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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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The Golden Days of Beef

By Martha Mintz

Rod and Christine Lewis with daughter Rebecca Mettler.
Rod and Christine Lewis with daughter Rebecca Mettler.

When Christine Lewis steps out her kitchen door each morning-usually about 8 a.m. as she “doesn’t like mornings,” a rarity in the livestock world-she’s immediately greeted by the sight of her family’s Angus-Simmental cross cattle lazily browsing on pasture. Their black noses are buried deep in the vibrant green fescue grass that has helped secure southwest Missouri as a beef cattle haven.

As she does every morning, Christine hops on her 4-wheeler. Its put-a-put-putting engine noises cut sharply through the otherwise quiet morning as she heads off down a tree-lined lane to check cattle.

Their 400-head herd is separated into eight groups to accommodate fall and spring calving cows, weaned steers and heifers and yearlings. As she pulls through a barrier of oak, walnut and hickory trees, which may have been just saplings when the Lewis family first took possession of the land in southwest Lawrence County, Missouri, in 1878, Christine takes her time hoping to spot the deer and turkeys that frequent the area.

“My husband accuses me of spending more time looking for deer and turkeys than checking on the cattle,” laughs the seasoned rancher in her softly lilting Missouri accent.

No wildlife in sight, she cuts out across the pasture leaving tracks in the dew to make sure all the cattle are in good health. “We’ve got to take care of our livestock properly or we won’t be able to make a living,” she says. “We invest a lot of time and money to make sure they’re healthy. We don’t just stick them out in the pasture and leave them-we make sure they’re OK.”

Checking cattle with an all-terrain vehicle is one of many ranch chores that the previous generations of Lewises would shake their head at with wonder.

“This industry is so completely different now than it was even when I got my start 30 years ago,” says Christine’s husband, Rod, standing in the cool shade of his big white barn emblazoned with the Lewis family 4R brand. He sees a reminder of the massive changes every morning when he pours his coffee.

“There’s a picture in my kitchen of my great grandfather and grandfather standing with a steer that wouldn’t yield 50 percent and they’re just as proud as can be of it,” he says. Rod couldn’t show his face at the sale barn if he tried to market such an animal today.

He notes in his lifetime alone they’ve gone from weaning 300-pound calves to 700-pound calves, he can put up more tons of forage in a day than they used to in a month, use AI to advance his herd’s genetics or use genomics to map out positives and negatives in their very genetic makeup, market his cattle by video from the comfort of his own home, and the list goes on. “In the last five to 10 years the changes have really hit warp speed. The cattle industry is changing fast. It’s really amazing,” he says.

Upping the health ante

Cattle from Missouri used to have a reputation, and it wasn’t a good one. “Back in the 1990s Missouri calves had a reputation for being sick and dying and costing the feeding industry millions of dollars,” says Jackie Moore, co-owner of Joplin Regional Stockyards, just a scant 12 miles down the interstate from the Lewis ranch. Joplin Regional Stockyards set out to change that reputation by pioneering preconditioning and value-added programs. These programs incentivized area producers to have solid vaccination protocols and wean their calves prior to marketing, helping to transition them more smoothly to the next phase of their life.

The Lewises took advantage of these preconditioning programs, but were mostly just getting credit for the good practices they were already following on their ranch. Today they’ve built a tremendously positive reputation for high-quality, healthy cattle and are able to obtain top dollar for their calves by following the same protocols that are included in many of the programs.

Under the advisement of their trusted veterinarian, Ted Dahlstrom, Animal Clinic of Monett, the Lewises start the path to a healthy calf by securing the health of the mother cow. “I rely on my vet’s knowledge of the industry. He has big test groups and works with vaccine companies and he’ll let us know, good or bad, how products and practices perform. He tells it like it is,” Rod says.

The Lewises have always been progressive, changing up herd health programs over the years as necessary, Dahlstrom says. “And their herd has improved every year as a result,” he says.

The most recent change being a focus on the health of the cows through vaccine programs, mineral supplementation and ensuring their nutritional needs are met at critical points of in the year. Cows are all given prebreeding shots including IBR, Vibrio Lepto and PI3. Healthy cows pass some latent immunity to their calves through colostrum and get them started right.

Calves get two rounds of vaccinations, once in late June for the spring-born calves and a booster in November at weaning. Vaccines address issues such as pasteurella, blackleg, bovine respiratory disease and bovine virus diarrhea. Fenceline weaning, allowing the cows to stay close but separate, reduces stress and illness, helping calves build immunity and move easily on to the next stage of their lives.

The Lewises usually background their calves, feeding them hay until spring when they sell the hale, hearty and feedbunk-broke calves at 900 pounds during a hopefully stronger market than they would see in the fall when a glut of cattle are sold. Sometimes, though, they choose to feed them through to slaughter in feedlots in Kansas or Nebraska.

Benchmarking the herd

Retaining ownership of some of their calf crops has been eye-opening for the Lewises. It’s helped them understand the impact the decisions they make have on their ranch, with their herd, all the way down the line to feeders, packers, retailers and consumers. Especially with health.

“One year we had cattle in northwest Kansas and there was an epic blizzard, but we didn’t lose a single one. I think herd health really saved our bacon there,” Rod says. “We also learned that if you have to treat a sick calf even once that it reduces their chance of grading choice, so we want to avoid sickness if at all possible.”

Feeding cattle off and on for 15 years also allows them to get back valuable data on how their cattle perform for the packer, retailer and consumer. They’ve gone back and made very specific bull selections to improve ribeye area and other factors as indicated was necessary by their experiences.

“Since we’ve fed our cattle and made adjustments, they now yield 80 percent Choice with almost no death loss. We can pass that information on to perspective buyers. They know what their potential is and know they’ll get a better end product,” Christine says.

In the current market, as long as a calf is alive it’s bringing good money. But the Lewises having extra information and a reputation for quality, healthy cattle will increase exponentially in value as cattle producers rebuild their herds and markets take a predictable downward turn.

