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Advancing leaders

Dawn paints the vast, open skies of northwestern Nebraska a delicate, fleeting pink that quickly gives way to pale blue as the sun peeks over the legendary Sand Hills, illuminating the Krebs Ranch. A crew is preparing to gather and wean a set of striking Angus calves, the fruit of a herd built through decades of meticulous management and stewardship of genetics. Thanks to those efforts, these calves have been set on a path for greatness, likely to significantly transform the herds they join. Kami and Jake Scott, part of the family team who own and manage Krebs Ranch, hope they’ve helped lay a similar path for the interns they hosted at the ranch this summer.

Among those mustering for the day’s work is Reese Tuckwiller, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln senior, member of the UNL livestock judging team, National Junior Angus Association Board member, Lewisburg, West Virginia, cattleman, Krebs Ranch intern and, by all indications, a current and future leader in the beef industry. After a summer of introducing him to many facets of purebred beef production and observing him in action, the Scotts say he’s just the type they hope to keep in the industry herd.

“There is this really amazing crop of kids out there who have a passion for production agriculture and livestock in general,” Kami says. “We have an amazing opportunity for new leaders; we just have to cultivate that passion and keep them in production agriculture. There’s such a wealth of knowledge and talent out there, and we need to keep that in the industry and not lose them to something else.”

Retaining and recruiting quality

While a city kid may have a tough time breaking into production agriculture, it’s all too easy for talented kids from agricultural backgrounds to be poached by nonagricultural industries. The Scotts are working not only to retain those who already have a passion for the beef industry, but also to help bring in some fresh faces from outside the industry, too.

Jake was once a bit of an industry outsider himself. He grew up in eastern Oklahoma where his parents had a very small operation geared more toward horses, and both had full-time off-farm jobs. He gained more interest in cattle through FFA and showing, which eventually led him to livestock judging. His exposure to quality cattle through judging and the encouragement of his livestock judging coaches at Connors State College and Oklahoma State University continued to fire that growing passion. He went on to work for several industry leading Angus breeders before he and Kami were given the opportunity to return to the Krebs Ranch, Kami’s family operation, in Gordon, Nebraska.

“I learned so many life lessons and skills through livestock judging that have impacted me and influenced what I do through today,” Jake says. “But beyond that, I’ve been really lucky, really fortunate, to work with some really influential people in the business. My father-in-law, Eldon Krebs, would certainly be one of those.”

Those mentor relationships helped build his confidence and knowledge, giving him the tools he needed to rise to their level and serve as an influencer and leader in the beef industry today. He’s also now in a position to help cultivate the next generation of leaders, which he feels will be critical for the industry’s success from day-to-day ranch work all the way up to being a public face for the industry.

He notes that farms and ranches are getting larger and larger, which means a husband, wife and hired hand probably won’t cut it in the future. “If you’ve been around agriculture for more than five minutes, you’ve heard the discussion about quality help and how difficult it is to find,” he says. “What we can do is work with young people who, like me when I first started out, want to learn and get better. Even if they don’t have a huge background we can help them reach their maximum ability. Not only will that help us in our operation for finding help, but also help the industry as a whole.”

Grabbing opportunities

Tuckwiller is another livestock judger who has developed a passion for quality Angus cattle through producing and showing cattle from his family’s 350-head purebred Angus and Hereford herds. A frequent reader of bull catalogs, he was very familiar with the Krebs Ranch and its industry-leading herd.

When his judging team members stopped by the Krebs Ranch to practice on their way to the Denver Stock Show, he asked his judging coach about potential internships with the ranch. Being proactive paid off for Tuckwiller, and a few months later he was showing up for his first day on the job.

“We were setting up recip cows and Reese jumped right in. I remember being pleasantly surprised at how much knowledge and ability he already seemed to have,” Jake says. While working cows was similar, there were some stark differences between Tuckwiller’s Greenbrier Valley cattle operation and the vast expanses of the Krebs Ranch.

“We’re more condensed and compact. We can run a pair and a half per acre, it’s definitely not the wide open spaces of Nebraska,” Tuckwiller explains. Before arriving he had built up some anxiety that he would be doing a lot of work horseback. “It popped into my head that I would be riding a horse every day and I hadn’t ridden a horse in so long!”

It turns out he did most of his work on ATVs, just like at home, and had to pester the guys at the feedlot in order to get some of that much anticipated horse work under his belt. While horses may have been a minimal part of the job, Tuckwiller was given a vast range of experiences in beef production. The Krebs Ranch, founded by Eldon and Louisa Krebs in the late 1970s, has many working parts. There’s a feedlot for developing bulls and heifers, a sizeable purebred cow/calf herd, a bull stud—Western Sires Service—which Kami manages, along with farm ground to help support the enterprise.

