Will Feed Inc.'s front sign tells it all
Anne Burkholder, cattle feeder from Cozad, NE, is BEEF magazine’s 21st Trailblazer Award honoree. The annual award is bestowed annually by BEEF editors to a producer for his or her volunteer industry efforts on behalf of the U.S. beef industry. The award is sponsored by John Deere. (photo by Miranda Reiman)
Raising a family in small-town America
Matt and Anne Burkholder wanted to raise their future family in small-town America. Their daughters, from left, Ashley Grace, Megan and Karyn, have grown up working with their parents in the farming and cattle feeding operations located in Nebraska's Platte River Valley. Matt is a Cozad, NE, native.
Life in Cozad
Home to about 4,000 people, Cozad is located just north of I-80 in central Nebraska. In her blog, Feedyard Foodie, Burkholder characterizes her adopted home this way: "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."
Will Feed, Inc., feeds mostly its own cattle, but does a little custom work and some partnering with ranchers who want to retain ownership.
Burkholder prefers to buy calves direct in order to establish relationships and pass information up and down the system. All cattle are sold on the grid.
Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) principles are a cornerstone at Will Feed, Inc., and low-stress animal management is religiously practiced. Anne even spends time each morning for several days acclimating new arrivals to their home pen, getting them used to calm movement and being handled on foot.
Feeling great about the job she does
Anne Burkholder proudly calls herself both a food producer and mother. "I really love to eat beef, and it is important to me that I feel good about my food choices. Because I care about the environment and the sustainability of our earth, I strive to raise beef responsibly. At the end of the day, I want to feel good about both how I spent my day raising cattle and also about the beef that I place on the dinner table for my family to eat," she says.
More than a cattlewoman
Feedyard Foodie is designed to be a window of transparency into the beef production and specifically cattle feeding. But Burkholder also shares her personal story, her values and life philosophy. A big part of that public persona is her family – husband Matt and their three daughters. "If you’re going to ask someone to trust you, they have to know who you are and what kind of person you are,” she says.
3 generations of strong women
Anne Burkholder poses in June 1996 with her mother Sally Gibson and grandmother Irma McCall. Burkholder says of her late grandmother. “While I cannot even begin to describe all that my Grannie taught me, the following lessons are those that I hold closest to my heart:
• Marriage is a sacred commitment. Honor it by cherishing your husband.
• Family is the epicenter of life’s true joy. Be a devoted nurturer.
• True beauty exists when love is given unconditionally. Love without judgement.
• Real strength lies in your ability to support and inspire others to greatness. Success is defined by how many people you quietly mentor.
• Empathy requires an open mind, and the realization that others have something meaningful to give. Look outside of yourself so that you can be a student of the world.
Reaching out from the country
Via her blog, Feedyard Foodie, Anne Burkholder reaches beyond the bounds of her operation's gates to curious consumers across the country. She wanted to reach out to consumers but couldn't afford the time away from her family and business. "I began blogging because I had something to say. I wanted to open up my farm in an effort to have a respectful conversation about how I care for cattle and raise beef in a feed yard. I believe in transparency and I believe that every consumer has a right to know how their food is raised," she says.
Will Feed, Inc., signed on as Certified Angus Beef LLC (CAB)-licensed feedlot in 2008. The feedyard's overriding quality focus, data-gathering and details management helped earn Will Feed, Inc. recognition as the 2011 CAB Feedlot Partner of the Year for operations with up to 15,000-head capacity. Matt and Anne accepted the award at the CAB annual conference in Sunriver, OR, CAB's Mark McCully (left) and John Stika (right) presented the award to the Nebraska couple..
I needed partners
Beef Quality Assurance plays a key role in Will Feed Inc.’s everyday operations, but Burkholder wanted to do even more. So Will Feed, Inc., signed up withProgressive Beef Quality System Assessment (QSA) program, a third-party-verified series of protocols in the areas of food safety animal welfare and sustainability. And a few months after that, the 3,000-head-capacity operation joined the Beef Marketing Group, a producer cooperative focused on creating value throughout the beef supply chain.
“With a 3,000-head feedyard, I don’t have enough cattle to exert a lot of say relative to the actual selling of my animals and my beef. I’ve always dreamed about taking my beef to the consumer and it was obvious to me that that wasn’t something I could do myself. I needed partners,” she says.
Explaining the business to outsiders
In her blog, Feedyard Foodie, Burkholder describes her daily routine in caring for livestock and running a feedyard as well as the family role in the business. She also tackles more sensitive topics, carefully explaining the benefits of responsible use of antibiotics, beta agonists and other technologies.
"Consumers have a pejorative idea of a cattle feedyard. I think a lot of it is just because consumers don’t know what a feedyard is, and we’ve allowed activists to portray it as things they’re not. We can fix that by being more transparent,” she says.
She learned from the best
Anne Burkholder credits longtime Will Feed, Inc., manager Archie Curtice (pictured with her here) and her father-in-law, Dave Burkholder, with teaching her the ropes of managing and running the business side of a feedyard. “It took a tremendous leap of faith [for her father-in-law] to give a job to a 22-year-old woman who had no background in agriculture,” Anne says. “But he didn’t give me the manager job right from the start. I went to work for $6.85 an hour, running the feed truck, scooping bunks and processing cattle.”
Casting a long shadow
Will Feed Inc. casts a shadow way beyond its 3,000-head size. In 2009, Burkholder was awarded the first BQA Producer of the Year Award. She’s also a member of the Tyson Fresh Meats Animal Well-being Committee for Farm Check, as well as the National Beef Quality Assurance Advisory Committee. She’s a director of the Nebraska State Beef Council, and testified before Congress on animal care issues.
“Anne doesn’t just talk the talk. She walks the walk,” says Daren Williams, director of the industry’s Masters in Beef Advocacy (MBA) Program. He points out she was one of the first graduates of the industry program that media-trains industry members for consumer outreach.