“We’re really in the golden days of cattle production right now,” Rod says. He notes they’ve spent decades scraping by suffering droughts and severely depressed markets. “Once we worked all year and the profit was just $300.”

But now the Lewises are enjoying a few years of the cattle industry paying off. It’s nice, but it doesn’t much matter to Rod and Christine either way since, “It’s the only thing we know to do and the only thing we’ve ever wanted to do,” Rod says.

It helps to love what you do.

“We raise our cattle with passion,” Christine says. “We put everything into them that we’ve got because it’s our name out there. We want to raise a good, healthy animal that’s been treated humanely so that the people who buy our beef know that it’s been raised the right way.”

The Lewises hope to pass along this passion and to position the ranch so that the sixth generation, their daughter, Rebecca Mettler, can enjoy raising cattle as much as they do one day. She seems to be game.

“We’re a century farm and that’s an important legacy to keep,” she says. “Both of my parents have worked with cattle their whole life and they have a vast amount of knowledge to pass on. The more I can get, the better. I hope this land stays in the family a very long time.”

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Trust in the Ring

By Martha Mintz

Rod and Christine Lewis waiting for their cattle to sell on video.
Rod and Christine Lewis waiting for their cattle to sell on video.

Rod and Christine Lewis situate themselves at Joplin Regional Stockyard in burgundy plastic stadium-style seats smudged liberally with dust kicked up by thousands of feet, both booted and hooved, that pass through the facility weekly. The Missouri cattle producers are a bit anxious, and who can blame them? Unlike those who negotiate their pay up front and have funds zapped directly into their bank accounts each pay period, the Lewises work for months without a dime coming in and are then left to the mercy of the market.

They don’t actually have cattle physically walking through the ring today. Instead their yearlings up for sale are 12 miles down the road, comfortable in their pastures. Buyers will rely on a video of the calves along with valuable information on herd health and past performance to guide their bids. The location of his cattle doesn’t matter to Rod on sale day, though, as he has a standing tradition. “Every time I sell a crop of calves I go to the market,” he says. “I’m sitting in the seats whether it’s a video or live auction; it’s what I’ve done my entire life. We only get paid two or three times per year and it’s an intense day. It’s important, and I want to make sure everything goes right.”

It’s not just convenience of location that landed the Lewises and their cattle at Joplin Regional Stockyard, though. As the Lewises have developed a reputation for the quality and health of their livestock, so too has the team at Joplin worked at building a reputation for helping producers take full advantage of markets both high and low. A reputation they’ve fostered for generations as a family business that has had a heavy hand in guiding the upward trajectory of cattle production in the region.

Information traders

“We sold an exceptional set of yearlings for Rod and Christine today,” says Jackie Moore, second-generation coowner of Joplin Regional Stockyards. And it’s doubtful this is the first or last time he’s made such a statement. “Our families have done a lot of business over the years tracing back to when Rod, Christine and I were just kids.”

Those lifelong ties to the industry and the customers are part of what drives Moore. “It’s my job as an auction market leader to get the producers the tools they need to get them to the forefront of the industry,” he says.

Moore trades in information as much as he does in cattle. Producers are busy people, with their main focus being caring for their livestock, he explains. So he sees it as his duty to attend informational meetings and seminars, get a feel for the latest health protocols, management techniques and marketing strategies and bring them back to his 10,000 cattle-producing customers.

Th at’s exactly what he did in 1997 when Joplin Regional Stockyard became one of the first livestock marketing facilities to organize producer meetings with the goal of getting their customers up to speed on value-added marketing programs such as source verified, preconditioning and vaccination programs.

“Most of the losses in the feedyard are to sickness, which is what makes preconditioning, in my opinion, the most important value-added program there is,” Moore says. “It doesn’t matter how great their genetics are if they’re dead.”

With vaccine programs and weaning protocols facilitated, not only did he have a marketing tool to help add dollars to the bid on sale day, but the cattle coming in were healthier, too.

“If a calf isn’t healthy, he’s not going to weigh as well. If a calf is 25 to 30 pounds lighter because he was sick, in today’s market that could cost $50 to $100 per head on sale day. That’s a big deal,” Moore says. Just as important is the calf will continue on to rob profits from all the stakeholders down the line, and the industry remembers. “A reputation, good or bad, means a lot in the industry. You don’t hear much back if your calves perform well, but it will come back to haunt you if they perform poorly.”

Joplin Regional Stockyards frequently holds value-added specific sale days, such as the day the Lewises went to market. Mike John, of MFA Inc., explains value added sales featuring cattle managed in such programs as MFA Health Track–a source, age and VAC 45 process verification program–attracts motivated buyers.

Calves in the Health Track program follow a strict health protocol that includes properly timed vaccination for 7-way blackleg; two doses of IBR, BVD, PI3; BRSV; Pasteurella hemolytica; that the calves be dewormed and treated for external parasites, castrated and be polled or dehorned completely. It also requires them to be weaned for 45 days prior to sale, which provides several benefits. Other programs–such as PrimeVAC from Merck Animal Health–provide recommendations for a three-pronged approach to preconditioning and include protocols for vaccinations, internal and external parasite control, as well as implants.

“When calves are weaned, vaccinated and backgrounded in some manner the buyers know they’re going to show up to the feedlot ready to get going. They’re not bawling babies so they go right to feed and water. Their transformation period is much shorter with a great reduction in death losses and pulls for health,” John says. The producers are able to hit the market at a time when prices are better, the buyer gets cattle that are more likely to perform and not need to be treated with antibiotics and the customer is more likely to get a top quality product.
In the old days, Moore says, the industry was disconnected, caring very little about the success or failure of the next person in the chain. “That’s old-school business. Things have changed and we realize that we’re all in this together. The next person down the line has to thrive, too, or there won’t be any money coming back in the other direction,” said Moore. By driving hard to get value-added programs to take hold in his region, Moore did more than his part to help strengthen not only his own business, but those on either side of him as well.

People business

Though Joplin Regional Stockyards sells cattle, they’re definitely in the people business as is evident by their employees’ commitment.

