and dedication is apparent from the car window view.  If you happen to come across the human caregiver, his/her quiet manner and aloofness will give testimony to the fact that caring for the land is a solitary job.

The trip from Cozad to Halsey takes about 2 hours, and is full of deer, turkey, grouse, ducks, hawks and an occasional eagle in addition to the bovine population.  They all live in harmony with a bit of human help under the influence of Mother Nature.  Just as cattle are known as the great recyclers turning inedible plant products into vitamin rich (and tasty) edible protein, the people that inhabit my beloved adopted countryside share the same dedication to stewardship — wasting little and carefully managing the natural resources found on the land.

A ranch sign just north of Halsey, NE.

A ranch sign just north of Halsey, NE.

Those of us that make rural America home are a small and unique group. Our pride in country is evident.  Our dedication to community shines brightly.  Our responsibility to stewardship drives a life filled with both challenge and fullfillment.

With each day that passes, I am coming to realize that now (more than ever) we need our urban counterparts to take the time to learn about our lives prior to judging the validity and sustainability of both our daily work and our legacy. Beef production is much more than the steak that creates a great tasting eating experience.  It takes care of the land and fuels rural economies, while its farmers bring a steadfast patriotism and a dedicated work ethic that provides a necessary pillar for our country.

ALRanchheifers.jpg

Perhaps it is time to head for the hills to learn about “Where your beef comes from”!  You might be surprised at what you find 🙂

 

 

10 Comments

Filed under General, Rural Communities, Sustainable Spring

#myAGstory

Last fall, Tyson CEO Donnie Smith gave the commencement address at the National FFA (Future Farmers of America) convention. The positive energy radiating from both Smith and the thousands of high school students in attendance is nothing short of awesome. The 18 minute speech can be found here.

As a member of Tyson’s 3rd party Animal Wellbeing Farm Check committee, I am fortunate to interact with Donnie as we work to consistently improve food animal care. His dynamic personality and positive enthusiasm reminds me of a football coach pumping up his team for the big game. The coach in me loves to listen to him, and the farmer in me is thankful to call his team a partner in food production.Annegate.jpg

Smith’s theme, #myAGstory, provides an emotional reminder of one of the steepest challenges that farmers face today. The story of food production in 2015 often is not told by the farmers that grow it. Rather, we have allowed our food story to be hijacked by others outside of the farm gate. Smith repeatedly challenged the students to protect the future of agriculture by “Taking back the story of food production”.

There exists a critical bridge between “food” and “agriculture” and it is made up by communication. Smith asks the students,

“Are we going to drive the conversation or sit back and let someone else do it for us? — It is only in taking back the story that we can honestly share the truth of how food is grown in the United States.”

The leaders in this movement to reclaim the voice of farming will undeniably be our young farmers. They have the unique ability to share their talents by simultaneously growing food while also tweeting about it!

Two enthusiastic young ranchers brought the first "selfie stick" to my feed yard last spring.  It was great fun to watch them *share*!

Two enthusiastic young ranchers brought the first “selfie stick” to my feed yard last spring!

Each one of us has a vital and unique story to tell. It is in combining these stories in a respectful conversation that we all will find sustainability. As farmers and scientists, today we have the technique and the technology to feed 10 billion people. The question is, will we be successful enough telling our story in order to gain the consumer confidence needed to use that technology to feed the world?

Today, there are 1 billion people across the globe that are hungry — tomorrow that number will grow. It is not just people across the ocean – many, many Americans are food insecure. I would like to think that we all can be granted the Freedom To Thrive, fueled by the energy of quality nutrition. The start of that journey lies in farmers taking back the story of agriculture and sharing how they grow food.AnneMeg.jpg

Today, my favorite blonde cowgirl and I head to College Station, Texas to bring our story of beef production to Aggieland. We will visit with college professors, graduate students, and undergraduates in a whirlwind two day journey discussing how beef is grown. I will share #myAGstory with hundreds of Animal Science students as we discuss both the future of agriculture as well as the increasing role that women play in growing food.

I take Donnie’s message with me in my heart as I hope to make an equally positive impact on this next generation of farmers. We all need to eat in order to thrive, so growing food is everyone’s business.

Have you shared your story today?

4 Comments

Filed under A Farmer's View on Foodie Thoughts...

