Jan Lyons, who assumes the presidency of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) late this month in Phoenix, AZ, has always been a generous volunteer on behalf of her industry. While her and husband Frank's two daughters were growing up on the family purebred Angus operation outside Manhattan, KS, Lyons devoted a lot of time to Extension and 4-H activities. She also served as president of the Kansas Angus Association and helped form the Kansas Livestock Association's (KLA) seedstock council in the early '80s.
But her first foray into what can be a bare-knuckled world of policy formation came in the mid to late '80s. The Ohio native says that's when she learned the power of what a unified group of concerned folks could accomplish — even if the opponent happens to be the U.S. Army.
It was in 1986 that a local news article alerted landowners adjacent to Fort Riley of the Army's plan to initiate an eminent-domain acquisition of 100,000 acres to its south and west. The acquisition of what was mostly privately owned pastureland was part of a plan to double Fort Riley's size and provide additional practice space for tanks.
“The Army wasn't familiar with the land and how fragile the Flint Hills are. They thought it was just scrub land that wouldn't affect anyone,” recalls Keith Ascher, a fourth-generation rancher whose commercial cow-calf to finish operation near Junction City would have been affected by the acquisition. “Looking back, I still find it amazing that we were able to do back then what we did.”
What they did was not only stop the acquisition but force a change in the process of how such decisions are made. At that time, environmental needs assessments for such federal expansions weren't performed until after the land had been acquired, Ascher says. The Flint Hills landowners were convinced the acquisition wasn't necessary in the first place.
A Grass-Roots Effort
The effort began by word of mouth and progressed to organized meetings. They formed a group called “Preserve The Flint Hills” and sought the advice of veterans of similar battles. They enlisted the help of local cattlemen's and farming groups, the KLA and the Farm Bureau, and lobbied local, state and federal officials. A big ally was U.S. Senator Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS).
“We argued that the military already had the land it needed for training. And, we documented that the needs of the modern military could be met through other means,” Lyons says. She served as vice-chairman on the steering committee chaired by Ascher.
In the end, with Kassebaum's help, the Preserve The Flint Hills movement was able to gain a Government Accounting Office study that proved the landowners right. That resulted in a rewrite of the acquisition process. Now, environmental needs assessments must be done before land acquisition actions are initiated.
“The lesson I learned was that by banding together, you can be so much more effective, especially on specific issues that affect you,” Lyons says.
After that experience, Lyons says she began to give more of her time to KLA because “I felt there were issues affecting our operation that I could influence through such groups.” She served on various KLA committees, presiding as KLA president in 1994 during the organization's centennial year. She served on the Cattlemen's Beef Board (CBB) for six years, the group charged with overseeing the national beef checkoff, and was the group's vice-chairman and, ultimately, chairman in 1996. She also served as chairman of NCBA's Seedstock Council.
She says her proudest industry accomplishment is her involvement, as vice-chairman of the CBB, in the industry merger that focused the industry and resulted in the development of a long-range plan.
Now, The Biggest Step
Now, comes her biggest step — the point position of NCBA. What does Lyons bring to the job?
Lyons is an attractive, disarmingly charming, high-energy woman with sparkling blue eyes and a wide and ready smile. She's the mother of two daughters and the grandmother of seven who serves as the matriarch of Lyons Ranches, a top Angus seedstock operation.
Visit with her and it's obvious she seems as at ease around the ranchhouse kitchen pouring visitors coffee and offering them a piece of her homemade apple pie as she is navigating a truck around the pasture.
Sit down to talk with her and you'll find her an attentive and patient listener who speaks thoughtfully and precisely after pondering her answers. She's passionate about two things — family and the cattle business.
Lyons will tell you she's been well schooled for the challenges of the year ahead via her volunteer experience with the KLA, the CBB and NCBA. That experience, she says, has provided her with a broader view of the industry and a conviction that everyone deserves to be heard.
Lyons says an open mind and her willingness to listen feed well her penchant for weighing all sides to arrive at a position she really believes in.
“But I'm also able to represent what the membership determines as priorities and what's important,” she says. “I believe in the process that a member organization like NCBA uses to determine policy, and I believe that the organization, after a thorough analysis of any issue, arrives at the right place for the good of the overall industry.”
Lyons' talents will come in handy over the coming year as she wrestles with the divisiveness she considers one of the main challenges facing the industry. She believes the answer lies in raising awareness in the country about NCBA, and making sure the opportunity to express differing viewpoints exists, and folks know it exists.
“Some of the divisiveness comes from organizations whose thrust is one- or two-issue oriented,” Lyons says. “NCBA is a multi-issue organization that deals with issues that affect producers and producers' profitability. It seems to me that NCBA must continue to assert our market driven solutions and continue to do what it does best, which is being a strong spokesman for the industry on all issues.”
Lyons says another source of divisiveness stems from ignorance about how the checkoff program functions.
“There's a perception out there among some folks that NCBA and the checkoff are one and the same, that NCBA makes big dollars from the checkoff,” she says. “But NCBA only recovers the costs it incurs in carrying out the checkoff programs it's charged with. That side of our organization — the checkoff side, which represents the federation of state beef councils — is very separate from the policy side of NCBA, which is completely run by such non-checkoff dollars as membership dues.”
Lyons feels a new governance structure to be discussed at the Phoenix convention offers great promise. Aimed at creating a more responsive, inclusive and efficient producer organization, the plan was given preliminary approval at last summer's midyear conference. Final action will be taken this month in Phoenix. (See “Rewriting Governance,” September BEEF, page 44.)
More awareness and open communication are also needed about the checkoff, she says.
