From the Farmer's Tractor
May 29, 2011
How did you get into cattle farming?
I married into it! I have a unique history because I grew up in urban South Florida and was not involved in farming until I met Matt at Dartmouth College, and we moved back to his family’s farm in Nebraska in 1997. I was a competitive athlete that was “fueled by beef” for many years before I actually knew where my beef came from! Matt is an engineer by trade and a crop farmer at heart. When we moved back to Nebraska he was not interested in working with cattle. I have always loved animals, so I asked Matt’s dad if I could learn how to care for the cattle. Fourteen years later, I am the “boss lady” and spend my days caring for cattle and raising wholesome and safe beef. We focus on high quality animal care based on Beef Quality Assurance protocols to ensure that our cattle produce a wholesome and safe beef product.
My husband, Matt, farms approximately 3,000 acres of crop land in the Platte River Valley near Cozad, Nebraska. Matt primarily grows alfalfa and corn, and owns and operates an alfalfa dehydration plant in Cozad where he dries and pellets the alfalfa that he raises to be sold for high quality animal feed. Matt and I have three daughters, Ashley Grace (11), Megan (9), and Karyn (6) who are the 4th generation to grow up on our Nebraska farm.
How have your farming practices changed over the last few years?
Good science and technological advancements continue to improve both the care that I offer to my cattle and the safety of the beef that those animals produce. I am both a mother and an animal welfarist. My two top priorities are good animal care and food safety. It is a heady and sobering feeling for me as a Mom to know that the animals that I care for will be fed to my children and children all over the world.
Healthy animals make healthy beef, and that is critically important to me. I focus on a “holistic” approach to caring for cattle, which involves caring for our animals physically (physiologically and nutritionally) and mentally and emotionally (using animal psychology). Every day, my professional consultants (my veterinarian and my PhD Ruminant Nutritionist) bring me information that enables me to raise healthier animals all while using fewer natural resources. I was a psychology major at Dartmouth College and find animal psychology both fascinating and a vital aspect to good animal health. Every day that I work with my animals, I am able to understand “how they think” even more thoroughly, and this helps me to provide the best care possible to them.
How will cattle farming evolve in the next five years?
We are blessed to have a safe and abundant food supply in the United States, and I must continue to learn and use new technology to improve both the care that I offer to my animals and the safety and wholesomeness of the beef that they make. I trace my animals from birth to harvest. I see this as becoming increasingly important as the American consumer becomes more and more interested in where their food comes from.
It is not just my job to provide good care to my animals and produce safe and wholesome beef. My job also includes sharing that story with the consumer. Less than two percent of the American population has any direct link to agriculture, so there are a lot of people that have lost touch with where their food comes from. New advancements in social media enable me to bring the farm to the consumer, since it is often not practical to bring the consumer to the farm. I just launched a new blog a few weeks ago in an effort to connect me (the cattle farmer) with the consumer. The blog is http://feedyardfoodie.com.
What is your greatest challenge as a cattle farmer?
My greatest challenge as a cattle farmer is Mother Nature. One of the hardest lessons for the city girl in me to learn when I moved to Nebraska and got involved in cattle farming was that I could not control Mother Nature. The weather is harsh, unforgiving, and uncontrollable. It took a long time for me to accept that and to realize that my job was to set my animals up for success so that they could thrive despite the challenges that Mother Nature creates. We care for cattle when it is twenty degrees below zero, and we care for cattle when it is one hundred degrees. It is hard work, and it requires both toughness and tenacity.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
While retailer and consumer demand may shift and change with the economy, there are also many constants that I believe are always important to the consumer. The first is food safety. I constantly work to ensure the safety of the beef that my cattle produce. I feed the beef that I raise to my family, and I know that you are feeding it to yours. The second is high quality. I believe that high quality animal care and high quality great tasting beef are constantly desired. I work with my cow/calf ranchers, my harvesting facility, and Certified Angus Beef to continually work to create a source verified and high quality beef product. Both my harvesting facility and Certified Angus Beef work closely with retailers and give me necessary feedback regarding the beef that my cattle produce. This vertical collaboration helps me to make adjustments as consumer demand shifts.
How do you tackle conservation on the farm?
Our farm makes a sustainable cycle. Matt and I work hard to ensure that it does because it is a top priority for us. Matt grows crops that are fed to animals, I feed those crops to my animals, and they make both a high quality beef product for human consumption and a natural fertilizer that we harvest and put back on our land to ensure that the soil remains nutrient rich. We know that in order to pass our farm down to our children and grandchildren that we must maintain this sustainable cycle. I spend a large part of my time ensuring that the environmental footprint of my cattle farm is as small as possible. We do extensive soil and water testing on our farm to ensure that we are protecting the environment, and we have made large capital improvements on our farm to protect the environment. Environmental stewardship rounds out my top three priorities (along with food safety and good animal care).
Do you sell any of your products locally?
In Nebraska, cattle outnumber people four to one, so the bulk of the beef that I produce goes to more urban areas where there are more consumers. We do sell a little bit of beef locally (in addition to harvesting our own beef for our family), but it is minuscule in comparison to what goes to urban America. We produce high quality Age and Source Verified beef (that comes from cattle that have a documented age and can be traced back to their origin), and some of that product is actually exported to foreign markets where consumers have a great desire for that documentation.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
It is great fun for me to interact with my consumers, because I truly love what I do and want to share a piece of that with them. My experience is that consumers are very interested in where their food comes from and have a great desire to understand how I care for my cattle and raise beef. My cattle farm is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, and this brings many questions from consumers as they try to understand exactly what that means. I love to answer those questions, because I very much admire their quest to understand. I truly care about my animals, I truly care about the environment, and I truly care about the consumer that eats the beef that I work so hard to produce. I believe that caring for food animals is an admirable vocation, and I want to share my journey with those that matter most: the consumer of my beef product. I started my blog (http://feedyardfoodie.com) in order to help accomplish this goal.