All Before a Cup Of Coffee…

It’s a family joke that I don’t drink coffee because it exacerbates my inability to sit still. The “rest of the story” is that I don’t drink a morning cup of coffee because my alarm goes off at 5:35 am and I am out the door 10 minutes later. My morning “home” routine is short and for the vast majority of the year it is performed in the predawn darkness. Matt has always taken care of the girls in the morning hours before school because the feed yard day starts by 6:00 am.

Actually, my oldest daughter would claim that she is in charge in the morning rather than her dad --- I figure teamwork is what it is all about!

Actually, my oldest daughter would claim that she is in charge in the morning rather than her dad — I figure teamwork is what it is all about!

With a feed yard to manage and three active daughters, my days tend to waffle between busy and just short of frantic. This week has tended toward the latter. Just to share a glimpse, I figured that I would run through my day Tuesday.

You’ll have to let me know if I have labeled it correctly by calling it just short of frantic…

HelmerApril2.jpg

5:35 Leave home to go to the office to print out animal withdrawal reports for the two pens of steers that we were scheduled to ship to Tyson – We have a multi-tier system set up at the feed yard to ensure that every animal is healthy and antibiotic free heading to the packing plant. I am in charge of that system and printing withdrawal reports is one of the tiers.

6:00 Arrive at the feed yard and read bunks: this is where I look at all of the feed bunks at the feed yard (there are 24 of them—one for each pen) to see how much feed from yesterday is left over to help make a good choice of what the animals in each pen should be fed today.

6:20 Enter bunk reading calls into the computer and slate the appropriate amount of feed for the day for each pen.

6:35 Start weighing semi-trucks to ship cattle to Tyson.

6:45 Pick up my cowboy and go out into the first pen that was slated to ship – ask the cattle to leave the pen and travel down to the corral area, then load them on the three designated trucks.

7:10 Go back out and gather the second pen of cattle to ship – trailing them down to the corral area and load them on the other three designated trucks.

7:50 Weigh the trucks “full” for a sale weight on the cattle and give all paperwork and instructions to the truck drivers as they leave the feed yard to travel 20 miles to the Tyson packing plant.

8:00 Complete the rest of the paperwork on the cattle that shipped.

9:00 Take part in a Tyson Farm Check Conference Call.

9:45 Field a phone call from my primary wet distillers grain supplier (Cornhusker Energy) to learn that the plant was broken down and I would not receive my daily loads of cattle feed this week.

9:50 Scramble on the phone to procure wet distillers feed from a different ethanol plant so that my cattle could continue to receive their normal, healthy ration (casserole).

10:00 Meet the field agent for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality for my yearly CAFO inspection.

11:30 Travel from the feed yard to our main office to complete daily office / computer tasks which included purchasing and setting up logistics for ranch cattle that will travel to the feed yard today.

I went home briefly to eat lunch, but I can’t remember what leftovers I found in the refrigerator to heat up.

1:00 Traveled back to the office to work on more paperwork including preparing carcass and feed yard performance data to share with the rancher whose cattle I shipped to Tyson the week prior.

3:20 Pick up my favorite blonde 4th grader from school. Go home briefly to do chores (chickens, horses, dog, and cats).

4:00 Cheer for my favorite blonde cowgirl in her Junior High Track Meet (she took first place in the Pole Vault, first place in the long hurdles, and second place in the short hurdles)!

7:45 Travel home to make dinner (beef tacos).

9:30 Fall into bed so that I can do it all over again tomorrow!

cozadmegcalhounhurdle.jpg

Go Meg!

Do you ever have days like this?!

It’s amazing what we can get done all before a cup of coffee when our responsibilities are vast…

5 Comments

Filed under CAFO

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!

3 Comments

Filed under A Farmer's View on Foodie Thoughts..., General

Dartmouth Alumni Magazine…

I am incredibly honored to be featured in the January/February Dartmouth College Alumni magazine.  The following article was written by Rianna Starheim, and appeared in the voices in the wilderness section of the magazine.

Many thanks to both Rianna and my alma mater!

Many thanks to both Rianna and my alma mater!

Bullish on Beef

“Two days after graduating from Dartmouth I put on my blue jeans and went to work at the cattle feedyard,” Burkholder says.  “I started at the bottom with a scoop shovel and an hourly wage of $6.85.”  Sixteen years later she owns the place—a 3000-head cattle feedyard in Nebraska, where she works alongside her husband, Matt Burkholder D’94.  She’s also among the leading voices in the national beef industry, determined to reassure a public unsettled by the feedlot horror stories in reports such as Fast Food Nation.

