I grew up like the vast majority of Americans – two or more generations removed from the farm. I had never even heard of a feedyard until I toured my future father-in-law’s; inaccurately thinking that all cattle traveled straight from the pasture to the packing plant. Two years later (June 1997), I went to work at the feedyard. Amidst the animals, the land, and the never-ending list of chores, I’ve learned powerful lessons that guide me on my journey of humanely raising food animals.
Each day, I look at my feedyard with two sets of eyes: those of a cattle feeder and those of an advocate. Today, I share thoughts from both perspectives as seen through my crystal ball for the future of the beef production.
5 lessons I learned from my cattle
Proper preconditioning is vital to animal performance. Take the time to vaccinate, provide good nutrition early in life, and teach your cattle to trust a human caregiver before they leave the home ranch. Share that information with the next owner of the cattle so that appropriate care can continue despite the change in address.
A calf must be bred with an innate desire to live (vigor), and phenotypically capable of remaining healthy all of the way to the packing plant. This includes having a physical structure that allows it to attain an appropriate harvest weight without compromising welfare.
Limiting stress on cattle is critical for both calf health and performance. To effectively limit stress, cattle caregivers must work together in order to continuously meet the needs of the calf. Sharing information up and down the production chain, as well as working to limit transportation and acclimation stress, allows the calf to remain healthy and efficiently convert resources into high-quality beef. Collaboration provides the key as the animal moves from one farm to another along the production chain.
Establishing a “partner mentality” allows for improvement in animal care as well as beef quality. Together we get stronger. Together we work for continuous improvement. Together we grow beef that we are proud to share with our families. There is very little room for “I” in the beef production chain, a concentration on “we” creates sustainability as we look to the future.
- It is the little things that count. Paying attention to detail when caring for a prey animal is a critical component for success. Cattle are creatures of habit as well as being sensitive to their environment. Learn to “think like a calf” so that you can set him up for success.
5 lessons learned from my customers
Don’t do anything on your farm that you cannot explain. What people outside of your farm think is important – they ultimately sign your paycheck.
Tell the true story – be real, be personal, be sincere. Focus on what you know – your farm – yet recognize that there are multiple ways to grow food with integrity.
Understand that you will have to share of yourself in order to build trust. It is people who have relationships and establish trust – there has to be a personal commitment that goes with making your farm transparent.
While drama can escalate fame and create temporary social media hype, that type of outreach rarely creates trust. I more closely resemble the “tortoise” of the blogging world, than the “hare.” I believe that meaningful engagement stems from genuine dedication to both transparency and empathy.
- Agriculture needs to “pack.” We need to be dedicated to our common ground as farmers/ranchers while also celebratory of our differences. Ridiculing our contemporaries and professional consultants does nothing but cause industry self-destruction. Whether this belittling is done for personal marketing gain or simply in spite, it is unacceptable.
A few weeks ago, a student in the Kansas State University Masters of Agribusiness Program asked me how (as an outsider) I had become liked and accepted by the “beef family.” I laughed a bit and told him that the jury was likely still out relative to whether other cattlemen really liked me. Instead of focusing on popularity, I made the choice many years ago to concentrate instead on earning respect by demonstrating that I had something meaningful to share.
This morning, I walked onto the stage at the national Cattle Industry Convention to accept the honor of being BEEF magazine’s 2014 Trailblazer Award winner. If asked 20 years ago where I would spend my 40th birthday, I do not think that I could have ever conjured up this answer. I am thankful, I am humbled, I am proud, but most of all I pray that my efforts will spark positive change in both beef animal welfare and advocacy.
I tell my daughters that “The road to excellence is rarely comfortable. Excellence isn’t about comfort; rather it is about reaching above and beyond your capabilities in order to accomplish far more than your dreams.” I believe that there is excellence in all of our futures – we simply need to be brave enough to work for it.
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