Industry families bind together with like minds to produce great beef.
From pasture to fork, the success and satisfaction of each link in the beef production chain, including consumers, relies on the trust that everyone before them held true to their promises. These are no simple tasks.
Ranchers, feeders and processors hold the tremendous responsibility of stewarding land, resources, wildlife and livestock in a way that safely feeds the world while ultimately leaving it in better stead. They are expected to protect and nurture livestock, keeping them healthy and happy and, ultimately, producing a product that consumers can rely on to be safe for themselves and their families.
It’s nearly impossible for one family or business to maintain ownership and control of cattle from birth to consumption. Usually, a family settles into the segment of the beef business they know best and work to hone their skills for producing a more perfect product. Jim and Terry Wilson of the V Ranch in Thermopolis, Wyoming, excel at managing their herd on the range while Mark and Kenny Knight of Knight Feedyard in Lyons, Kansas, have perfected negotiating complicated rations and markets. The processor is trusted to humanely and expertly harvest animals, delivering a stunning array of delectable eats and essential beef byproducts. When it comes to cooking, chefs hold years of work in their hands and have the final task of presenting the toil of all those that came before them in the best possible light.
With reputations on the line, strong relationships between like-minded people are apt to be forged along the chain of production. The Knights and the Wilsons have a long-standing and mutually beneficial relationship.
“I’ve been working with Jim directly and indirectly for 20 years,” Kenny says. “I had met his father, Willard, through NCBA (National Cattlemen’s Beef Association) and known of them and their reputation for a long time. It’s important to me to be working with someone I don’t have to worry about. When he ships cattle to me, they’re always exactly like he says. I like that.”
Jim is a great rancher for the Knights to know. The Wilsons are leaders in the beef producing community of Wyoming and beyond. They’ve won national awards for environmental stewardship, served on countless committees and boards, and fine tuned their breeding and health programs to responsibly produce top quality beef. Being connectors who want to improve beef production as a whole in the United States, they’ve shared their genetics and programs with many other like-minded producers with whom they’ve banded together to ship the Knights even more premium cattle—roughly 4,000 head per year.
“The ranches we ship from have been in business a long time and have uniform, consistent cow herds that share genetics from our original Salers-Angus composite herd. That gives consistency in the loads and there’s an advantage to that at the feedyard,” Wilson says. “Different breeds of cattle and different groups of cattle feed differently. We’re able to take away some of that variability with these cattle that share genetics and management styles.”
At 13,000-head capacity, the Knights still ring in as a small- to medium-sized feedyard. They rely on quality cattle coming in and quality cattle going out to stay in business. Buying reputation Wyoming cattle and feeding them year after year has allowed them to become familiar with what the cattle need to perform, resulting in hard-won consistency. But without large numbers, their marketing power may not get the Knights the premiums they deserve. So, much like the Wilsons, they banded together with like-minded and similarly sized cattle feeders to present processors with a large group of similar cattle. The Knights and 15 other Kansas-based confined feeding operations formed the Beef Marketing Group, known as the BMG.
“Instead of competing against each other, we’re joining together as a group to achieve a common goal,” Mark Knight says.
Since the group first formed in 1987, the members have leveraged their collective numbers to achieve better rates on inputs from animal health supplies to distillers grain and created their own marketing grid with packing giant Tyson—a profit-boosting perk usually only afforded to very large feedlots.
“While it started as a way for family-owned growing and feeding operations to work together in the face of consolidation, BMG has evolved. In addition, we now develop programs that create added value for our membership and in the cattle themselves,” says John Butler, BMG chief executive officer.
Improving on excellence
Producing a safe, quality product is the end goal for everyone in the chain. True to the progressive feeders that started the group, BMG has implemented an extensive standard of best management practices known as the Progressive Beef Program that all member feedlots follow.