“My main goal in life is to help producers,” says Mark Harmon, Joplin Regional Stockyards marketing director. “We may sell more than a half million cattle each year, but it’s the people that are important. The cattle we sell for people helps them pay their tithing at church, feed their kids and make their farm payments. We have to get the most value for them.”

Harmon’s energy is infectious. He speaks with the passion of a man just starting out in the industry as opposed to the man with 35-plus years of experience. He spends his days immersed in marketing cattle, a job he clearly loves.

“We’re in the market daily. We’re talking to feedyards and backgrounders. We know what they’re looking for and what they have. We talk to our thousands of customers and know about when they’re going to sell,” Harmon says. Harmon, Moore and the rest of the staff are the middlemen connecting those who have cattle with those who need cattle and making sure everyone does well. They’re as informed as they can get in their marketing region and their customers know it. They’re also accessible.

“I’ll call Jackie and pick his brain a little on what’s going on and consult Harmon on specialty sales to help determine when and how I should sell my cattle,” Lewis says. And he’s not alone in leaning on their expertise.

“If you’re an employee at Joplin your phone rings seven days a week,” Harmon says. “We’ve worked to build those relationships and trust because our customers have worked all year and in 30 seconds we turn those cattle into cash.” That’s a responsibility they don’t take lightly and the reason they offer a diverse number of ways to market livestock. Specialty sales, video auctions and live auctions each have their fit.

Video auctions have provided great benefit for producers. “In the old days you’d only get two to four people coming to an auction to buy calves. With a video auction, people get online or watch on TV and it really ups the exposure of those calves, ultimately getting more for the producer,” says Skyler Moore, an auctioneer and second generation Moore at Joplin.

It’s a bonus, too, that it cuts out the stress on the cattle and expense to the producer of shipping the cattle to the stockyards. “There’s no charge for a no-sale, either, so it’s a lot more relaxing for the producers,” Skyler says. They can come in with a plan for what they want and can take or leave the price. Then, they can load and ship the cattle directly from the farm. “Producers like it. Buyers like it. It’s a great way to sell cattle.”

The Lewises opted to sell their weaned and preconditioned calves by video auction this spring. Many buyers had already left the sale ring before the Lewises’ 100 hefty yearling steers flash onto the screens, the last to be offered for the day. The dwindling crowd does nothing to ease anxiety for the Lewises as Skyler takes a deep breath and rattles off the many virtues of the Lewises’ cattle–as he and his father have done many times over the years.

Despite the sparsely populated buyer section, bids come in quickly for the reputation cattle both in-house and over the phone, driving the price to near the top of the market for the day. The reputation of both the cattle and Joplin Regional Stockyard hold their own as they close out not only the day, but a year of work on a high note.

“It’s our job to initiate programs that allow our producers to be more profitable,” Moore says. “They give us a commission to do the best job for them and if you can’t do that, you should take down your sign and go home.” In the case of the Lewises, it looks like Moore gets the nod to keep his sign up for at least another year.

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Proving up and moving up

By Martha Mintz

''Our customers are primarily ranchers. We get to know every one of them and we've probably been to their ranch,'' Tom Williams says. ''A large part of my job is working with customers on their data and helping them make genetic decisions.''
”Our customers are primarily ranchers. We get to know every one of them and we’ve probably been to their ranch,” Tom Williams says. ”A large part of my job is working with customers on their data and helping them make genetic decisions.”

Before the sun even seriously considers rising and shining each morning-at 4:30 a.m. to be exact-Tom Williams can be found perched on the hill at Chappell Feedlot in Chappell, Nebraska. Like a hawk situated atop a tree, Williams’ eyes studiously assess the line of pens connecting like ribs to the bunk-lined spine of the feedlot, marching down the ridge of the gently sloping hill and terminating in the feedlot offices and towering feed mill.

He notes his son, Travis, is out reading the bunks to calculate the rations to be deposited in the bunk in just an hour and generally notes the state of the feedlot. Satisfied there’s water in every pen and nothing major amiss, Williams enjoys a fleeting moment of silence before the cellphone in his pocket starts its daily marathon session of ringing, buzzing and beeping, connecting Williams to his customers, partners, feedlot crew and industry contacts.

Williams is a co-owner of Chappell Feedlot, a 7,500-head custom feedlot in the rolling hills of the Nebraska Panhandle just north of I-80. While his trusted crew does most of the cattle handling, Williams does the bulk of the people handling. His job includes customer relations, risk management, marketing, arranging shipping schedules and working with the packers. And in his business, “customer relations“ is code for making better beef from start to finish.

“Our customers are primarily ranchers. We get to know every one of them and we’ve probably been to their ranch,“ he explains. “A large part of my job is working with customers on their data and helping them make genetic decisions.“ Genetic decisions that can move whole herds toward improved performance in the feedlot, at the packing house and on the dinner table.

Data gathered by Williams from the feedlot and the packer, such as daily gain, feed efficiency, health, carcass traits and quality grade, are all taken back to their rancher customers to help them produce a better product-and get paid for those adjustments.

Ranchers, such as Rod and Christine Lewis back in Lawrence County, Missouri, have used this data to essentially wave a big flag in front of potential buyers reading, “Proven Money Makers!“

Their most recent round of calves they fed at Chappell feedlot performed exceptionally well with no death loss and 80 percent of the calves grading choice. They wielded that information like the tool it is, sharing it with the marketing team at Joplin Regional Stockyards. The data undoubtedly played a part in the exceptional price the Lewises’ calves brought in spring 2015.

And they’re setting themselves up for even greater future successes. Data passed to them by Williams from the packer also clued them in that their ribeye area was one place they could tweak a little for an ever-more perfect and consistent product.
Scale and function

Though plenty of exceptional beef passes through Chappell Feedlot-in 2008 they received the Gold Award from Certified Angus Beef for harvesting 2,000 head of cattle qualifying for a premium program-they’re definitely not moving at the same clip as larger feedlots. This allows them to use some extra technologies, such as ultrasound, that may not be as cost effective in a larger setting.

