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Anne Burkholder focuses on final product for calf success

Cassie Payne Webb Published on 22 June 2012
Anne Burkholder

Anne Burkholder was unlikely to become the nationally recognized feedyard operator and beef industry advocate she is today.

A native of West Palm Beach, Florida, she was a student athlete and psychology major at Dartmouth when she met her husband, Matt.

Upon entering her father-in-law’s feedyard business at Will Feed, Inc. in Cozad, Nebraska, Burkholder’s unusual background became the perfect setup for excelling in the cattle business.

While being introduced to her new career, Burkholder notes, “I came in with open eyes but with no preconceived notions.” Expertise in psychology initially staged her progressive approach to working cattle.

As prey animals, she explains, cattle make decisions according to fears and comforts, making them candidates for a type of interpersonal communication called low-stress cattle handling.

Upon receiving a new load of calves, Burkholder takes them out of their pens and walks them through the feedyard alleyways for daily exercise. She practices applying and releasing pressure with her proximity so that cattle make an autonomous choice to go where she directs.

Within a few weeks from arrival, the calves understand her commands and learn to walk calmly toward the holding pens for chute work.

Anne Burkholder using proximity as pressure to get cows out of their pen

As one who specializes in weaning calves, Burkholder found that light exercise outside of the pens boosts morale and encourages appetites for calves of all ages and stages in the feedyard. Her rookie spirit freed her to question conventions and try new techniques in cattle management.

“We need to set calves up for success,” she emphasizes. Before Will Feed receives any new cattle, Burkholder investigates and documents the vaccination, worming and implant practices used by previous owners.

If she is receiving weanlings, prairie hay with a slight inclusion of feed coaxes calves up to the bunks to help acquaint them with their new environment. Free-choice mineral tubs are made available in weanling pens, which “make a great pacifier,” says Burkholder.

Weaned calves are exercised for five days, walking each day back to their pens where hay-filled bunks command their immediate formation of a neat lineup.

During these initial five days, hay is gradually reduced and their starter ration is gradually increased. They may then continue on 40 percent roughage and 60 percent concentrate for up to 35 days.

Bawling cattle are rarely heard at Will Feed, Inc. The cattle Burkholder weans take only a few days to mellow out as they settle into their quiet home.

Burkholder’s work begins before many of the cattle are awake. Her truck’s headlights guide her pre-dawn bunk level readings through the darkness.

She and her team assess visual cues from the cattle such as altered behavior, mood or posture that may indicate sickness or pain. A rider on horseback checks calves in all pens every day. Any calf seen not performing up to its potential is pulled from its pen for immediate evaluation.

Her team manages the mud after every storm, regularly cleans out feedbunks and raises wind blocks during the winter.

Feed components are adjusted according to weather, supply or economics with the help of a consulting nutritionist. Burkholder explains, “I do it because I really am an animal lover … but I also do it because I know healthy and comfortable animals make healthy beef and that’s what I’m putting on my dinner table every night.”

Although growth promotants are used to keep dressing percentages above 64, no prophylaxis antibiotic is used upon receiving calves.

Burkholder firmly maintains an expectation for proper shipping and handling of calves by her suppliers, who are all BQA-certified just like her feedyard.

She emphasizes, “I think it’s very important that we complete the BQA circle, which means that every calf that’s born in the U.S. is handled by a BQA-certified stockman from the time they’re born to the time they go to harvest.”

The comfort and care Burkholder and her workers provide the cattle have literally paid off. In a recently conducted analysis, her dry matter intake and average daily gain were greater than all other North and Central Plains feedyard averages, while her average cost of gain and death losses were less for both steers and heifers.

About 80 percent of her Angus and British cross cattle grade USDA Choice or higher with yield grades between 2 and 3.

Having high confidence in the carcass performance of her cattle, she almost always requests packers pay on a grid. “I always look at the end … I very much have a long-term vision, a long-term drive in place that makes me make decisions a little bit differently,” she explains.

After a few years of learning to feed commodity calves, Burkholder decided to benefit from additional revenue through value-added programs like Certified Angus Beef and age and source verification. Her rationale is, “I want to eat beef that comes from a calf that somebody cared about, that somebody took the time to trace and follow and see how that calf performs.”

Her beliefs on setting up the beef industry for success are just as strong as her philosophy on calves. Burkholder asserts, “I am a consumer first, so I try to empathize with the person that’s buying my product.”

With a growing consumer population that wants to know where their beef comes from, she thinks “they have a right to know that, and we as an industry, therefore, need to continue to work toward some transparency and be willing to share our story.”

Burkholder opens the feedyard to tours, which often include students, politicians and state employees. In the spring of 2011, she inaugurated her blog, Feed Yard Foodie, and writes postings twice a week that describe her everyday life to urban audiences.

Inquisitive people often call her about feedyards and raising beef, with whom she is more than willing to converse.

She travels at times with the Beef Checkoff for industry promotions, where her story is spotlighted in food and lifestyle media. She also leads seminars around the nation, lobbies in Washington, D.C. and addresses relevant issues with federal agency staff.

Burkholder exhorts the beef industry to continue its journey of improvements while lauding its continual progress to the American public. “More and more people are realizing they’re not just in the grass business; they’re not just in the calf business; they’re in the beef business.”

She adds, “A focus on the end product … is what in the long run is going to drive demand and keep us all in business.” Burkholder credits superior genetics, excellent pen conditions and dedication to animal welfare for the success of Will Feed, Inc. She credits integrity, empathy and competency for the success of the beef industry.  end_mark


TOP: Anne Burkholder’s unique background to the cattle industry has allowed her to question conventional methods in forming quality standards. Photo courtesy of Anne Burkholder.

BOTTOM: Anne Burkholder takes calves out of pens to walk alleyways for exercise and uses proximity as a subtle pressure to let them decide to follow her direction. Photo courtesy of Cassie Payne Webb.