“Going from the feedlot to the cow/calf operation gives you a totally different perspective on what different sectors of the industry are doing. Gaining those different perspectives can make us stronger as an industry because, as a leader, I can understand more about what’s going on and give an opinion,” Tuckwiller says.

The learning opportunities for Tuckwiller were ample and earned both through sweat and tapping into the years of livestock experience surrounding him.

“We were sorting cattle and Eldon was running the gate, not just looking at numbers in a book, but doing a pheno analysis of each heifer. I asked him to call out what he did and didn’t like,” Tuckwiller recalls. “He was giving me a keen eye of what to look for and gain perspective. If I can pick apart a specific animal and tell you why, that can help me out in a judging contest or on my operation at home.”

He notes his time at Krebs helped him differentiate cattle and have a more critical eye for what the industry is currently going for. Also to recognize what styles of cattle are becoming popular and which are being dropped based on current production needs. “Their management practices are incredible in terms of animal husbandry and how they manage their cattle in terms of mineral programs, vaccine programs and just day-to-day operations,” Tuckwiller says.

These are all lessons Tuckwiller hopes to take back to his own farm. Agriculture isn’t a leading industry for West Virginia, and Tuckwiller sees great opportunity for him to advance his own genetics and management skills, setting an example for those who surround him to emulate. He’s also interested in working with youth.

“I don’t think I’m a leader. I’d rather be behind the scenes pushing someone in the right direction,” Tuckwiller says. “I want to follow in my dad’s footsteps. He was our county judging coach for 26 years and was able to help out a lot of kids, influencing them and helping them out down their career path. I think that’s a great way to be an ambassador for ag.”

Helping form a leader who may not want to be thrust into the national spotlight is just fine with Jake. “We want to expose kids to the opportunities that lie right here on the ranch at the grassroots level and to understand how important and how rewarding those things can be,” Jake says. “I hope we can contribute to some of the leaders taking advantage of that.”

Building skills

Tuckwiller says interning on the Krebs Ranch has helped him further connect with the ag industry in a meaningful way. “A lot of my classmates are seeking a degree, but not a future employer. They’re learning all these things, but they don’t have the fire to get out there and talk to producers and make connections. It’s just chasing a degree and a letter grade, it’s not necessarily preparing for a life after school,” he says.

Tuckwiller, on the other hand, collects connections like breeders collect genetics. And from those connections he also collects some valuable life lessons.

“One of the main things I’ve learned from judging, going to college and working at Krebs’ or at home is that life is full of decisions and being able to make and execute decisions, to call it how it is and not go back on your word, is important. So is accountability. If you say you’re going to do something, do it,” he says.

It’s that drive that made him a good fit at Krebs Ranch and a good fit for the future of agriculture, just like Jake was when he was in college.

“I certainly wasn’t born with the knowledge. I didn’t come from a big ranch background and there was a lot of stuff I had to learn from the bottom up,” Jake says. “What was so valuable to me was having someone who wanted to take a chance on someone who was wanting to learn and was willing to put in the work and the time to learn.

“Seeing a young person like Reese grow up and evolve and develop into a leader is something that is pretty sentimental to me. You pretty quickly remember the people who helped you and it certainly makes me want to pay that back. You see someone like Reese who wants to take a chance, wants to better themselves and grow their knowledge, it’s hard not to want to help them. And it’s not just for a summer. We want to continue to have a relationship with Reese and folks like Reese as they continue on in whatever direction they go, hopefully in the cattle business.”

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Growing leaders

The last remnants of dust clinging to boots and pants shake off with each step, settling to the white laminate floors as students shuffle out into the hallway of the R.B. Warren Arena at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln East Campus animal science complex. They break into pairs and groups, lingering to chat or heading off to their next class or meeting, all under the watchful grey-toned eyes of hundreds of those who walked the same path before them, peering out from their place of honor on the wall.

All of the more than 100 black and white photos lining the hallway depict a livestock judging team from UNL’s past, chronicling a program that predates even the earliest picture of the 1908 team. It’s also a veritable who’s who of the premier breeders and industry leaders of the last century. These young men and women took their experiences in livestock judging and leveraged them into careers that have helped them shape the beef industry, improving it from within and promoting it to the masses. They’re breeders, scientists, association leaders and more. UNL judging coach Brad Bennett holds high hopes the current group of students and judgers will go on to achieve similar, or even greater, successes.

