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As Will Feed closes, reflecting on 20 years in the feedyard

Sherry Bunting for Progressive Cattleman Published on 21 December 2016
Anne Burkholder stands in front of feeder cattle at Will Feed

Closing Will Feed was not an easy decision. Anne Burkholder grieved a few weeks before she could write about it in her Feed Yard Foodie blog. Some of the initial posts were raw.

“But that’s where I was, and those first posts were pretty transparent. I’ve moved through that, and I’m finishing strong and looking to the future,” she said in a phone interview recently.

Anne and Matt met at Dartmouth College, married and returned to his family’s farm in 1997. Matt purchased the alfalfa dehydration plant from his dad and went to work learning to run the crop business; Anne went to work in the feedyard.

Over the next 20 years, the suburban Floridian found her calling as a feedyard cattle caregiver in Cozad, Nebraska.

Along the way, she developed a keen interest in the beef business, used her writing skills to communicate with consumers, served on national boards and earned recognition from peers.

Having channeled her athlete’s work ethic into a commitment to cattle care and low-stress handling, Burkholder says that, “My journey as a woman animal welfarist in the cattle industry has been nothing short of fascinating."

"I learned a long time ago that making positive change required other people to take your ideas and internalize them in their own lives and businesses.”

When she hears others sharing her thoughts and practices, that’s when she knows a change is occurring and that she has played a role in agriculture’s journey of continuous improvement.

It doesn’t happen overnight. Her two decades as “boss lady” at Will Feed brought new ideas not just to the feedyard but also to the cattle industry, marked heavily in tradition but also relying heavily on integrity, says Burkholder.

“Cattlemen are inspired to do the right thing. The biggest ‘a-ha’ moment occurs when the feedyard crew realizes that low-stress cattle handling and holistic animal care actually make the job of caring for cattle easier. Once the crew sees that, they become believers.”

As the 3,000-head feedyard has emptied some of its pens for the last time over the past few months, the work to disassemble the yards for conversion to crops has already begun, and the last pens will finish by February.

The 45-year-old Will Feed’s aging facilities had become less important to the overall scheme of the farm as the crop business grew and diversified.

Some of Burkholder’s top hands were getting close to retirement and Burkholder, herself, was finding it more difficult to manage the 60-hour work weeks while devoting time to coaching youth sports in town.

As these cards fell into place, she and Matt spent the past year looking at their options. “The bottom line was: The return on investment in feeding cattle was not high enough to inspire us to do the necessary capital improvements to remain in the cattle-feeding business another 45 years,” she says.

Burkholder confesses she does not do idleness well, “but there I was, making the choice to put myself out of a job without knowing what was next.”

Months later, a door opened with Beef Marketing Group, the cooperative she joined four years ago to market her cattle. Prior to that, Burkholder marketed cattle to a niche Asian market that paid a premium for her 100 percent birth-to-harvest source-verified cattle.

That program ended when Japan opened more broadly to U.S. beef imports.

“I am a huge believer in tracing cattle from birth to slaughter to set calves up to be successful. Better care is the result of more collaboration up and down the chain during the lifetime of the calf,” she says as she explains her business plan.

Knowing the ranches her calves have come from allowed collaboration on nutrition and timely preconditioning shots to build immunity and lessen the stress at their next step in her feedyard. That translated to lower mortality rates and reduced need for antibiotic treatments.

“I don’t want to leave what I have worked hard for, but my dream now is to continue to impact cattle care on a larger scale, to take what I’ve learned and expand it to other feedyards while having the time to find more balance in my own life,” says Burkholder.

Of the many hurdles she sees in the industry, “Number one is figuring out how to effectively build trust with our customers, which branches across every component of our industry,” she says.

“We need our customers to trust in our farmers’ ability to responsibly grow food. When that occurs, then we can all do a better job honoring the animals and the gift they give when they go to slaughter.”

Burkholder wrote about this in a September blog post, “Benny had a Good Life”.

“Consumers in 2016 want to know something about their food. The world of ‘labeling’ is incredibly complicated and often exacerbates the problem instead of providing the answer,” she explains. “It all comes back to trust. What builds trust?”

While she hasn’t figured out the complete answer to that question, she knows it will take teamwork to achieve it.

“All of us in agriculture need to come together as a team to accomplish this. The lack of unity both within the industry and outside of it provides a huge hurdle as we tackle the trust issue. We need more conversations based on respect and kindness.”

She covered this in her November post on “The Glow that Illuminates”.

Burkholder sees beef’s future revolving around the ability to “embrace trade” because “We live in a global world. I also think that tracing our animals allows us to do better jobs as animal caregivers.”

Traceability may also be a key in communicating the origin of beef to instill consumer confidence while improving the success of calves from birth to harvest.

As Burkholder looks ahead to her dual role at the Beef Marketing Group – working on both animal welfare and communications – she is glad to continue working with cattle and feedyards in Nebraska via BMG’s Progressive Beef quality and safety assurance programs.

In communications, she hopes to take her social media outreach on animal welfare, cattle handling and sustainability beyond her Feed Yard Foodie site.

Meanwhile, the closure of Will Feed adds another statistic in the loss column of independent feedyards as the beef industry becomes more concentrated. Even so, Burkholder sees continued diversity in the business.

“There is a place for independent farmers to continue to participate. Both Matt and I joined cooperatives to help us market our end products, and those were excellent ways for us to maintain our independence while also hitting a blend of markets and consumers,” she says about the resilience of farmers and ranchers, and the blend of tradition and vision needed in these changing times.

“We figure out ways to continue to do what we love.”

Burkholder is practicing what she preaches to her three daughters. She is packing her FAITH – Fortitude, Attitude, Integrity, Trust and Humility – during this transition, and she is taking heed of her advice that the road to excellence is never comfortable.

“It’s about reaching above and beyond our capabilities to accomplish far more than our dreams,” she says from personal experience as the survivor of a chronic illness. “Life is never perfect.

Obstacles and challenges are part of our everyday existence. Over the years, I have learned that it is the courage to continue that counts.”

After February, Burkholder’s courage to continue will look a little different than her 20 years as feedyard “boss lady.” Will Feed will be gone, but everything Burkholder has learned and worked for will continue.

Besides, her husband plans to carve out a bit of pasture to background a small group of calves because, after all, Anne Burkholder really has fallen in love with taking care of cattle.  end mark

PHOTO: Anne Burkholder stands in front of feeder cattle at Will Feed. After 20 years as an industry leader in cattle handling, Burkholder will start a new direction with quality and safety assurance programs. Photo by Sherry Bunting.

Sherry Bunting is a freelance writer from East Earl, Pennsylvania. Email Sherry Bunting.

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