Cattle need to be harvested at the exact point they’re ready. Feeding them a week too long or not long enough can both result in losses of quality grade at harvest. While experienced feedlot crews have a great eye for sorting cattle into groups that will finish together, Williams adds in ultrasound technology to take their accuracy to the next level.

When cattle are processed for their last implant before harvest, Chappell Feedlot crews use ultrasound to get an up close look at back fat, marbling, ribeye shape and a few other measurements to see how the cattle are progressing. Ear tags are then notched according to expected finish date and the cattle are pulled in those groups for harvest. This accuracy helps Williams hit many home runs when marketing his customers’ cattle on a grid.

“Quality equals dollars. Because we market cattle on a grid, the better the quality, the more return we get on those cattle,“ Williams says. “With ultrasound, we can identify and sort cattle and sell them on the appropriate grid. Our customers who have paid a lot of attention to carcass quality and quality grade over the years can achieve 70 to 80 percent Certified Angus Beef and 10 percent prime. You start hitting those numbers and you’re really enhancing value.“

Williams notes demand for not just quality beef, but very high quality beef, is going up, up, up.

“I was in a little small-town butcher shop in Wyoming and they said they were getting enough demand for prime beef that they were going to add it to their offering,“ Williams says. If there’s demand in small Wyoming towns, there’s probably demand for prime in a lot of other places, too. Fortunately, the beef industry is on the right path to serve this need.

“I’ve seen quality grade and marbling increase dramatically in the last decade in the industry,“ Williams says. And with the help of Chappell Feedlot shuttling data back and forth between packer and rancher, there should be even more quality steaks coming down the production line.

Back to the source

A big part of hitting those top quality grades is having a hale and healthy animal coming in and maintaining health status throughout their stay at Chappell. “A calf you have to treat two or three times, his grade won’t be very good. That’s pretty well documented,“ Williams says.
From the moment the cattle roll past the giant blazing red, spur-sporting boot marking the entrance to Chappell Feedlot, to the time they are loaded and headed to the packer, their health is carefully monitored and stewarded. Pen riders look at every calf daily, watching for dropped ears or a lack of appetite indicating illness. Calves are treated and immediately put back with their group.

“We don’t do sick pens unless an animal is lame,“ Williams says. He explains cattle, much like people, want to be home and comfortable when they feel under the weather. Their pen and their group is home. They’ll recover more quickly there. Single-dose antibiotics have helped them adopt this practice.

A stressed animal is more likely to get sick, so Chappell Feedlot dedicates a significant portion of time and infrastructure improvement to facilitate low-stress handling. Pens, alleys and working chutes are designed for natural flow of livestock, and pen riders spend time training new groups of cattle when they enter the yard.

“Cattle handling starts the day cattle get here. We settle the calves by moving them around a bit, teaching them we’re not a predator and how to work,“ Williams says. “This is important for their health and their well being. When we need to treat them, we can do so without stressing them more. Nothing is more stressful on a calf than having to rope and drag them out of a pen to treat them, we can avoid that with by laying some groundwork.“

Sometimes, despite all the right technique, groups of cattle will have health issues in the feedyard. This is a great opportunity for Williams to help his customers add more value to their future cattle.

“If we have a problem we can go back to the producer and help them look at their vaccine protocols and mineral programs. We’ll help them test their grass and soils for mineral deficiencies and help resolve the problem,“ Williams says. Without proper minerals, Williams notes cattle may not develop a good immune response to vaccines, making them more vulnerable to illness. Making minerals available is sometimes all the cattle need to have improved health and, as a result, perform better in the feedlot.

Quality Grade

Working with rancher customers over the years has resulted in a lot of high quality cattle passing through Chappell Feedlot. And just like the Lewises and Joplin Regional Stockyards in the first two articles of this series, Chappell Feedlot has developed a reputation.

“Our reputation for quality cattle is well known among all the packers. Our target is to bring in high quality cattle, feed them to their genetic potential and get information back to our customers to take them to the next level. Quality cattle is what makes our operation stand out,“ Williams says.

A ranch manager before he purchased the feedlot in 1992 with his wife, Cindy, and partner, Billy Hall, Williams takes great joy in the task of advising his cattle producing customers.

“I’m a rancher at heart and I like genetics. This way I get to be involved in a lot of people’s herds and influence a lot of genetics. It’s really kind of a cool job.“

At the end of a long day, Williams can be found right back where he started.

“My favorite thing to do, my relaxation, is to load up my dog in the evening and take a drive through the feed lot and just look at the cattle. That’s kind of the reward of doing all this,“ he says.

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Generations of feeding families

By Martha Mintz

Workers at Palmer Food Services package beef based on orders that come in daily from restaurants, casinos, nursing homes, hospitals, schools and colleges. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)
Workers at Palmer Food Services package beef based on orders that come in daily from restaurants, casinos, nursing homes, hospitals, schools and colleges. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)

The progression of a steak’s story from beginning to nearly the end surprisingly repeats itself with the same turns of phrase, advice and family dynamics. These all come together to weave together the fabric of life for a family business.

A child’s nose wrinkles at the whiff of her father’s aroma after a day at the work. Noticing her reaction, her father says with a laugh, “Smells like money.” Parents encouraging children they’ll work less and make more money in other businesses-and, of course, the children soundly ignoring said advice. Family businesses growing and changing in ways the previous five generations in the business could never have imagined. This is all as true for the Palmer family in Rochester, New York, as it is for the Lewis family in Lawrence County, Missouri.

Just like every other family featured in this series, the Palmer family is in the business of food, one they’ve been in a very long time. Five generations back they set out as fish brokers around the time Eastman Kodak Company of New York started churning out cameras and fi lm in the city. “We started in 1850 using fish from the Great Lakes servicing Kodak families with horse and buggy,” says 28-year-old Kailey Palmer from the floor of Palmer’s Direct To You Market as employees bustle around expertly trimming meat for customer orders, cleaning glass in front of row after row of Certified Angus Beef cuts and prepping the market and restaurant for the day’s customers.