“It’s vital that we raise up new leaders within our industry,” he says. “There’s always been a core of people that have not only progressed the industry in terms of production tactics, but also those who have been vocal and at the forefront, those people we can really look to as leaders of the industry. It’s the next generation’s job going forward to continue to grow and promote the industry. Without those young people who have a passion for what they do and literally love to get up every day and be around livestock, we’re going to struggle to find our voice.”

Despite the multitude of ways agricultural students can learn and participate at UNL, livestock judging in particular, he says, provides a set of skills that can really push the future leaders of the beef and other agricultural industries to the next level.

“At its core, livestock judging is about teaching young people in the industry how to select livestock and be able to integrate and adapt new technologies and principles into livestock production,” Bennett says. Livestock judging teaches not only physical selection and knowledge of anatomy, but also how that correlates to the goals of the industry. They also learn about making mating decisions and using genetics and technologies to guide their choices.

But as they learn to form and mold a successful herd, the young livestock judgers themselves are being built up for future roles in leadership. “These students learn how to make decisions, become excellent problem solvers and are more than willing to stand behind their decisions and defend them,” Bennett says of his team of judges. They build core principles of success including critical thinking, communication and teamwork, all things Bennett is sure will appeal to future employers and serve the students well as they take their next steps in life.

Under pressure

Livestock judging is an intense experience. Once the card is marked and handed over to the official, the livestock judger must stand behind his or her ranking of four animals that often, at least at a cursory glance, look virtually identical. Stress isn’t immediately alleviated once the cards are collected, though. Now the livestock judger has to defend those decisions by giving a set of oral reasons.

“Oral reasons are an art and a science all their own,” Bennett says. Livestock judges have to walk up to a complete stranger, one on one, and articulate exactly why they made their decisions. They’re scored on their accuracy and how well they describe the livestock, but also on their presentation. “They have to be excellent, well-prepared, confident speakers. Those public speaking and communication skills will take them further in life than anything else they will probably learn here because it’s applicable no matter if they become an industry leader, a lawyer or a doctor. You always have to be able to communicate and reasons are a great way to teach kids how to do that well and give them confidence in themselves.”

Confidence is built through hard work. The time not taken up by normal college coursework is dominated by livestock judging practice. Bennett works with the team on reasons two to three nights per week and once Friday afternoons hit, the team is usually on the road headed to a workout or a contest. Even the hours spent whiling away in the van aren’t wasted as growth opportunities. Here is where Bennett has seen great characters of leadership form, especially in the case of Reese Tuckwiller, a fellow Virginian (though West in this case) Bennett recruited to the team in 2015.

“Reese really embraces the family atmosphere of the team. He wants to know his teammates and supports them. He genuinely wants the people he surrounds himself with to be successful. I think that really defines him as a leader because it’s not just about promoting yourself. Leaders bring up those around them. They make everybody around them better people.”

Though Tuckwiller sees it as much as a support system for himself. “I came from West Virginia not knowing a lot of people out here, so it was nice to have this huge support system you can lean on,” he says. “I spend more time around these people than anyone else in life. They’re like a giant family.”

And as in any family, there’s always someone to look up to. In Reese’s case it was his brother, Slayter, who blazed the path for Reese to get into showing cattle. On the UNL livestock judging team, that trail-blazing brother just might be Reese himself.

“Reese is one of the most outstanding people I’ve ever been around,” Bennett says. “He is the epitome of somebody who gives you 110 percent in everything he does, from academics to his work in the community to livestock judging,” Bennett says.

As a transfer student with previous collegiate livestock judging experience, Tuckwiller came on the team with a substantial amount of experience as compared to many of his teammates. This forced him into a leadership role and he embraced it, Bennett says.

“He really tried to make sure those who looked up to him and went to him for advice got that. He’s shown more leadership capability in the last year than some people show in their entire lifetime. He’s always looking around and finding ways to bring up those around him,” Bennett says.

He recalls one specific instance on a cold January day when the team was having a rough workout. Performance was lacking from everyone, including Tuckwiller. But as Bennett stepped away to set up the next class, he noticed Tuckwiller giving what appeared to be a pep talk to his team. “When you have a bad day at practice, it weighs hard on you. He was trying to get everyone back on a positive note. He was helping them manage the mental side of judging and working through adversity.”

Planting seeds

As Bennett watched Tuckwiller build up his teammates, he recognized some amazing leadership traits he knows will take this young livestock judger far in life. While it’s easy for him to see, he knows Tuckwiller may be completely oblivious to what his actions mean—just as Bennett was once ignorant to his own set of positive attributes.

“When a coach or mentor says you seem like ‘X’ kind of person, you often sit there and think to yourself, ‘I’ve never thought of myself that way,'” Bennett says.