Critical control points were identified in the areas of animal care and handling, food safety and sustainability, while standard operating procedures were developed around them. For example, each feed mill has a system to verify that all feedstuffs coming into the operation are exactly as ordered and that they’re free of pathogens and contaminants. Proper use of vitamins, minerals and other supplements are carefully outlined, and animal care and handling is addressed. There are animal health protocols and much more.
“The idea is with this system in place we can bring a promise—a Good Housekeeping Seal—to the cattle we deliver to the packer,” Butler says. “They can, in turn, use this verified system related to how we take care of the cattle to create differentiation for merchandizing the product to retail and food service customers.”
Lending further assurance that those high standards are being upheld, an independent third-party auditing company reviews the program. The Knights, who consulted with cattle handling icon Temple Grandin for the design of their cattle working pens, are happy to be counted among other feeders who go the extra mile for cattle comfort, health and the safety of the beef they produce. Again, it’s also about delivering consistency to the next person in the chain.
“The processor has identified the most desirable product for their facility and we produce to that standard,” Butler says. “They’ve said, ‘These are the kind of cattle we like,’ and they built a pricing structure that incentivizes us to produce that kind of cattle and impose consequences if we do not. It makes us produce more consistent cattle for them and creates efficiencies in our system because there is a consistent and predictable target.”
A good relationship with the processor also has resulted in valuable carcass data flowing back to the feedlots and trickling all the way back to the ranches where the information can be used to create even better beef. With this data and a consistent target, ranchers can start modeling cattle to fit the grid before they’re even born. These industry-spanning bonds mean ranchers, feeders and processors are able to collectively hone their objectives so everyone makes more money and the consumer gets a consistent, high quality, safe product, Butler says.
Wilson calves move from one dedicated farm family to another.
October finds six semi-loads of the Wilsons’ Salers-Angus range calves winding through Wyoming mountains, over the pancake-flat Plains of eastern Colorado and past the looming wind turbines
standing sentinel over the Kansas Plains. Lush new digs in the vibrant green wheat pastures at Knight Feedyard in Lyons, Kansas, await the calves at the end of their journey.
It’s a well-trodden path. For nearly 10 years, Jim and Terry Wilson have taken calves they nurtured from their first wobbly steps on the rugged range at the V Ranch in Thermopolis, Wyoming, and delivered them into the care of another family who’ve dedicated their lives to tending livestock. The Knight family has decades of experience and a strong commitment to producing premium beef, which leads to a carefully managed and comfortable stay for the Wilsons’ calves with their new owners.
“That’s what I like to see as a cattle feeder,” beams Kenny Knight as he looks out at a pen of shiny Angus steers lounging peacefully in the unseasonably warm December sun. “Those cattle are happy, healthy, calm and gaining weight.”
Happy, healthy and calm are goals from the moment the calves arrive at the feedyard and backgrounding operation, which Kenny operates with his son, Mark. Calves are unloaded as quietly as
possible. There are no hotshots, no excessive whooping and hollering—just cattle shuffling off a truck into pens filled with a fluffy, welcoming bed of fresh straw.
“My son, Mark, started putting out bedding straw for all the new cattle coming in,” Kenny says. ‘It seems to make the cattle calm, like they feel a little bit at home. They’ll lay on it even if it’s 100 degrees outside.”
Comfortable, healthy cattle are profitable cattle, making it an easy choice for the Knights to provide them with all they need to be both content and productive. The Knights follow the research-based recommendations of the Beef Quality Assurance program, a nationally-organized program outlining livestock husbandry techniques for delivering a healthy, safe beef product. Among those recommendations are health protocols and calm handling recommendations.
When better quality cows leave the farm and reach the marketplace, the producer, packer and consumer all benefit. –Beef Quality Assurance website “We use our own semis to get the calves, and all our drivers have been BQA trained. They don’t use hotshots, know how to handle the cattle and check them often,” Mark says. “We want it to be a peaceful process, so the cattle will be calmer and adjust to their new home faster.”