“I was a consumer for a lot of years before I really knew where my beef came from,” Burkholder says.  “I think it’s very important that people have an understanding of what it takes to grow food and where it comes from.”  Burkholder writes a blog, FeedyardFoodie.com, with the goal of making the process of growing U.S. beef—farm to fork—more transparent.  Burkholder also does volunteer work promoting animal welfare and food safety and is one of the leaders in the beef industry across the nation:  She is a director of the Nebraska State Beef Council, sits on the Tyson Fresh Meats Animal Well-being Committee and earned the 2009 Beef Quality Assurance Producer of the Year Award.  “I’ve always been interested by how animals think, and in particular cattle and other prey animals really interest me,” says Burkholder, whose A.B. in psychology comes in handy on the farm.  “I’m fascinated by how their brains work.”

I hope that the weekly glimpse of my life on the farm is both informative and reassuring as you make food choices for your families...

I hope that the weekly glimpse of my life on the farm is informative, entertaining, and reassuring to each of you!

8 Comments

Filed under Feed Yard Foodie "In The News"

A View from a Different Angle: What is National Geographic Really Looking For?

I will never forget one morning about five years ago when one of my guys caught my attention while we were working cattle.  He was upset because someone was standing on top of their vehicle in the middle of an alfalfa field about a quarter of a mile east of our corrals.

"Working cattle": giving vaccinations to newly arrived animals which keep them healthy...

“Working cattle”: giving vaccinations to newly arrived animals.  These vaccinations would be the bovine equivalent of the “flu shot”…

It turned out to be a neighbor who was simply looking to take some pictures of cattle for a local publication, but I was very proud of my employee for his diligence in following our farm’s biosecurity plan.  I worked very carefully with my veterinarian to write this plan which includes provisions for both animals and people who come onto our property.

ProgressiveBeefLogoGreen

Today, as part of my Progressive Beef protocols, I require all visitors to sign in upon arrival at the feed yard.  I do this simply to protect both my employees and my animals.  I have never turned anyone down that requested entrance to the farm, but I always ask that they seek permission before entering.

My girls and I a couple of years ago in front of my biosecurity sign.  The young woman pictured with us now works for Senator Mike Johanns in Washington DC...

My girls and I a couple of years ago in front of my biosecurity sign. The young woman pictured with us now works for Senator Mike Johanns in Washington DC…

I do my best to make my feed yard transparent.  I believe that every American has a right to know where their beef comes from.  For this reason, I give tours, answer emails from readers, and blog extensively about my life raising cattle.  I am proud of what I do and like to share it with those who are interested.

This morning, I became aware of an article that ran in the Huffington Post.  The article reported that a professional photographer on contract with National Geographic magazine was arrested for trespassing when he took off and landed his paraglider on private property near a feed yard in Kansas.  The photographer, George Steinmetz, was taking pictures of the feed yard for a series of stories on “food issues” that will run in the magazine next year.

While I was very grateful to be mentioned in the comment section of the article, I was also disheartened when I read and investigated the actual article and altercation.  My greatest disappointment stemmed from the fact that neither Mr. Steinmetz nor National Geographic magazine contacted the feed yard to ask for a tour of the farm.

A picture of animals in my feed yard...

A picture of animals in my feed yard taken via horseback while I was doing our daily check of cattle health…

Rather than reaching out respectfully to the farmer and asking permission to visit the yard, Mr. Steinmetz trespassed onto private property and flew over the farm in a paraglider.  In doing this, both he and National Geographic magazine gave up a tremendous opportunity for learning and conversation with the owner and employees of the feed yard.  I cannot imagine how the view from 300 feet provided a better perspective of beef production than a one-on-one interaction with a cattle caregiver.

I am left to wonder if National Geographic really cares to truly understand the story of how beef is raised?

  • Do they know that each one of those animals spent the majority of its’ life grazing on a grass pasture, and was moved to the feed yard for the last few months in order to decrease the environmental footprint of beef?
  • Do they know that cattle are easily able to be comfortable and thrive living in a feed yard?
  • Do they know that each person that works at the feed yard is both a trained and dedicated animal caregiver?
  • Do they know that looking up to glimpse a paraglider directly above the yard was likely a scarey experience for those caregivers who worry about the well-being of their animals?

