To today’s average consumers, the vast majority of whom are generations removed from the land, the terms “feedyard” and “foodie” don’t seem to share much compatibility. Anne Burkholder is out to change that, and she loudly trumpets that mission in the name of her popular blog called just that: “Feedyard Foodie.”
Perhaps there’s no better person to take up that challenge. Burkholder is herself a contradiction of sorts. She’s a city kid raised in Palm Beach County, FL, and Ivy League-educated with a degree in psychology from Dartmouth University. Yet, today, she operates Will Feed Inc., a 3,000-head capacity feedyard in Cozad, NE.
She’s also in the vanguard of beef producers reaching out to establish relationships with consumers and provide a face to beef production.
“I think the industry is behind the eight ball on transparency, in particular when it comes to feedyards. 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.
Feedyard Foodie is designed to be that window. Through her blog, Burkholder educates visitors about the beef industry, and cattle feeding in particular. But perhaps as important, she shares with readers her personal story, her values and life philosophy. A big part of that public persona is her family — husband Matt and their three daughters.
“I certainly talk about production practices on my blog site, but the other half of that is that 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.
The passion of a convert
There’s perhaps no stronger passion for a cause than that in the heart of a convert. Unfettered by tradition, such folks are perhaps more prone to examine an issue critically, more open to adopting new methods and management philosophies. A confident, articulate and personable young woman, Burkholder certainly embodies that.
Her urban-to-rural journey began her freshman year at Dartmouth when she met fellow student and future husband Matt. He grew up on a farming/cattle feeding operation in the Platte River Valley. Three years later, Anne and Matt were married.
Once Anne finished her degree in psychology, the couple decided they wanted to come home and raise their future family in small-town America. Even more than that, however, they wanted a lifestyle that would allow their kids to participate.
So they came home to Cozad, located on I-80 in central Nebraska, population just under 4,000. Matt joined the family farming operation, and Anne considered her options.
“I didn’t know what a feedyard was when I came to Cozad the first time. I didn’t think negatively of it, I just didn’t know it existed.”
Intrigued, she says, by the animals and the process, she decided it was something she wanted to try. “So I asked my father-in-law, Dave, if he would give me a job. He took a tremendous leap of faith when he said yes,” she says.
A determined Burkholder started at the bottom, at $6.85/hour. “I learned how to run a feed truck and a scoop shovel and how to walk pens; most of these jobs I still do today.” In fact, she says, the operation’s small size is one of the big attractions for her. “My feedyard is small enough that I don’t have a desk job. I’m out there every day handling animals, working with my crew,” she says.
She credits “two very wonderful men” as instrumental in her professional growth. “My father-in-law is a tremendous mentor and businessman, with an MBA from Stanford [University]. I learned the business side from Dave,” she says. Meanwhile, Archie Curtice, the feedyard’s longtime manager who is now retired, was an invaluable resource, too, she says, as were other crew members at the time.
“They were willing to take me in and teach me, and I was willing to work very hard. I tried to work harder than anyone else because I had to prove myself,” she says.
It wasn’t an easy transition for a city kid with no background in agriculture. “But I tell my children that the road to excellence is never comfortable. Excellence isn’t about comfort; it’s about digging deep and trying hard to achieve more than you ever thought you could. That’s very much the way I’ve lived my life, and I hope my kids do as well.”
Between farming and feeding, she and Matt were successful in involving their children. “Fall and winter are busy times for the feedyard, and spring and summer are busy for farming, so our schedules were complementary for spending maximum time with the kids. We have a lifestyle where we don’t travel or vacation much, but we’re able to raise the kids doing what we do,” Anne says. The eldest child, Ashley Grace, turns 15 in December, while Megan is 12 and Karyn is 10.
Low-stress cattle management
Back at the feedyard, Anne has taken over the operation. She’s owner, assistant cowboy, bunk reader, environmental steward and marketing manager. She does all the cattle buying, mostly in the local area and direct off the ranch. Will Feed Inc. feeds mostly its own cattle, but does a little custom work and some partnering with ranchers who want to retain ownership.
She buys direct because she seeks to establish relationships, so that information can be passed 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 practiced religiously. Buying calves locally and direct minimizes the transportation stress, she says, while finished cattle have only a 20-mile transport to the Tyson plant down the road. 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.
Burkholder served on the Nebraska BQA advisory group for a decade and currently serves on the national committee. In fact, she worked on the team that created the Transportation Quality Assurance program. Will Feed Inc. was also one of the first practitioners of the BQA feedyard assessment tool.
But Burkholder wanted to move beyond BQA, to “something we could use possibly to build a brand, an even more powerful management tool to ensure that our feedyard was running as well as it absolutely could,” she says.
Her industry volunteer work put her in touch with John Butler, CEO of Progressive Beef, and they discussed participation in the Progressive Beef Quality System Assessment (QSA) program. It’s a third-party-verified series of protocols in the areas of food safety animal welfare and sustainability. She signed on.
A few months later, Will Feed Inc. became part of 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.
Together, Burkholder says the two affiliations have proven out. “These have been a great group of people to work with, and we’re out there producing good cattle using the Progressive Beef QSA to make sure out management is outstanding, and we’re trying to reach back to the consumer to create some relationships and try to sell some beef,” she says.
Long industry 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 she’s testified before Congress on animal care issues. Will Feed Inc. was recognized by Certified Angus Beef Feedyard of the Year in 2012.
“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.
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“Anne behaves on a daily basis as if every beef consumer is watching over her shoulder. If she can’t justify it to our consumer, she won’t do it. She is constantly searching for newer and better ways to care for her animals to meet our consumers’ expectations. In industry meetings she asks tough questions and expects straight answers, much like our consumer. She is a driving force in our journey towards continuous improvement,” Williams says.
Burkholder credits the BQA award and the MBA experience for giving her the opportunity to reach beyond her farm gate. “Those are what really got me started in telling my story. But I couldn’t travel much because of my kids and my feedyard. So that’s where the idea of blogging came in.”
Williams calls her a “one-woman trust-building machine” on behalf of the entire beef community. “By making herself so accessible, she benefits everyone in the beef community by addressing consumer concerns about the way beef is raised. She isn’t just a beef advocate. She is an advocate for the consumer, and I think that’s what makes her so effective,” he says.
Burkholder responds this way: “I hope I’ve proven myself. I’ve worked hard to try to do a lot of volunteer work to give back to the industry that’s given me a profession. I do believe I bring a unique perspective because I didn’t grow up in the beef industry. I’m known for saying what I think, but if you don’t push and don’t look for things that can get better, then you never get better.”
And she hopes more producers, but particularly cattle feeders, will follow her lead.
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