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Challenges, opportunities for young to enter beef industry

Jack Whittier and Mariah Fischer Published on 24 May 2014

This article is designed to provide a perspective from a young person with a desire to remain involved in animal agriculture as a profession.

Mariah Fischer is currently pursuing a master’s degree in animal science at Colorado State University in the Beef Management Systems Program. I have asked Mariah to provide her perspective of some of the challenges and opportunities for young people like her to enter or continue in the beef industry.

First, I will provide some census information concerning the demographics of tenure and age of current farmers and ranchers in the U.S.

The 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture reported the percentage of beginning farmers and ranchers has steadily declined. The census showed only 26.5 percent of all principal operators have been farming for less than 10 years, a decline of more than 10 percent since 1982.

The U.S. agriculture industry is dominated by farm and ranch establishments that have had the same principal operator for 10 or more years. Farms or ranches with principal operators who started within the past five years only account for 13 percent of all U.S. farms and 7 percent of all sales.

Additionally, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the average age of U.S. farm operators increased from 55.3 years in 2002 to 57.1 years in 2007.

The number of operators 75 years and older grew by 20 percent from 2002, while the number of operators under 25 years old decreased 30 percent.

In the states of Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming, young or beginning ranchers as a percentage of the population has recently seen significant decline.

In 1992, 32 percent of ranchers in these three states were less than 44 years old. In 2007, census data showed that this number had decreased by 60 percent, as now ranchers in these three states less than 44 years old was only 20 percent of the total population.

Furthermore, approximately half of the ranches in these three states are owned and operated by ranchers 55 years old or older.

The above demographics serve to emphasize the need to attract and retain young people into farming and ranching. Following are some comments and perspectives from Mariah:

"As a young person who has been involved in agriculture my entire life, I feel that the future of agriculture is very promising. Agriculture, whether it is crops or livestock production, is the basis of what feeds this country, along with supplying nutrition to other countries as well.

"Food will always be needed for survival, and we will continue to need more and more food as the world population continues to steadily increase.

"I think as a young person there are many opportunities to get involved in the agricultural industry, particularly livestock production.

"Having hands-on experience, as well as a college education, is central for securing a job in this industry in today’s world. I think there are numerous internships and opportunities to gain experience when you are young or getting started within the industry.

"For example, I grew up with a cow-calf background and had little idea of how a feedlot was run on a day-to-day basis. However, during the summer before my senior year of college, I was offered an internship at a 108,000-head feedlot in northeastern Colorado.

"While I was there, I endeavored to learn and be involved in as many learning situations as I could. Workers as well as managers were very friendly and willing to take the time to teach me what I did not know.

"I have also had the privilege of spending time on ranches in northern California with full-time cattlemen who have been successful in the beef industry.

"I have been very blessed in that they have not only spent time with me sharing their practices and plans for success, but they have also allowed me to get many hours of hands-on experience.

"I think it is important for young people to listen to what those wiser and with more experience have to say. It is my observation that if you are willing to work hard, to listen and to learn, you can be successful in the beef industry.

"The USDA recognizes the need to attract young farmers and ranchers into production agriculture. As a result, there are numerous federal programs available to a young person starting their own business.

"Besides programs created to assist in establishing oneself financially, there are also increased opportunities presented to us from many new technologies in the beef industry.

"For example, the use of ultrasound, timed A.I., DNA testing, EPDs, vaccines, software management programs, etc., have helped to improve cattle health, growth and management.

"As with any other industry, we who are a part of the beef industry are not without our challenges. Much of the population is disconnected from the farm and has little idea where their food comes from or how it is raised.

"Animal welfare is a growing concern for consumers – and why wouldn't it be? After all, the media relays stories and videos that are frequently very misleading.

"Those videos only reflect a small proportion of beef producers. As a whole, the beef industry does a good job of practicing animal husbandry and caring for animals. I mean, who else is going to go outside at 2 a.m. in a snowstorm when it is -12ºF to save a heifer and her calf from dying during labor?

"More stories about these events should make the news. Consumer perception is what drives the industry, and we have not always done the best job of conveying what we really do.

"We should not let a 'few bad apples,' as Trent Loos would say, define our entire industry. We need to work on transparency and allow consumers to see how well we truly do care for our livestock.

"Besides animal welfare concerns, we face constant battles with environmental groups and governmental policies, financial hardship, consumer perception issues, family crises, unpredictable weather such as flooding in Colorado or the drought in California. … The list could go on.

"However, we are agriculturalists – and more than that, we are beef producers. That is why I believe there is a very positive future for agriculture, in particular livestock production.

"When adversity is breathing down our neck, we do not give up. Instead we push forward, we fight and we look for a new solution. Because raising cattle is not just a job to us, it’s a lifestyle. It’s our lifestyle."  end mark

Jack Whittier is a professor and Mariah Fischer is a graduate student in Colorado State University’s Beef Management Systems Program.

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.