While steers are happily soaking up the sunshine, the cattle feeder is often found pacing the confines of his office fretting. Worry about how to stay afloat has resulted in much pacing and more than a few ulcers in the industry.
Cattle feeding is a tough business with staggering variability. Profit potential from year to year depends on the market price of the cattle coming in, often highly volatile market prices of feed and even more variability in the price they get for the final product. That’s not to mention impacts of weather and health during the feeding process. It’s unfortunate that despite best efforts, an entire year of work and worry may still result in a bright red number in the profits and losses column. Longevity in the business is the mark of a family capable of navigating the pitfalls and delivering a quality product year after year.
The Knights have proven their mettle, racking up 46 years of feeding cattle. Kenny started out farming and expanded into cattle feeding with Mark in 1972. Their family operation now includes a 13,000-head feedlot, 6,000 acres of wheat grazing with 10,000 total cropland acres, a 500-head Angus cow/calf herd in the Flint Hills and the Bar K Bar Trucking Firm.
“Our various operations help offset the cost of each other and keep us more profitable and more in control of our situation,” Mark says. Their tactics have kept them in the cattle feeding business while many other similarly sized feedlots have permanently closed their gates.
Part of their success stems from purchasing, stewarding and delivering quality cattle. Cattle they’ve come to know well by continually returning to trusted ranch families, like the Wilsons, to fill their pens. They take in calves already on the path to producing Prime beef and remove any hurdles.
“The Wyoming cattle are easier to predict and project so there aren’t any surprises during feeding or on the rail,” Mark says. There are some good surprises. Kenny noted one year he brought in 2,600 calves from trusted ranches in Wyoming. Of that group they lost only four head. That’s a 0.15 percent death loss. With unknown groups of cattle, a 2 percent death loss is considered normal.
“[The Wyoming cattle’s] health is generally good and their carcass performance is always excellent,” Mark says. “If you find good cattle from a responsible ranch you’ll generally do better than buying cattle out of the sale barn.”
Ranches don’t only produce beef, they nurture fresh generations dedicated to the betterment of land and livestock.
Throughout her childhood and now teenage years, Emme Norsworthy has been allowed to play hooky from school here and there to take part in events critical to her family’s Thermopolis, Wyoming, ranch. While there’s plenty of work to be done daily on the ranch, there are several pivotal days throughout the year when big jobs are tackled. Jobs that rely not only on the help of the entire family, but on that of a close-knit community of neighbors and friends.
Shipping day is one of those events. On this day, herds are gathered from the sagebrush-dotted range and calves that are fast overwhelming their mothers are split off to begin their own journeys. As the dust settles behind trucks hauling the freshly weaned steers to their new home on lush wheat pastures in Kansas, Jim and Terry Wilson, Emme’s grandparents, can breathe a sigh of relief. It’s a day when the job they’ve been perfecting for decades is once again rewarded and they can start again fresh.
Ranchers go long stretches between paychecks and a lot can go wrong in that time. Seeing quality calves into which they’ve invested time, money, sweat and emotion being sent safely on their way is a cause for celebration. Jim and Terry enjoy sharing this important day with their granddaughter, just as they did with Emme’s mother, Billie Jo Norsworthy.
Mounted on her spry sorrel, Emme cheerfully helps gather and sort cattle and she is a shadow to her mother, grandparents and the rest of the V Ranch crew whenever there’s work to be done. Despite not being in school on those days, she’s learning plenty about what it takes to be a successful and responsible rancher. They are skills Jim and Terry hope she’ll use to continue the family ranching tradition in the future.
Finding A Future
Emme’s inquisitiveness and enthusiasm for all things traveling by four legs bring a warm smile to Jim’s face. He wasn’t always sure of the end game for the ranch and reputation herd he built with his high school sweetheart, Terry. Their only daughter, Billie Jo, had gone off to college earning a master’s degree in music with a focus on flute.