Bennett was told long ago he’d make an excellent teacher and coach, a notion he scoffed at in his youth but has obviously now embraced.

“Very rarely do you realize it when you’re young, but those comments and observations are planting a seed in a young mind,” he says. “They’re saying, ‘Hey, you can do this. You can be this person. You have a quality that will allow you to excel at certain things way down the line.’ I think those seeds of hope get a young person’s mind going as to what their capabilities really are.”

Bennett values those who planted those seeds with him during his youth and tenure as a livestock judger himself. As he worked up through the ranks judging in high school, taking the national championship with his Butler Community College judging team in Kansas and a reserve national championship with his Kansas State University livestock judging team, he found the people, as much as the experiences, guided his path.

“I took from those experiences a set of mentors that pushed me at all times to be the best person I could possibly be. Through livestock judging not only did I learn more about the industry, but how to be the right kind of leader down the line. I learned it’s done by example. I had mentors in front of me that I could emulate,” he says.

Now Bennett is doing his best to set a positive example, foster and nurture leadership in his students and plant the seeds that may help them succeed down the line. Not every seed planted is the same. He notes there are many kinds of leaders. There are those who work behind the scenes, leading by example through their actions and interactions, building trust. Then there are those who thrive in the spotlight, serving as a voice to the industry and a face for the industry to the outside. Everyone, he says, is geared differently.

“It’s on us as professors and people who interact with youth at this level to understand what makes a person tick and identify personality traits we can accentuate to help that person do well. If you can do that, you can make confident young people who can be themselves, not try to be like someone they’ve seen on TV. To me, that’s what a strong leader is. Somebody who is confident in their own skin, who knows their strengths and is willing to use them,” Bennett says.

Bennett has high hopes for his judging team, including Tuckwiller.

“It’s the best feeling in the world when you have someone who was a part of your program go on to do great things when they leave,” Bennett says. “Reese has a fire and a passion inside of him for everything he does, especially when it comes to purebred livestock. As a coach and a teacher, those are the qualities in young people you hope to find. To see someone take that passion and manifest it into something great is incomprehensible in terms of how proud I’d be.”

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Foundations of Leadership

Built in 1944 by Tuckwiller’s grandfather, this barn was where Tuckwiller learned hard work and responsibility caring for his show animals and toiling in the hot hay loft stacking alfalfa square bales. It’s also a representation of his family’s legacy in the valley, one he hopes to add to through his work in beef production.

The road home for 22-year-old Reese Tuckwiller twists and turns, weaving through dense hardwood forests as it climbs the western slope of the West Virginian Alleghany Mountains. As Tuckwiller overtakes the pass summit, his home—the Greenbrier Valley— unfurls before him gloriously green, expansive and bursting with potential. Much like the fertile valley stretching out to the distant mountain-lined horizon so, too, stretches the limitless potential of the young beef producer’s future in the industry he’s grown to love.

Nine generations of Tuckwillers have made Lewisburg, West Virginia, their home, including many generations involved in livestock production in various forms. Having family roots dug to the lowest stratum of the earth’s crust in a community and in an industry gives Reese a deep sense of belonging, pride and ownership.

“Our family legacy is our family farm and our family name. It’s something you can stamp on your hat and it can’t be taken away,” he says. “We’ve been in the exact spot for nine generations, every one of us coming over the same hill and knowing where the old fencelines were, the orchards and the grist mill. There’s a history here as well as forward movement. We’re moving forward in technology and practice, transferring knowledge to the next generation, which is my generation. It’s my job to keep the family legacy going.”

For Tuckwiller, that legacy includes living up to the firmly ingrained values of hard work, community service and leadership. These values were not only taught, they were demonstrated by his parents, Jackson and Kathryn, and his grandfather, John, along with other family members. They’re lessons so frequently practiced they are simple muscle memory at this point, almost applied without thought to his various endeavors such as showing Angus cattle, and hogs, judging livestock through high school and now collegiately at the University of Nebraska and in his service on the 2015-2017 National Junior Angus Association Board of Directors. And he will likely continue to add strength to those lessons as he continues forward in life working to improve his family operation, his community and, through leadership, the beef industry as a whole.

Tuckwiller’s experiences and the influencers that have impacted him seem to be molding him to be the sort who ends up in leadership positions. And leaders from the local to the national levels are those often responsible for guiding and shaping the beef industry. Leaders embrace new technologies and practices, push other producers to improve their herds, guide policy, help bridge the gap between producers and consumers and, ultimately, help beef producers make an even better steak.

