The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Beef Cattle

Beef Cattle

From the Farmer's Tractor

September 25, 2011

Hilary Maricle, 32, raises 120 cow/calves on 420 acres of pasture in Albion, Nebraska. Along with her husband, Brian, Maricle also grows corn and soybeans on 715 tillable acres. Maricle Family Farms has been in the family since 1871.

How did you get beef cattle farming? 

I grew up in farming and the grocery store business and married a farmer. I have been around beef cattle from the time I was little and showed beef in 4-H. Maricle Family Farms has fed out beef cattle at different times since it began in 1871 but it was mainly a Dairy until 2003. In 2001, Brian and I bought our first beef cows. We have been continually improving and growing our cow/calf herd to the 120 cows we now have.

How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?

In the past 10 years the biggest change in our herd has been in genetics and leasing high quality bulls as well as buying heifers from an established herd.

On the crop side, we have switched to some no-till and purchased land with WRP, so we have learned more about Conservation programs. We now utilize yield mapping and site-specific management on all of our ground. We have also invested more in seed selection as well as weed and insect management.

How will beef cattle farming evolve in the next five years?

Beef cow/calf and the feedlot will see more pounds per calf through genetic selection and will see the branding and source verified programs become more important as the customer demands to know more about their food. The cattle industry also continues to consolidate, with cow/calf remaining the rancher's business, but the backgrounding and feeding out will see more larger lots and custom feeders. We will also see the other end of the spectrum grow as the small producer who does the little extra things demanded by the customer will grow in direct to consumer sales.

The crop side of things will see more input decisions making the season. Farmers will be spending a lot of time doing research to determine which hybrid selections will best serve them and if the extras such as the drought tolerant trait will pay for their operation. We need to and I expect that we will see the export markets grow as U.S. producers see yield jumps each and every year.

What is your greatest challenge as a beef cattle farmer?

The key issues facing agriculture right now include the increasing animal rights attacks on scientifically based animal management practices, regulatory overreach, and economic viability. Although there are many different challenges in agriculture that are specific to a commodity or region, the aforementioned issues are currently facing agriculture nationwide. 

One key issue is the continued attacks on animal agriculture from animal rights groups. As producers, it is our responsibility to provide a safe environment for our livestock and to ensure that they are content. We, in turn, are able to provide a safe, wholesome food supply to our nation and the world. This animal welfare issue will come to a head at some point in the next ten years. It has already reached that climax in many states with laws being passed due to emotion rather than science as it relates to animal welfare. I believe that this issue will continue to become larger as more states see legislative change and that we will see more animal welfare legislation that is led by animal rights groups being passed on a national level. 

My role in this issue will evolve from being very outspoken in Nebraska and fighting to continue to produce livestock to sharing my story on a national level. A social media presence is important, and my farm will continue to become more visual online so that the consumer can be confident that we care for our animals. We will also see agriculture rely on innovation as we become more proactive rather than reactive in ensuring that the standard animal care practices that we currently utilize are in fact the best possible. Producers will start to implement changes on our own so that we can meet both the consumers' demands for a humanely raised product, while still meeting the economic demands of keeping a farm operation viable.

Regulatory overreach is an area where we must continue to work with our legislators to get the problems under control. The key regulatory agency that has been overreaching their intended purpose is the EPA. Agricultural producers must be engaged to ensure that we do not have food production regulated out of the United States. Overregulation will continue to grow specifically in the areas of water, air, and manure management. My role in this issue has continued to grow as I have built a relationship with my state and federal legislators. It is so essential that we are able to ensure that our political leaders have the personal story to connect to agriculture and that they then are able to carry that message of how each regulation affects food production to their colleagues. My role will progress as I continue to work towards preventing unnecessary and detrimental regulations while gaining a better understanding of the details of regulations. My role will also be one of educating myself so that I can share with others how to implement changes that have been enacted while making business decisions that will have the least negative effect as regulations are implemented.

What about economic considerations?

The capital requirements of agriculture are immense. As a young producer, it can be a challenge to grow to a point of being financially successful. Economic requirements and financial decision making have moved to an entirely different level as we have seen increased costs with land values doubling since 2005 in some areas (http://agecon.unl.edu/realestate.html) and input prices increasing by the day. There is currently a great opportunity with high commodity prices, but one must still manage the inputs, taxes, and marketing to take advantage of these prices. The state and federal budget deficits are also putting farmers and ranchers at risk of losing some of the farm program safety net that currently exists. There will be an increasing tax burden on farmers as different levels of government try to find ways to make ends meet. In the next five to ten years the financial situation will change in agriculture in ways that we have not previously experienced. We will see a tremendous change in land ownership and management with an optimism that is contagious. If we see a sudden adjustment in land values, there will be farmers who are ready to adjust their balance sheets and farmers who will have to sell at much less than they paid. My role in this issue is to position my operation for success and to be ready to seize opportunities. The role that I see growing for me is to assist beginning producers in decision making and land transfer management. It is an exciting time to be in agriculture, but I remain cautiously optimistic, as the volatility is extremely high at this point.     

There are numerous issues that agriculture will deal with in the near future. It is essential that producers be willing to adapt to change and to share our story with our consumer and our legislators. Animal welfare, regulations, economics, and trade are a few of the issues that will take the lead into the future. Producers also must lead into the future as we become increasingly dependent on developing a relationship with our consumer.

How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?

I believe that as farmers, we have to do our best to be aware of what is happening in the entire ag industry to try and anticipate what the retailer will be purchasing to provide the consumer in the next year. As we see demand in specialty products being very popular at farmers markets and the better off customers wanting more traceability and higher quality, we know that these desires to have more options and traceability will come through the demands of the general consumer not long after. If we see a large demand for a product on either coast, we can expect that the next year we will see demand for that product throughout the country. When a farmer plants their corn, or selects a herd bull, we know that we are looking ahead to have a product for sale 6 to 24 months later, so if we just look at what we did last year, we will always be behind. I strongly believe that farmers have to keep up on researching industry and consumer trends and to pay attention to what the influencers are doing throughout the world. As much as we may not like the idea, there is a reason that companies use celebrities in their advertising. One of the greatest challenges is to understand not only what the consumer wants, but to also consider what will work for the retailer. If I want to sell more beef in ready to eat freezer meals, what product am I replacing in that freezer shelf space?

What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?

On our farm, we have some WRP (Wetland Reserve Program) ground that is quite wet and makes a great home for waterfowl and by working with our local NRCS, we are able to graze that land a bare minimum that allows the native grasses to flourish and to conserve a unique area of land that happens to be in the middle of our pasture. We also have a small amount of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) land surrounding the WRP, which is helping the WRP to become more established. In our fields, we utilize a lot of no-till to ensure that the ground maintains cover and in turn, moisture. We also have grass buffer strips in some of our fields where the water naturally flows after a heavy rainfall. In addition to grassy areas, we also have more trees than most people believe are ideal which allows for soil, water, and wildlife conservation in our pastures and along our fields.

What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?

The first reaction that I usually get is that people don't think I'm really a farmer, especially a commercial grower. I guess people expect a young female to be a specialty grower if she is a farmer. When I visit with consumers, they tend to have a lot of questions pertaining to food costs and food safety. The consumer generally enjoys hearing that they can purchase a more affordable cut of meat and cook it in the correct way for a positive and healthy dining experience. Younger consumers who are with their parents want to know all about the animals and how we take care of them, which I absolutely love to talk about. Most moms are glad to know that I am also a mom and I get how big of a deal it is to put safe, healthy food on the table for their family, and we talk a lot about different types of food. It is very rare that I have anything other than a great positive experience with consumers.