“It's important that people understand how these demand-building programs have not only impacted our bottom line but overall demand for our product,” she says. “But, we need to not only demonstrate the good the checkoff has done but be willing to look at whatever changes may be necessary to address the needs of today's beef industry.”
The Industry Proves Itself
The value of the industry merger and checkoff program, however, go far beyond even the 1,600 new beef products introduced in the past four years or the landmark muscle-profiling studies that have allowed the industry to reap more value from lower-priced cuts, she adds.
She says a prime example was demonstrated this summer when Canada announced its discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
“The BSE crisis was a perfect example of what this industry can accomplish when we get everyone around the table and work together,” Lyons says. “Along with CBB, we brought our checkoff resources to bear, used our policy arm and worked with retailers and USDA. Within two hours of Canada's announcement, the U.S. industry had good, credible information out there that addressed the need.
“The visibility of the BSE issue was extremely high among U.S. consumers but consumer confidence in U.S. products still reached an all-time high because we were able to effectively get out the message,” she adds.
Lyons admits to being a bit nervous about the challenging year ahead.
“It's a team effort. There's no question. What we accomplish during the coming year will be as an organization not just one person. But I do feel the pressure to do and say the right thing on behalf of producers because I want to communicate to the public appropriately and openly,” she says.
Those who know and have worked with Lyons don't have any apprehensions about her performance.
“I have the utmost respect for Jan Lyons,” says Fred Germann, a longtime Kansas beef industry leader. “Jan's very worthy of that office [NCBA president],” he says. “She's been a great worker on anything I've ever seen her take a hold of.”
Jan And Frank Lyons Built A Life In The Flint Hills
At one time, there were 142 million acres of tall-grass prairie in North America. The plow has claimed about 95% of it.
Most of what remains is in the Flint Hills, a rolling terrain of about 11,400 square miles that runs north and south through east-central Kansas. Named for the flinty beds of limestone near the soil's surface, much of this area was considered too rocky or too steep to farm.
The Flint Hills, however, was perfect for the millions of grazing animals that feasted for centuries on the abundance of its native big bluestem, switch grass and Indian grass species. It was one of the factors that Jan and husband Frank Lyons liked about the area when his military commitment sent them from their native Ohio to Fort Riley, KS, in 1974.
“As a couple, we always knew we'd live in the country and be in the cattle business,” Jan says. “I was raised on an Angus farm in East Liverpool, OH, and grew up as a lifetime 4H-er with a lifetime interest in cattle, showing steers and working with my dad on our farm. Frank grew up on a small farming operation. That was the same way we wanted to raise our kids.”
An Ideal Setting
When Frank finished his military commitment, he accepted a partnership in a radiology practice in nearby Manhattan. The couple bought a century-old farmhouse about five miles south of there. While Frank carried on his full-time practice, helping out on the ranch on nights and weekends, Jan took the lead in tending to their two daughters, Debbie and Amy, and building and managing the cattle operation.
“I wanted to get into the cattle business so bad,” Jan says. “I grew up in it. I like the lifestyle, I like caring for cattle and I enjoy being close to the land.”
Breed of cattle was an easy decision. “I got started in Angus and always believed in their maternal traits and carcass characteristics,” Jan says.
She began assembling the base herd in 1977. A few select animals from the home place in Ohio were the start, complemented by seedstock from several outstanding Kansas breeders. “Then, we built from within,” Jan says.
The Lyons use EPDs to select for a combination of optimum points in maternal traits, and birth and growth rates.
“We put a lot of emphasis on ultrasound and carcass merit, selecting for a moderate ribeye and excellent marbling,” Jan says. “A lot of the bulls we sell will sire cattle for various value-based marketing alliances.”
Jan and Frank's dream of raising their offspring in a ranch lifestyle has now come to be for their seven grandchildren, as well. Today, Lyons Ranches consists of three separate operations that work together under a marketing and management scheme.
The home place in Manhattan is where all heifers are calved, all calves are weaned and replacement heifers and bulls are developed. All first-and second-calf heifers are also artificially bred there.
It's also where Lyons Ranches holds its annual bull sale the first Monday in March. The offering is generally 150 bulls, while another 75 bulls are sold under contract or by private treaty.
The Lyons' eldest daughter Debbie, her husband Duane Blythe, and their five children live 45 minutes southwest in White City on the Blythe Angus Ranch. A total of 200 cows, stemming from Lyons Angus genetics, are maintained here year around, artificially bred and calved. In addition, they run embryo transfer (ET) recipients on native grass and brome pastures.
Meanwhile, younger daughter Amy and husband, Karl Langvardt, live near Alta Vista, 30 miles south of Manhattan. They manage the South Ranch and day-to-day operations when Jan is away. Mature cows are artificially bred here and calved, calves are processed and about 100 commercial ET cows are maintained. Amy and Karl are also involved in the Langvardt family's sale barn businesses in Junction City, KS, and Clay Center, NE.
Serving The Customer
“Just providing superior genetics isn't enough in today's seedstock business,” Jan says, “You also have to provide opportunities for your customers to be profitable and successful.”
Lyons Ranches strives toward that end by providing customers with special calf sales and cooperating with various value-based marketing alliances.
“If a commercial cattleman has heifers to sell, we'll try to match him up with opportunities,” Jan says. That's where daughter Amy and husband Karl's auction-market affiliation proves handy.
Cooperating with those same facilities, Lyons Ranches helps sponsor two special calf sales each fall for source-verified, preconditioned feeder cattle progeny from Lyons Ranches' seedstock. The sales feature an invited-buyer list that includes representatives of various cattle marketing alliances and feedyards that have fed Lyons Ranches cattle in the past.
For more on the Lyons Ranch program, visit www.lyonsranch.com or call 785/537-7226.