Unlike Kodak, now a shadow of its former glory, Palmer Fish Company has reinvented itself time and time again, bending to the will of the food industry well before the industry even started pushing. The result is the oldest, and arguably most beloved, family owned and operated business in the city.

“My father is a very intelligent man,” Kailey states with obvious pride. “It’s a very competitive landscape, and we’ve been able to stay competitive because of his insight and foresight.

“Her father, Kip Palmer, Palmer Food Services CEO, convinced his father just selling fish wasn’t going to cut it long term. If they were going to stay in business, he had decided, they needed to become a broad-line food distributor. This is where steak, and every other cut of beef imaginable, became part of the Palmer’s story. They didn’t stop there, pushing on to excel at three levels of the food industry.

Palmer’s Direct To You Market is their retail arm, a business they’ve been in for the last 165 years. Palmer Food Services distributes food and restaurant supplies to 1,000 restaurants, casinos, nursing homes, hospitals, schools and colleges while GNC Food Distributors serves as their redistribution arm. “Basically, if you buy food, we’re interested in talking to you,” Kip says. And talk they do.

Homing steaks

Talk closes deals as miniscule as buying a cut of beef for dinner at the meat case to securing supply contracts for hundreds of massive, 2-inch-thick T-bones headed to the kitchens of Atlantic City casinos. It’s no idle chatter or pushy sales pitch; Palmer’s sales people at all levels engage their customers to determine their needs and make sure the right beef makes it into their hands.

“We take a very personal approach to the way we sell. In many cases our competition is focusing on technology to reduce sales expenses and become more efficient. We’re doing the opposite. We’re hiring more human resources to preach the message as to why they should buy quality and why they should buy from us,” Kip says. To say the least, ranchers and feeders can rest assured the beef they so carefully stewarded to this point is now in excellent hands. So are the businesses Palmers serve.

“We’re seeing a resurgence of independently owned restaurants in this area,” he says. An encouraging sign, he thinks, but they’re up against some tough odds.

“The biggest expense a restaurant owner faces isn’t supplies, wages or insurance-it’s an empty seat,” Kip says, his favorite borrowed bit of advice. Vacant chairs are a symptom of the quality of the meal. “If a customer has a great experience, they’ll tell 10 people. If they have a bad experience, they’ll tell a hundred.”

The best way to avoid a bad experience is to start with great beef-something the Palmers have no issue getting into their coolers. “The overall quality and consistency of beef today is much better now than 14 years ago when I started,” Kailey says. Add on the guarantee of a quality-focused program like Certified Angus Beef, and things get even better.

“Quality is even more important now because there’s not a lot of difference in price between a quality product like Certified Angus Beef and a choice or select, the spreads are so close,” Kip says. So he advises his restaurant owners to upgrade, nearly guaranteeing their clients will have a very good dining experience. “I think quality really matters. I think it matters more now as competitive as the restaurant business is.”

Quality doesn’t always have to mean big price tags at Palmer’s, though. Being in both meat distribution and retail allows them to give their retail customers some creative, great eating options.

“Restaurants only want a center-cut product, as opposed to a retail customer who doesn’t really care what the product looks like as long as it eats well,” Kailey says. So the meat cutters in their on-site USDA inspected meat room, which is tucked into the cavernous Palmer Food Services warehouse, cut 4 inches out of the center of a loin for restaurants and use the extra 3 to 4 inches on each end to cut into steaks headed to the retail case and directly home with customers. “It sells beautifully; people love it!”

Another trick is marketing a first-cut strip steak. “It’s got a nerve running through it, making it visually unappealing to restaurant owners, but it still eats like a strip steak. We sell it in 8-ounce portions in a 5-pound box, and we sell out every time we have them because you can’t beat that value,” Kailey says.

Plate to pasture

The Palmer family knows their business inside and out. Kailey, just like Kip before her, has worked in nearly all aspects of the business from answering phones to cutting meat to her current position as manager of the retail business. They’ve also made it a priority to learn about what goes into getting beef to them. Kailey, Kip and their sales staff have participated in the Certified Angus Beef Masters of Brand Awareness program where they were immersed in every aspect of the industry from conception to consumption.

“Meeting the ranchers and seeing the whole process was amazing,” Kailey says. “It completely changed my perception of the beef industry as a whole and enhanced my ability to sell product in the store.” She passes along to her customers what ranchers have gone through to produce the top quality steaks to make them worth the extra $1 per pound. Kailey also is better equipped to answer question on how the cattle were cared for and fed, and by whom.

“It’s important to our customers that we’re keeping beef domestic and that the product that is being brought home to their families is produced by families. So we like to tell that story,” she says. It’s also truly a family that is selling the steak. Kailey has three sisters, her father, her stepmom, uncle, cousin, husband and brother-in-law all working with her in the business.

Kip adds that the Palmers have a significant chapter in the story of a steak as well. “Harvest is only the beginning. Beef still has to come in, be aged, cut to specification, packaged and delivered. It’s quite an enterprise, and we’re all in it together,” he says.

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Center of mind, center of plate

By Martha Mintz

Joey, Katie, Ted and Anthony Serbinski. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)
Joey, Katie, Ted and Anthony Serbinski. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)

Every day around 5 p.m., Katie Serbinski performs the well-practiced and intricate dance that is making dinner while juggling two children under the age of 2.

The petite brunette waltzes around her Birmingham, Michigan, home’s bright, cheery kitchen like a dancer twirling across a ballroom floor: step, one-two, pick up fussing baby, Anthony; step, one-two, stir the ground beef sizzling away on the stovetop; step, one-two intercept toddler, Joey, from grabbing another snack from the treat drawer before dinner…and the dance familiar to so many moms goes on.

The food and nutrition blogger does add one extra step: photographing the meal before it transitions from expansive marble-topped kitchen island to dining room table, much to her hungry family’s dismay on occasion.

