Craig Uden is a fourth generation-first-generation cattle feeder. And within that paradox lies a lesson that the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's (NCBA) incoming president tries to pass along to every young person interested in a career in agriculture.
That lesson? If you work at it hard enough, if you want it bad enough, if you use your mind as much or more than you use your hands, you’ve got a chance to succeed in the cattle business.
It also helps, he says, when you try to stay up to date on the issues facing our industry. “The best way I know is being active and involved in your local organizations, like NCBA,” he says.
He knows a little about that. Uden was raised in east-central Nebraska on a farming and cattle feeding operation. “I always like to say I am fourth-generation, but I got to start everything over again on my own,” he says. “The ’70s were tough, and I needed to look a different direction when I was coming out of school in the ’80s.”
That direction was west. While a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the early ’80s, he landed a summer internship at a western Nebraska feedlot. And the die, as they say, was cast.
He impressed the owners with his drive, his determination and his ability to manage people. And it didn’t hurt that, through the state association, he and his dad were known and respected by other cattle feeders in the state. A year later, the partners called him, and even though Uden was still a college student, he got his break. “They called me at 5 o’clock in the morning and said, ‘We’ve got this new feedyard and we need someone to run it. Are you willing to give it a try?’ ”
He was, and he’s been at Darr Feedlot, Cozad, Neb., ever since.
Uden brings that work ethic with him as the 2017 president of the NCBA. The beef business, like every other economic sector, is dealing with many unknowns, as Donald Trump assembles his cabinet and works toward his term as the 45th president of the United States.
Uden is optimistic. “We look forward to working with this new administration,” he says. “Perhaps we can get some things moved through instead of being on the defense all the time.”
But he knows there are no quick fixes, especially with one of NCBA’s top priorities — trade. “Trade is always going to be an issue,” he says, especially given President-elect Trump’s campaign remarks regarding trade agreements. But he says trade is essential for beef producers.
“We have to continue to work toward increasing trade, because in order for our cattlemen and cattlewomen to be successful, we have to maintain [cattle] numbers, but we have to increase the price,” he says.
“We have to remember that 96% of [the world’s population] lives outside our borders. So consequently, in order to provide that safe, wholesome product that we do — the best in the world — we have to have access. So that will be key.”
While trade is key to the long-run health of the cattle market, the volatility and uncertainty that 2016 cattle markets produced is a much more immediate concern. Uden plans to ensure NCBA is front and center in working toward solutions.
NCBA has been engaged with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) in some very productive discussions, he says. And an NCBA Working Group is delving into three areas to find focus — price discovery, contract specifications and volatility.
Uden says that will be an ongoing effort with NCBA and CME, and he’s optimistic that ultimately, solutions will come forth. And he believes that building relationships with other organizations will be important as the beef business looks ahead.
Take sustainability, for example. NCBA has led the effort to establish a baseline for beef sustainability. Then, working with other groups, such as the U.S. and Global Roundtables for Sustainable Beef, NCBA continues those efforts.
“The information required of cattlemen and women continues to increase, and that’s a trend that will continue in the years ahead,” he says. “We’re not going backward. That especially applies to consumers and the finished product. Consumers today expect more information about how cattle are produced, and we need to be comfortable with the idea of providing them with an open dialogue about our production practices and answering their questions.”
He says it’s equally important that beef producers concentrate on improving every aspect of the beef business. “We hear the word ‘sustainability’ tossed around a great deal, and it’s not a concept we might embrace at first — but the cattle producers in this country have been and continue to be sustainable, so it’s a conversation we need to lead. When it comes right down to it, sustainability is making certain we are looking for ways to produce beef tomorrow that are better than the methods we’re using today.”
And that’s not just rhetoric for Uden. It’s something he challenges himself and his employees with each day, and it’s paid off over the years as he’s built the cattle feeding and cow-calf operations he oversees.
In addition, the GIPSA (Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration) rule has resurfaced, and the controversial Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) regulations are still on the table, although temporarily stayed by a court order. But Uden, anticipating a new administration in Washington, is optimistic those issues will be resolved.
What’s more, he hopes he can be a catalyst for greater communication within the beef business. He hopes, as the beef business looks ahead to 2017, that cattle producers can come together, build on the many strengths of the industry and see the big picture.
“I think our key thing is information. We have to come together as cattlemen, come together as an industry because we have great challenges out there from different organizations that don’t want us at the center of the plate.”
The key to achieving that, he believes, is for cattle producers to see the big picture, to appreciate the industry from gate to plate. “I think people who see the larger picture are usually more able to respond to this ever-changing beef business.”
And change is what the industry is all about. “We always face challenges, and we always know there’s an issue out there. Addressing the issues and trying to find solutions for the issues moving forward is what NCBA is all about,” he says.
The road to the top
It’s that passion for the industry and the people in it that put him on the road to the NCBA presidency. But he comes to the policy side of the cattle business with a strong background in the checkoff.
Uden’s father not only taught him at a young age to run a cattle operation, he also instilled in him the necessity of being involved and giving back to the business that gives you so much. “My father, over 50 years ago, started our local cattlemen’s association and was the first and third president of a county organization that is still very, very successful. So I was raised on that.”
“I got elected and happened to be heading to Colorado to see customers. I stopped by the Beef Promotion Operating Committee meeting,” said Uden, and he spent a day watching how the checkoff dollars got allocated on the national level. “Well, that wasn’t going to take a lot more time, and I thought ‘That looks pretty unique: see all the proposals and help decide how the money is going to be spent on the checkoff.’ So I thought I’d interview for that position.”
He did and was elected to the Beef Promotion Operating Committee. And from that springboard, he became involved in the Federation of State Beef Councils, becoming vice chairman and eventually chairman. The federation represents the state beef councils, which are the collection points for the $1 beef checkoff and the source of part of the money that goes to the national Beef Board.
The Beef Promotion Operating Committee is where programs are approved for the beef checkoff. The Federation of State Beef Councils is the source of half of the members of the operating committee, which helps keep it grounded to the grass roots that supply the checkoff funds.
From there, he was recruited to consider leadership positions with NCBA. While he had plenty of work at home, he agreed and has progressed through the leadership ranks to become 2017 president.
Will the industry look the same 10 years from today? “Probably not, but we need to be part of that shaping and molding to whatever it’s going to look like in 10 years,” he says. And he plans to keep NCBA at the center, guiding and directing the beef business as it addresses its future.