“One day she called and said, ‘Mom and Dad, is there a place for us at the ranch?’ I never thought someone who played the flute would want to come back to the ranch. It was a good day for us,” Wilson says.
Wilson remembers his own start down the path to building what is now known as the V Ranch. Born and raised on a registered Hereford ranch, Jim initially partnered with his parents. Then, he and Terry branched out on their own. They took a brave leap looking to turn other ranchers’ lemons into lemonade in the 1980s when devastating agricultural bankruptcies made land in the area plentiful. They scraped and borrowed to buy up land in the rough countryside around Kirby, Wyoming, as it came available.
“I don’t know if we were that smart or that dumb,” Jim says of their success in building a ranch during shaky financial times. “We worked extremely hard and we gambled. We didn’t know you could go broke and we just lucked out and started buying cattle to stock the place. We’re kind of living the dream.”
Those initial investments have flourished into a 60,000-acre ranch. The remote and ruggedly beautiful red-tinged rocky terrain supports a 950-head strong commercial herd of high quality Salers-Angus composite cattle. Both the land and the cattle bear the mark of a family who is passionate about what they do.
The herd has a reputation for prime genetics capable of consistently producing beef that is as economical as it is tasty—the result of countless hours of data collection, research and following the cattle all the way to harvest. The Wilsons’ genetics have been sought out and incorporated by many other area herds.
A lasting base
If it were ever to go up for sale, their land would be just as desired. “With ranching there’s a great sense of responsibility,” Terry says. “We have a responsibility to the animals, to feed them, take care of them and make sure they’re healthy. We also have a responsibility to our land and our community.”
From spending thousands of dollars to monitor and protect sage grouse habitat to serving on boards and taking action on their own property to improve water quality in their community streams and rivers, the Wilsons dedicate a sizeable portion of their time to leaving the land and wildlife populations better than what they found.
“It’s a privilege to own the land and to make our living from the land,” Jim says. “You have to spend time giving back. You can’t just continually take, take, take. We believe in sustainability. We’re temporary here and we want to make the land better for who owns it 100 years from now, whether that’s our family or someone else’s.”
By working side by side with their daughter and granddaughter over the years, Jim and Terry have passed along not only their knowledge of the land and livestock, but their commitment to the wellbeing of both.
Now in their mid-60s, Jim and Terry are working to transfer the ranch they’ve poured their lives into building to Billie Jo and her family. Handing over the reins may be difficult for any business owner, but making way for the next generation is something the Wilsons are proud to do.
“We acknowledge Billie Jo’s dedication and look forward to helping her succeed while stepping back,” Jim says. But not before he gives the next generation a little boost, too.
“Emme gets our bum calves to raise. One heifer calf she raised as a bum did really well and ended up being the start of her herd. She’s now one of the best cows in our herd has a great calf every year,” he reports with obvious pride.
Profits from Emme’s herd will likely help fund her college education. An education the Wilsons would be thrilled to see put to work continuing the family tradition of responsible ranching.
A great steak takes years to produce, moments to enjoy and a lifetime to savor the memories it helps secure.
A taste bud tickling wisp of savory aroma announces its sizzling arrival just moments before delivery to the table. The knife is met with little resistance and the first juicy bite delivers the rich, buttery flavor the aroma promised.
It’s not a good steak; it’s a great steak. The kind used to celebrate a promotion or anniversary or to impress a first date. The kind that, according to research, cements these joyous occasions in our memories and helps us recall them vividly in the future. Scientists have found smell, unlike any other sense, is processed in an area connected to portions of the brain linked to memory and emotion making. Which may be why smells trigger much stronger memory and emotion responses than the other senses.1
The smell of beef cooking may very well be intertwined with some of life’s happiest moments. The charcoal-infused fragrance of hamburgers browning amidst licks of flame on a grill might conjure a relaxing summer afternoon with the kids, or maybe the tailgate from that one epic game. Perhaps the enveloping cloud of scent rushing out from an oven opened to reveal the perfect roast recalls memories of lazy Sunday dinners with beloved grandparents.