Though no doubt challenging, this routine is one Serbinski thoroughly enjoys performing each day because food, and more specifically nutrition, is the axis on which Serbinski’s life twirls. Food is what she studied in college, her job, nourishment for her family and the centerpiece of memories both old and in the making. In short, food is her passion. And when it comes to proteins, beef finds its way to the center of the plate for this expert-on-good-eating’s family more often than not.

“When I think about our celebrations throughout the years-Christmas, birthdays, Father’s Day-beef has always been the dish of choice because beef is the king of taste,” Serbinski says, the corners of her mouth turning ever upward as she recalls the rich smells, sights and savored tastes of prime rib and ribeye steaks woven throughout her happy family moments.

It’s also an everyday staple. “Again, it’s the king of tastes, so hopefully beef will give my children-who are in that picky eating stage of life-the extra push to try their food that evening. I also know that in terms of nutrients, my growing children need the zinc, protein and iron provided by beef for their bodies and developing brains. As a registered dietitian, that’s top of mind for me.”

Food for thought

Food is top of mind not only for Serbinski and other moms, but also for just about everyone these days. What should I eat? How much should I eat? What should my kids be eating? Should I buy foods that are processed or whole; conventionally raised, organic or natural; locally sourced or most affordable?

The answers to those questions are often sought out online, where wondering minds might stumble across Serbinski’s blog, Mom to Mom Nutrition, on her Facebook news feed or on Pinterest, Instagram or Yummly. Every week Serbinski’s followers are treated to nutritionist- and mom-approved recipes and tips and articles ranging from nutritional advice to her decisions in the grocery store (“Homemade Isn’t Always Healthiest”) to dealing with the toughest-to-please diners, her children.

Prior to acquiring the title “Mom,” Serbinski earned a Bachelor of Science in dietetics from Michigan State University and went on to complete her training as a registered dietician and earn a master’s degree in public health and nutrition from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. During a stint in California for her husband’s job, Serbinski worked as a nutritionist with the California Beef Council and eventually the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Her time with these groups added another layer to her knowledge of food-how it’s produced and the challenges faced by the beef industry.

“Food for me was always about nutrition and if it tasted good, not whether it was organically, naturally or conventionally grown,” she says. “I came to realize there’s a lot of concern your everyday consumer has about where their food comes from and how it was produced.”

Through her work, Serbinski was able to visit multiple ranches, feedlots and processing facilities to see firsthand the grand journey beef took from pasture-such as those on the Lewis Ranch in Missouri-to her dining room table. What she saw only served to strengthen her already held belief that she could safely and in good conscience continue to keep beef at the center of her family’s plate.

“I saw that farmers and ranchers were families just like mine. Their jobs were just different, not 9 to 5. I saw the pride and dedication these people had and understood they were feeding not only my family, but their own, too,” she says. “This made me trust the processes they have in place to keep those animals healthy and the reasons they’re doing the things they do. I wish every consumer had the opportunity to see that and be able to trust in their food.”

Feedlots were just as eye opening for the trained nutritionist and dietitian.

“I was shocked on my first feedyard visit to find out the larger feedlots have a nutritionist on staff and the cattle’s food isn’t just a pile of whatever they want to eat, but a mix created very specifically based on their needs. These people went to school to learn how to feed cattle not only more efficiently, but in a way that ensures their care and well-being. As a nutritionist, that was an ‘Aha!’ moment for me,” Serbinski says.

Food bridge

When Serbinski and her husband, Ted, moved back to Michigan and started their family, Serbinski saw an opportunity. “I always knew at some point I wanted to be in business for myself,” she says. “I wanted to be able to work from home and still utilize my skills as a registered dietician. It just made sense to start my blog, Mom to Mom Nutrition.”

Serbinski just as easily could have called her business Rancher to Feeder to Processor to Mom to Mom Nutrition, as her expertise has spread far beyond just the nutrient makeup of what’s on the plate. Which is a good thing, considering where today’s consumers are seeking out their information. “People aren’t asking the farmer or rancher about how food is produced; they’re asking their blogger, doctor or dietitian. Having the latest knowledge myself and being well educated on beef production helps me dispel some of the myths that are out there. I want to be a credible source of information for consumers and ranchers,” she says.

While her blog serves as her main platform, Serbinski works with commodity groups including the Michigan Beef Industry Commission, United Dairy Industry of Michigan and the Michigan Ag Council as an expert spokesman and consultant for engaging communities in healthy and nutritious lifestyles. She participates in panels, conducts cooking demonstrations and can even be caught on the news now and then talking food.

As Serbinski plates Greek sirloin steaks-properly rested after its quick trip to her patio grill-and cool, refreshing lemon orzo salad for her family, she is confident they’re in for a nutritious, delicious and responsibly raised treat. She knows she can recommend this dish to her readers and field almost any question they may throw her way from the nutrients it holds to how it came to their plate. As she did when she addressed production in a recent article, “Why I Don’t Purposely Buy Organic”:

“I purchase food with three things in mind: nutrition, taste and cost. It might seem naïve that there’s no mention of environment, animal welfare or sustainability in my purchasing equation. But that’s because I firmly believe the majority of farmers producing our food, whether it’s produced conventional or organic, are doing what they can to ensure they are using less resources (pesticides, fertilizer, water) and are treating their animals with care and well being. Why? Because producing food is their livelihood! And more often than not they went to school to learn how to do their jobs better, more safely and more efficiently than previous generations.”

As 2-year-old Joey happily smothers his steak in his favorite condiment, barbeque sauce, Serbinski explains, “I want to be a connection for the farmer and rancher and the consumer because I’ve seen both sides and work with both sides on a regular basis. I’d like to help bridge that relationship between farm and fork.”

Serbinski philosophizes that food is very personal these days. It falls neatly into place with politics and religion. “Everybody is so heated in the discussion right now,” she says.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the discussion has Serbinski’s scientific credentials or real-life beef production experiences, resulting in some negative pushback for the industry. But the families who have dedicated generations-worth of work and knowledge to bringing beef to tables of families such as Serbinski’s-the Lewis family, Joplin Regional Stockyards, Chappell Feedlot and Palmer’s Food Services-can rest assured beef will continue to be king for Serbinski. It’s a center-of-the-plate dish she’ll share regularly and confidently with her family and the families of her readers.