If the magazine truly wanted to understand food issues relative to beef farming wouldn’t they want to talk to a cattle farmer first hand?  Surely they could find someone who spends their days caring for cattle with whom to discuss this important topic?

Look no further, I volunteer!

Look no further, I volunteer!

I think that it is exciting that National Geographic magazine is going to write a series of articles about “food issues”.  However, I also think that a responsible media source would need to visit with farmers to gain an accurate understanding of the topic.  I challenge Mr. Steinmetz and National Geographic to help us all to open up a truthful dialog on food production.  A real understanding can only occur through conversation and sharing.  This is truly impossible from 300 feet in the air…

A tour of my farm is waiting for you on the plains of Nebraska.  I simply request that you offer me the courtesy of calling before you arrive!

38 Comments

Filed under CAFO, General

The Heart of “Where Your Beef Comes From”…

Mike and Peggy Coffman live “just north of Halsey, NE on the oil road”.  If you stop within 50 miles of Halsey to ask for directions to the ranch, those are the instructions that you will likely receive.  There is only one paved road that goes north out of Halsey so it is actually pretty hard to get lost as long as you watch for the ranch sign.

Angus cattle and quarter horses are the heart of the Coffman Ranch…

I met Mike and Peggy almost eight years ago.  We were introduced by Al Atkins when Mike was looking for a feed yard that was interested in buying his cattle.  Many of you will remember Al and Sallie Atkins from a little over a year ago when I traced calf #718 from birth to harvest (see the category “Beef Life Cycle-Calf #718 if you missed the series).

I have  a soft place in my heart for Mike and Peggy because not only do they produce outstanding cattle, but I also purchased my beloved quarter horse (Dandy) from Mike in 2005.

I love this big guy…

So, what exactly happens on the day that Mike and Peggy send their cattle down to the feed yard?

Last Thursday, after my quick trip to Denver and before I watched my favorite Cross Country team at our Conference Championships, I spent the morning at Mike and Peggy’s loading their calves.  It takes me just under 2 hours to drive north to the ranch.  Mike started the morning early by gathering the cattle off of grass pastures and trailing them to the corrals.  About the time that I arrived, Mike and his neighbors who came to help that morning were sorting the steers and the heifers.

The cattle are brought down the alleyway one at a time, and the steers are sent through the gate one direction while the heifers are sent the other direction through another gate…

In addition to separating the steers and the heifers from one another, Mike and his cowboy crew also sorted off about 50 “replacement heifers” that will remain on the ranch to become mama cows.  It is important for the ranch to keep good heifers to use in the breeding (reproductive) herd so that they can continue to make outstanding calves year after year.

The horses’ jobs are finished now that the cattle are gathered off of the pastures. They get to take a rest while the cowboys sort the cattle in the corral…

After the cattle are sorted, they are counted and brand inspected by an employee of the Nebraska Brand Committee to ensure that all of the cattle are eligible for shipment.  Then the trucks are weighed at a local scale about 5 miles north of the ranch both before and after the cattle are loaded to determine the weight of the animals.

Here, Mike adjusts the balance scale to weigh the trucks…

After the truck is weighed, he travels back to the ranch to load the cattle. Then he returns to the scale again to be weighed a second time…

It is important to weigh the cattle because I purchase part of them from Mike and Peggy as they move from the ranch into the feed yard.  Mike and Peggy also retain ownership on some of the cattle so that we become financial partners in addition to being joint caregivers for the cattle.

The calves quickly find the prairie (grass) hay, wet distillers grains and corn stalks that are in the feed bunk…

While Mike and I settle up the bill and our plan for the cattle, Peggy serves us a great tasting hamburger casserole.  At the same time, the trucks and the cattle travel to the feed yard where they are placed in their new home pen with a feed bunk containing a tasty casserole for cattle.

The casserole and dinner plate look different than what I have at my house, but the meal is still a healthy and appropriate blend of nutritious food…

Mike and Peggy’s cattle easily transition into a new life at the feed yard.  They are a joy to care for and I am very thankful for the good care that Mike and Peggy provide them with on the home ranch.  That care sets the calves up for success and makes my job at the feed yard much easier.  Come the spring, the calves will make high quality beef that I am proud to feed to all of you!

Leave a comment

Filed under Foodie Work!, General