Those who produce the beef that nourishes so many minds, bodies and memories can add pride to the list of emotions the smell and taste of a truly great cut of beef evoke. While it takes mere minutes to cook the perfect steak or hamburger, it took them years of planning and generations of hard won experience to ultimately produce each nutrient-packed, delectable bite. The overwhelming majority of those responsible for producing beef are families. According to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, 91 percent of beef cattle operations were family owned as were 80 percent of feedlots.2
Cattlemen, cattlewomen—and even cattlekids and cattlegrandparents, if you will—immerse themselves in protecting, nourishing and improving the land and livestock entrusted to their care. And they’re getting better at their trade every day. While Junior may be taught the same technique to toss a loop and catch a calf as his grandfather taught his mom, the rest of modern ranching has seen overwhelming change. Scientific research has built on generations of cowboy ingenuity to effect improvement in areas ranging from how cattle are corralled and handled to health protocols to land management.
Ranchers embrace research and science. Each decision they make has the potential to impact their entire income for the year, or even years to come. The more they know about each decision, the better they’re able to manage risk in a business where weather and markets can leave them feeling out of control.
The long game
A quality product takes time to produce. That certainly holds true for beef. Years upon years of careful selection for the best genetics pave the long path to that sizzling prime cut. Herds are shaped and reshaped to line up with consumer demand and better utilizes resources. And only time tells if they’ve made the correct decision.
It’s nearly a full two years from the time a bull is purchased on a frosty January day to when a rancher can wean and market a calf produced by the sire. From there it can be up to another year before harvest and the true test of success. During the multi-year journey there are many opportunities for a calf to be derailed from achieving their genetic potential. It’s an endless challenge for ranchers to keep their cattle thriving. Water, minerals and feed must be plentiful and of high quality, health challenges must be predicted and—hopefully—prevented and adjustments must be made to counter the challenges Mother Nature heaps at their corral gates. It’s a challenge many producers are happy to wrestle.
High school sweethearts Jim and Terry Wilson have bravely navigated the rough waters of agricultural production for decades, gradually building a legacy-worthy 60,000-acre ranch capable of supporting 950 head of cattle. The V Ranch can be found in the rugged red hills north of the sulfur-laden bubbling hot springs town of Thermopolis, Wyoming. It can be unforgiving country, with scant rain in the summer and raging blizzards in the winter, but it’s home and they treat it as such—all 60,000 acres.
“This is our backyard and we take care of it accordingly,” Terry says. “We take pride in the fences, pride in the fact we manage the land in a way so that wildlife and livestock can coexist and thrive.”
Jim and Terry enjoy educating those that visit their home—especially hunters who reap the benefits of their conservation efforts—about the fragile ecosystems they manage and the efforts they make to preserve and often restore them.
Water has been the basis for many of their efforts. Kirby creek runs through a good portion of their ranch and had suffered years of mismanagement when they purchased the land. They were determined to improve the creek’s condition. They enrolled large swaths of the riparian areas in the Conservation Reserve Program and planted more than 500 willow cuttings to help secure fragile soils eroding from the banks among other conservation efforts. They also use water to help manage grazing and protect Kirby Creek and other delicate waterways. Cattle concentrate their grazing near water sources, so by installing tens of thousands of feet of water pipeline and distributing water tanks throughout their pastures they’re able to draw livestock away from fragile riparian areas.
Just as the land they manage is seen as an extension of their backyard, the beef they produce is seen as an extension of the fare they offer on their own table. Each steak originating from their herd is of carefully curated quality that is further embellished by their dedication to responsible and compassionate production. Fortunately, the Wilsons aren’t anomalies. They’re just one of many families who take great pride in stewarding beef from pasture to plate. We look forward to introducing you to several of them in this series.