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A steak and stake in every skillet

By Martha Mintz

Steam rises from a Riverbend Angus bull as it peers through frost covered pen number. Riverbend sells approximately 450 bulls at the annual bull sale in Idaho Falls, Idaho. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)
Steam rises from a Riverbend Angus bull as it peers through frost covered pen number. Riverbend sells approximately 450 bulls at the annual bull sale in Idaho Falls, Idaho. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)

The sweet smell of hay, cattle and damp earth tickles the nose as the sun peeks over the jagged Grand Teton mountains, sending golden spikes of warmth through a chilly March morning. It’s bull sale day at the Riverbend Ranch near Idaho Falls, Idaho, and the stars of the show are taking advantage of the flattering morning light to strut their stuff for potential buyers previewing their options.

Hundreds of Angus bulls mill about in their frost-bedazzled enclosures, occasionally showing one of their pen mates who’s top dog. Ranchers peruse the pens armed with sale catalogs packed with critical data, sizing up each bull to determine which among them has the stats, fits the budget and would make a complementary match for the ladies of their herds at home.

A little rain has the drought-plagued cattlemen in high spirits. Jovial chatting aside, they know picking the right bull to fold into their herd is a critical decision. Unlike choosing a truck or some other farm tool, the herd sire purchases ranchers make today will have impacts that ripple through their calf crops for generations. Buyers take this seriously. Fathers, sons, daughters and wives converse together as they walk their favorites around the pen, checking for soundness and making sure their physical attributes equal their on-paper stats.

“I’m not here looking for the bargain bull,” says Barry McCoy of McCoy Cattle LLC, Dillon, Montana. “I’m here to look for a bull that will add value to my program.”

Value can come in many forms, but it boils down to quality and performance. Quality and performance in the pasture, in the feedyard and on the plate. And that’s just what Steve Harrison, Riverbend Ranch general manager, Frank VanderSloot, owner, have worked hard to deliver.
“We’re in the seedstock business because we think genetics make a difference. What we’re offering is substantiated and documented to be able to produce better beef and at the same time produce cattle that add profit and value to our customer’s bottom line,” Harrison says.

Going all in

Riverbend Ranch isn’t what most would consider a classic seedstock operation, or classic cattle operation of any kind for that matter. Instead of specializing in one area, as is the norm, they’ve taken an active role in pretty much every facet of livestock production.
Their multi-pronged business includes a 1,400-head registered Angus herd that produces around 450 elite bulls to market each year and a 4,000-head commercial herd. They background about 8,000 stocker calves annually and feed out around 12,000 head in partnership with Simplot Livestock. The common vein running through all of these enterprises is Riverbend genetics.

In every situation in livestock production short of processing, Riverbend Ranch is both the seller and the customer. They produce the bulls that sire their commercial calves, which are backgrounded ontheir pastures and fed on their dime. It’s in the ranch’s best interest at every turn for Riverbend genetics to perform to perfection. This all-in investment in the beef industry shifts their outlook a bit as seedstock producers and benefits Riverbend bull-buying customers.

“In my mind it’s all about having cattle that work in the real world,” says VanderSloot. Riverbend Ranch managers takes full advantage of their many business fronts to identify what works about their genetics both in their own commercial herd and feeding endeavors and through the close relationships they’ve formed with their customers. They then take that data back to their breeding program to produce customized bulls packing genetics that will work for themselves and their customers.

“Essentially we’re running our commercial cow herd as a test unit to prove out the ability of our registered genetics in the real world,” Harrison says. And their real world isn’t all lush pasture and shade trees. “Our customer base is comprised of big, arid, high desert ranchers. They demand cattle that can go out and work, travel and stay sound in some of the more rugged conditions you can find in the country.”

Their goal is to produce cattle that can deliver a quality carcass and a desirable end product. However, for the commercial herds, biological type and cow productivity is important, too.

“We’re trying to blend that cow type and cow productivity in with cattle that have gainability, feed conversion and grade and yield in the feedyard,” Harrison says. “And we need to do it in a package that’s moderately framed and fits in our environment.”

Stewarding the genetics

“Quality cattle are the proverbial three-legged stool,” Harrison says, ticking off top genetics, proper management and good nutrition as the support structures need for a sturdy foundation. “A big part of management is a sound vaccination program and a sound herd health program.”
Riverbend Ranch managers have a close relationship with their veterinarian to help keep them on the right track.

“We annually review what our procedures and protocols are in terms of our health program and we follow his recommendations down to the detail because healthy cattle are more profitable, better performing cattle,” Harrison says.

They draw a proactive line with herd health, working with suppliers and their veterinarian to identify new, and more comprehensive, products. Their goal is to stay current and utilize new technologies to aggressively stay ahead of herd health problems.

“Anytime you have to doctor cattle, not only do you have to worry about morbidity and mortality, you’re talking loss of performance,” Harrison explains. “With the dollars that are in play with today’s high prices, that equates to significant dollars.”

Through genetics and management, Riverbend Ranch also strives for uniformity in the calf crop. They artificially inseminate 1,400 commercial cows and 700 replacement heifers per year using only a select few sires.

“This strategy helps us build the genetics of our commercial herd,” Harrison says. “We’re big believers in AI. It has allowed us to build a very consistent, very uniform cow herd that has a lot of depth and base to its genetic merit.”

He explains that by multiplying an excellent sire over more cows he can more quickly advance his weaning weight and other genetically influenced production goals. AI also consolidates his calving season, resulting in more calves born in the first 21 days of calving season.
“This all equates to pounds, consistency and uniformity,” he says. It also adds up to a quality reputation that clings to Riverbend genetics everywhere they go.

“Our cattle are making a premium at pretty much every sale. If after paying a premium the feedlot can take those genetics and make even more money on them, then we feel like we have a complete package where everyone wins: the commercial cattleman, the feedlot and certainly the seedstock producer.”

