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Preparing future leaders for the beef industry

Jason Ahola Published on 24 November 2013

Without question, significant opportunities exist today for young people in the U.S. beef industry. Our nation’s cattle producers are getting older.

In the 2007 census, the average farmer was 57 years old, and the USDA reported that two-thirds of cow-calf operators were more than 50 years old.

This is resulting in a massive generational transfer of agricultural operations across the U.S. In the West, it has been estimated that more than 50 percent of all ranches will change ownership in the next 10 years – either through inheritance or sale to a new buyer.

Unfortunately, we are losing more than 1 percent of beef cattle operations each year – about 8,500 annually.

As a result, more than 170,000 beef operations have gone out of business since 1992. It is time we focus our efforts on educating our youth and providing them with skills needed to join a rapidly changing and globalized beef industry. Ideally, they will then become its future leaders.

A time of opportunity

Even with new challenges and elevated input costs, today is a great time for young people to get into the beef industry.

To many, that sounds like a crazy idea. But consider a few facts about today’s industry:

  1. The U.S. beef cowherd inventory is declining, which will result in another relatively small calf crop (similar in size to 50 to 60 years ago).
    Fewer calves will result in higher calf prices, as long as consumer beef demand remains stable.
  2. Global beef demand continues to increase substantially since it is closely linked to the gross domestic product (GDP) growth of large countries like China, India, Indonesia and Brazil. Global beef demand will continue to support beef price at retail.
  3. Compared to competing animal protein sources (i.e., poultry and hogs), a ruminant is the only animal able to take advantage of readily available low-cost feeds like crop residues (corn stalks, straw) and rangeland grazing.
    Since much of the U.S. can only be used to produce, beef cattle production will continue to have ready access to forage inputs.
  4. Marketplace premiums as a result of adding value to calves are now a reality. This includes source verification, preconditioning programs, natural and organic claims, and animal welfare verification.
    Most producers don’t take advantage of these methods to increase income, but those who do are reaping the financial rewards.
  5. Several low-cost technologies are available to improve production efficiency and product quality but are rarely used.
    These include semen (particularly sexed semen), electronic identification, computer software for individual animal management and genomic tests to improve selection. Producers who embrace innovation will see improved profitability.

Being an optimist and taking into account these points, right now is a great opportunity for young people to get involved in the beef industry.

However, new entrants must work within a completely different set of paradigms in order to succeed.

This includes managing high-priced grains and forages, elevated diesel and equipment (e.g., pickup, tractor) costs, and general risks inherent to global agricultural industries.

Characteristics and skills needed

The new set of skills required for young people must be acquired from several different sources.

It is no longer possible for “real-world” experiences alone, or only a university education, to provide adequate training.

And future beef industry leaders need to be savvy in both animal husbandry and business.

So what are the key skills and characteristics young people need to have?

  • Know the globe: Today’s beef industry is clearly a global business. It has become increasingly important to understand societies, markets, trade, world supply and demand, and the inter-relationships of major markets (e.g., oil, grain and meat).
    Over 95 percent of the world’s seven billion people don’t live in the U.S. – but about 12 percent of the world’s beef cows do.
    And beef cow distribution in the world continues to change. For instance, the beef cow inventory in the past 5 years declined about 10 percent in the U.S. but increased 8 percent in Brazil.
  •  Be a communicator: Without question, communication skills are the most important set of skills any young person can compile and use to ensure a lifetime of success.
    These include interpersonal, leadership, writing, listening, negotiating, moderating, mediating and public speaking skills.
    Working in the industry requires daily communication with everyone from cowboys and ranchers to retailers and consumers.
  • Learn another language: Learning a foreign language as a young person is much easier than as an adult. We’re in a global economy – there are over 250 different languages spoken by at least one million people each.
    And 65 of these languages are spoken by at least 10 million people each. As exports play a larger role in the U.S. beef industry, we will need greater representation in foreign markets to be competitive.
    Interestingly, it has become common for animal science students studying at Brazilian universities to learn Mandarin Chinese, based on future trade potential between those countries.
  • Have sales and networking skills: As unappealing as “sales” jobs appear to be for most young people, it’s amazing that nearly every occupation (with the possible exception of manual-labor jobs) requires skills in “selling.”
    These skills can be developed by young people if they build a network of contacts in the industry. Join, be active in and work with an industry association, organization or group.
    In addition to learning how to “sell” yourself, these opportunities can enhance information sharing, teamwork and collaboration.
  • Acquire database skills: Cattlemen are becoming swamped with information and computer-generated data.
    Though data can be simple to collect, the analysis and evaluation of data is more difficult and rarely done, including using data in decision-making.
    General computer proficiency should complement skills in compiling, summarizing and interpreting data using spreadsheets and database software.
    Unfortunately, limited value is being extracted from data collected today compared to what is ultimately possible.
  • Study every segment: As the beef industry moves toward some type of integration, albeit slowly, it is becoming increasingly important to intimately understand every segment of the beef industry.
    This includes learning about the seedstock, cow-calf, backgrounder-stocker-yearling, feedyard, packing, retail and food service sectors, including how they interact with each other.
  • Know commodity markets: Due to extremely volatile prices for all commodities, it will continue to be vital to understand commodity markets.
    This includes how commodities are bought and sold, risk management and management of cash flow and debt loads.
    More market information is available today than at any time in history – and this will continue to be the case in the future.
  • Understand planning and supervision: For a variety of reasons, there has been strong interest in recent years by non-beef industry participants to develop and implement business and marketing plans for potential beef cattle operations.
    Industry newcomers are seeking young individuals who have the ability to plan and execute while also supervising others.
    During the summertime, don’t just work in manual-labor jobs and learn only animal husbandry skills.
    Become competent in interpersonal interaction and the oversight of employees. Supervisory skills can’t be taught; they must be developed through experience.

In summary

Today’s beef industry is offering a tremendous opportunity for young people. However, compared to traditional beef production, a vastly different set of skills, ideas, innovations and knowledge is needed.

Progressive youth should embrace this opportunity and self-direct their education, including building a set of skills that includes proficiency in communication, sales, networking, planning and supervision.

In addition, an in-depth knowledge of the global economy, all commodity markets and every beef industry segment will be required for leadership positions.

Proficiency in a foreign language and database management will also be necessary to ensure success.

The strength of our nation and its democracy depends on a strong, viable and progressive agricultural industry.

And the beef industry is the largest single segment of U.S. agriculture in terms of cash receipts. With a major generational transfer of farms and ranches currently under way, our youth are being given a major responsibility.

However, they must enter the industry embracing a new set of skills acquired under a new set of paradigms. Today is truly an exciting time for young people that want to be involved in beef production.  end mark

Jason Ahola is an associate professor of beef management systems at Colorado State University.