So what goes into making a great leader? Well, for Tuckwiller—who seems to be on that path—it includes some great examples and lots of hard work.

Developing a passion

Passionate is a description often used to describe great leaders. Those in the beef industry are passionate about cattle, and Tuckwiller is no exception. “Give me a pedigree and I can talk about it with you all day,” Tuckwiller laughs. “I can always talk cows.”

That’s probably because he grew up surrounded by them. “Our house is literally in the middle of a pasture, there are cows all around us,” he says. His father and uncle run 260 registered Angus cows and 40 Herefords cows, and sell stocker calves, bulls and bred heifers that spend their days grazing the lush clover and grass-covered meadows of the valley floor. It was from these herds that Tuckwiller selected his first show animal. He got his start in the National Junior Angus Association at 9 years old. He and his brother, Slayter attended shows, hitting as many as they could on the East Coast when they were getting started.

“We didn’t always walk out of the ring with a purple banner, but those are material things. The friendships, networking and the family you build, that was the real prize,” he says.

There was plenty of learning, too. “When we came out of the ring and didn’t do the greatest, my dad was always ready with a positive perspective on the experience. He would say, let’s look at it and see what we did right and what we can do better next time. He was very supportive,” Tuckwiller says. It wasn’t just talk. His father also demonstrated positivity, volunteering as a livestock judging coach, helping out with church upkeep and supporting the community.

His father also made Tuckwiller and his brother take full responsibility for their show animals. They rose early in the morning to feed their calves, put them in the barn and do whatever other chores might be necessary. “I hated it when I was growing up,” Tuckwiller recalls. “I didn’t realize until I was older how simple it was and how much I miss it now that I’m in college. But it was necessary. Those were my projects, my responsibilities. Yet at the time I didn’t realize that’s what my dad was teaching me.”

His grandfather taught him the power of earning knowledge and developing skills. “He never told you every little detail of how to do a task—he was more the type to make you pick things up as you went, learning from your mistakes and figuring everything out eventually,” Tuckwiller recalls. “He was also one of the most caring dudes in the world.”

Tuckwiller remembers every Sunday his grandpa would hop on his old John Deere model LA mowing tractor and mow the ditches of the road side pastures throughout the community for the neighbors. “He cared about what things looked like and how they were presented even if no one else was paying attention. He took pride in his community,” Reese says. He also took pride in his young grandson. “When we started showing cattle we weren’t sure how we would work out having my cows on the farm, and what rent would cost of the livestock. Yet, he said get as many cattle as you can. We’re here to support you. Take advantage of the opportunities people give you now so you can give those opportunities to others later. He was always willing to take a chance on something or someone.”

One such case was when John let a friend of Reese’s brother show one of the farm heifers as a project. The kid didn’t grow up on a farm and had no experience, yet Tuckwiller’s grandpa John gave him an opportunity to step into the industry.

Guiding hands

A love for the industry and a good work ethic certainly provide a couple layers of bricks in the foundation of a future leader, but there are some skills that help push a person from a solid member of the group to a leader of the masses. Tuckwiller picked up a few of those skills under the tutelage of his father when he started judging livestock.

“My dad was a volunteer livestock judging coach for 25 years,” Tuckwiller says. “He was intense and had high expectations. I wanted to make him proud, so I spent long days judging livestock and gave reasons late into the night.”

While being able to look over a class of cattle and rank them based on phenotype and expected progeny differences and other observations is certainly useful to any beef producer, livestock judges pick up a few bonus skills that are certain to be valuable in leaders.

“It forces you to make decisions. Once you’ve turned in your card you can’t take it back. Then when you give reasons you have to back up that decision whether it’s good or bad and take responsibility,” he says. It’s hard to argue the negatives of having a decisive leader capable of explaining his decisions and who is accustomed to being held accountable for those decisions. “Reasons especially also help you become a better communicator. You walk into a room and have to tell a complete stranger what you did and why. You have to be able to effectively communicate.”

Developing these skills takes work. As Tuckwiller moved on to judging at Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Illinois, and eventually the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he was faced with balancing full credit loads at school along with a demanding schedule. “We travel every weekend and miss about three weeks of school annually. That makes you really develop some time management skills,” he says.

But Tuckwiller was sure to never slack thanks to some lessons learned at the kitchen table back in West Virginia. “My mom was pretty tough. She was of the opinion if you didn’t help out and do your fair share you didn’t eat,” Tuckwiller laughs. Fortunately, Tuckwiller never went hungry and continues to apply the skills he picked up from family, coaches and his ever–growing network of influencers in the beef industry to continue stepping up and stepping out as a promising young leader.

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