After a long day full of seemingly endless chatter of auctioneers, bid spotters and teasing of customers that double as friends, 422 of Riverbend Ranch’s finest bulls have been assigned new homes. The carefully bred and developed sleek-looking sires now have to venture out into the real world, prove their merit and live up to the Riverbend reputation.

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Circling back to home

By Martha Mintz

Riverbend Angus General Manager Steve Harrison (second from left) visits with bull customers on the day of the 2014 sale. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)
Riverbend Angus General Manager Steve Harrison (second from left) visits with bull customers on the day of the 2014 sale. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)

When Riverbend Ranch bulls lumber their way into trailers and are chauffeured to their new homes and the ladies waiting for them there, it may be goodbye to Riverbend Ranch for them, but that’s not necessarily the case for their offspring.

The Riverbend Ranch team spent years sorting data, determining need and applying good old cowboy ingenuity to carefully craft bulls that will sire cattle up to the rigorous task of performing in their customers’ challenging high-desert environment. And they didn’t stop there. Those same cattle have to continue on to earn top marks through backgrounding, the feedlot, processing and, maybe most importantly, the table. The Riverbend team thought they could get more out of those carefully forged genetics than a shiny resume for a bull they’ll likely never see again?

Their solution is their Customer Investment Program. Besides being a seedstock operation, Riverbend Ranch also owns a commercial herd and backgrounds around 8,000 stocker calves per year on grass. They don’t want to background just any old mishmash of calves, though. They want calves that are uniform, high quality and offer the performance predictability of a shared genetic link. Who better to provide those calves than their own bull customers?

The program is simple, says Steve Harrison, general manager of Riverbend Ranch. “If a commercial cattleman buys bulls from Riverbend Ranch and then lets us know when and where those cattle will be for sale, we will be there to bid on those cattle.”

Illuminating quality

An extra cowboy hat nodding away in the buyer’s seats on sale day is always a welcome sight for a commercial producer. While Riverbend can’t buy every calf sired by their bulls, the ranch can certainly help ensure customers get the premium those calves deserve by throwing in a bid or two and lending credibility. A Riverbend bidder in the crowd is a bright flashing sign, announcing loudly to other potential buyers the calves on the block have a quality genetic base and can be counted on to perform from the moment they’re purchased through harvest.

While previewing bulls at the Riverbend Ranch bull sale, Karl Lind, Elko, Nevada, noted he uses both artificial insemination (AI) and bulls to breed his 600-head commercial Angus herd, but he knows he’s gaining an extra advantage by buying bulls at this sale. “While I like the AI companies, they don’t bid on your calves,” Lind says.

Lind buys around five bulls from Riverbend every year and has for the last 10 years. Some of his AI sires also have Riverbend heritage. He says the extra support from Riverbend bidders and the reputation of the genetics have earned him $0.20 to $0.25 per pound more on sale day in most circumstances. And, in his case, Riverbend has won the bid for the last four years.

Those Riverbend bids may not always earn them cattle, but they do usually earn them loyal customers, opening a deeper level of dialogue with those customers than most seedstock producers are afforded.

All in the family

It’s not just having a spare bidder in his corner that keeps Lind and others coming back for more. It’s the quality and performance along with the dialogue that is opened when seedstock producers have a vested interest in the calves their sires produce. Everyone opens up a bit more. And when the data and information is freely flowing, everybody wins, especially those looking forward to a juicy, tender treat from the grill.

“We correspond with our buyers and get feedback from them,” says Frank VanderSloot, owner of Riverbend Ranch. “We get to see how our genetics work in the real world. We look at what works, what doesn’t work, and then we try to produce more of those that work. We want to get a little better every year and make the food source in the world a little more tasty, a little more cost effective and a little more reachable to the average person.”

Riverbend often flows carcass and feedyard performance back to the cow/calf producers-something a feeder might not normally do because that information means they have to dig deeper in their pockets to win top-performing calves in the future. Cow/calf producers such as Barry McCoy, Dillon, Montana, use that information to tweak the genetics they bring in from Riverbend sires, and they all work together to create a premium-loaded package of genetics, quality management and top-notch herd health protocols. The result is calf crops that are uniform in health and performance, efficient and constantly stepping past the previous generation in quality.

Over the years McCoy has developed a close relationship with Harrison and others at Riverbend, and they’ve worked together to help him improve his herd, thinking further down the line to consumers. “I made a small grid for myself as far as what I think is the top 20 percent and I try to look at that. It gives me a starting place to wade through the catalog and really focus on two key EPDs (expected progeny differences), and that’s marbling and ribeye,” McCoy says.


McCoy knows he can focus in on carcass EPDs, which benefits the end user without having a negative impact on cattle performance on the ranch. He says good cattle that thrive in the feedlots are star producers on the ranch, too. It goes hand in hand. The same goes for how he cares for his cattle. Cattle that are healthy on the ranch are more likely to be healthy in the feedlot.

McCoy has worked with his own nutritionist and veterinarian, and he has pulled from his experience developing heifers with Harrison to create health protocols that put his herd ahead of the game. He takes a bottom-to-top approach to herd health, making sure both calves and cows are on strategic vaccine and nutrition programs that promote good health all around. He reaps the efficiency and profitability of healthy livestock and passes the same benefits on to the feeder when his calves go to market.

“As a general rule in the Northwest, we’re high-cost producers. We have to feed a lot of hay and so we try to add as much value to our cattle as possible,” McCoy says. As a result, he looks for follow-through on every input. He says good genetics are a foundation, a good starting point, but a producer stands to lose a lot by not building on that foundation with strategic health and nutrition protocols.

McCoy has built a sturdy structure on his genetic foundation, and buyers have taken note. “We now have a reputation with our feeder cattle, which has the great added benefit of having the same buyers come back competitively no matter where we market our cattle. That means a lot to us,” he says. It also means Riverbend bidders will have to nod quite a few times if they want the varsity performers they helped create to come back and play for the home team.

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