A Bid for Unity

When there was still a livestock auction in most communities, George Hall was getting his feet wet in the cattle business. More than half a century later, the recently retired president of the world's largest feeder cattle market - the Oklahoma National Stockyards - is leading the nation's beef industry into a new century.As incoming president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), Hall

When there was still a livestock auction in most communities, George Hall was getting his feet wet in the cattle business. More than half a century later, the recently retired president of the world's largest feeder cattle market - the Oklahoma National Stockyards - is leading the nation's beef industry into a new century.

As incoming president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), Hall admits 2000 will be a challenging year, what with domestic and world marketing issues, environmental concerns, animal health practices and new products. He plans to lead with these primary goals in mind.

"The first is live product marketing issues. We've got to straighten out our marketing system," he says. "Secondly, I hope to build cohesion among industry members. I've got a record of doing so and want to build on it.

"Finally, I want industry profitability to be enhanced and returned to the producer. We're coming to a time when we've got our herd numbers at a point where there will be good prices for calves, stockers and feeder cattle. I think the competition will be fierce for each segment."

Some folks are little more than bystanders in life and business, content to offer arm chair reaction and snipe from the sidelines. Hall isn't among them.

In fact, the president-elect of NCBA didn't even favor the merger of the Beef Industry Council, National Livestock and Meat Board and the National Cattlemen's Association in 1996.

But Hall knew he needed to be active if he wanted to be a player. So, he put his doubts aside and applied his years of Meat Board experience to become an active participant in NCBA activities and committees, working up to president-elect.

"I always believed that if you were going to be involved in something - anything - and benefit from it, you should be involved to the best of your ability," the native Oklahoman says.

"If you don't like the way something is going, don't sit at the coffee shop griping about it. Get involved with a local or state association and NCBA. It is the only way to affect change or improve the status quo. Our voice will only be as strong as our producer-members."

Lifelong Involvement Hall was reared on a farm and ranch homesteaded by his grandfather in the former Indian Territory. After attending Oklahoma A&M University, he worked as a beef salesman for a now-defunct packer and as an Extension agent before joining the stockyards in 1972 as a livestock marketing specialist.

He spent six years on active duty with the U.S. Air Force, serving in Korea. He then joined the Reserves, working in various positions and serving in Desert Storm. He just recently concluded his Reserve activities as a mobilization assistant at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City and retired as brigadier general.

He and his wife of 42 years, Lynda, have two daughters and a son.

BEEF asked Hall to share his viewpoints about industry trends, progress in the retail sector and work within NCBA.

Regarding marketing alliances, Hall says, "The marketplace and economics will determine the future of alliances. They're a step in the right direction toward value-based marketing. I'd say they're a precursor to branded beef programs. If alliances reduce costs, improve quality and consistency - we can't fight them. They allow many users to benefit from these attributes."

Hall suggests alliances and industry trends overall are heading toward a two-tiered system. One segment of the industry will produce a commodity type product, the other will produce for branded programs. However, he doesn't discount the immediate impact.

"One of the effects of alliances we've seen is that fewer cattle are traded on the cash market," Hall says. "This concerns me. We've got tremendous competition for cull cows, stocker feeders and breeding stock in the cash market. I believe the auction method is best for determining true value. Other industries such as the pre-owned car business, use the auction method to determine value. It works very well."

Hall concedes there's no easy fix to the system, but suggests the industry work toward a system that rewards adding value and pays for it.

Hall is excited about the prospects for the cow/calf sector. He envisions that many producers, whether large or small, will eventually become part of alliances to reap the benefits of herd improvements.

"We've seen tremendous gains regarding the variation in quality within herds," he says. "Now, we're seeing artificial insemination on more smaller opera tions. Producers can buy semen economically and obtain the benefits of the top sires in the country."

Hall adds the prospects offered by gene mapping technology are tremendous. Researchers at Texas A&M University have isolated some genes and most importantly, he says, is that NCBA owns some of the technology.

"We're about to share in the commercialization of this work," he says. "It's going to offer some distinct breeding advantages at a reasonable cost."

Gene mapping, Hall says, is but one advancement to a better product. He credits basic management recommendations such as individual identification, using the Vac 45 program and others to help make a more consumer-friendly product. He sees the diversity in the nation's herd as a plus, saying that the consuming public wants a wide variation in beef selection.

"There are consumers who want a lean cut and some want a heavily marbled cut, as does the HRI segment. We've got to meet each segment's demands. This won't result in a genetic consolidation, but rather identification of which genetics fit which markets."

Hall is realistic about reaching those retail markets. For example, he sees a bright spot in the current trend of retail grocer mega mergers. He says the benefit to the beef industry is that there are fewer players to influence. Once they're convinced of beef's viability, their impact on the number of retail stores is greater, resulting in more beef on more shelves.

Entrepreneurial Success Identification of specific markets is happening, Hall says, and it's successful entrepreneurs who are addressing them.

"Economic success naturally brings more people into an industry. Look at the electronics business, for example. As it has grown, it's attracted more investors to fuel the growth.

"The same will happen to beef," Hall adds. "As retail sales go up, beef will attract more investors whether it be from the product or research areas. The spirit of entrepreneurship involves making profit. NCBA needs to be catalyst for this spirit."

Hall sees similar potential for global marketing as economies develop and income increases in certain markets. Diversity of opinion often creates dissension, but Hall doesn't see that within NCBA. He says contrasting viewpoints strengthen the organization.

"Agriculture in general is under severe pressure from all directions and there's a definite need for NCBA to represent its members' viewpoints. NCBA exists for one overall reason - to enhance members' business positions, their quality of life and build demand for our product. This existence demands that we influence policy that affects our products."

He credits the strong Washington, DC, presence that NCBA holds and the influence of the American National CattleWomen on legislators for the litany of policy successes.

"A year ago, a Blue Ribbon task force examined NCBA's structure. It recommended that all activities focus on market and demand stabilization, and adding value to our product," Hall says. "All committee activity must meet these two criteria."

The strength of state associations and their members will allow NCBA to meet these standards, Hall says. He adds state affiliations, their support and activities have allowed NCBA to reach the goals it has to date. In fact, all policies originate at the state level.

NCBA is continuing to progress toward its consolidation goals. Consolidation of offices in Denver is on schedule. Savings from staff cuts already amount to $1.6 million annually.

"We hope to have a site for the new Beef Center by this month," Hall says. "Our goal from the outset was to get the best financial deal for members. That's one reason we decided to buy a site, rather than lease."

While leasing offers less initial cost, it offers no equity, Hall says.

"Members have been adamant about getting a return. We can build on a site for about $3.5 million, which can be sold if needed and the money reinvested where members recommend. We can also attract industry-related businesses to locate on or near our site."