How it started
When BEEF editors launched their annual Trailblazer Award back in 1992, we wanted to honor, first and foremost, producers. Our aim was to detail the amazing men and women who go out every day to get the job done in providing America with the highest-quality protein, but also venture ahead of the pack to show their industry a potentially better way.
The most appropriate name we could devise for this new award was the BEEF Trailblazer. In doing so, we pictured those fearless souls of old who braved the unknown, hacking their marks on trees to pioneer a trail of promise for those to follow.
Genetic mapping of cattle
The late Burke Healey moved so easily within technical subjects and scientific circles that many, even long-time acquaintances, mistakenly assumed he had a PhD. The Davis, OK, seedstock producer's eagerness to explore, research and learn, and then share it with his industry colleagues, made him invaluable to the beef-production brethren of his day.
In January 1994, when USDA formally announced its development and release of genetic linkage maps for cattle and swine, and the potential the new technology held for improved genetic selection, animal health and food safety — Healey was there. For two years he'd crisscrossed the country appearing before cattlemen's groups and seminars, singing the praises and pushing for financial support for genetic mapping projects then underway at USDA and Texas A&M University.
Growing up on the plains of southwest North Dakota, Roger Stuber dreamed of a law career. Later, as a University of Wyoming student, he realized he really longed for the openness and independence of the range.
As a rancher, Stuber was frustrated with the pace of legislative progress on important industry initiatives. His answer was the CATL (Cattlemen Advocating Through Litigation) Fund, an incorporated, nonprofit, legal-defense fund to wage precedent-setting cases of importance to the U.S. beef industry in the courts.
As National Cattlemen's Association (NCA) president, Stuber enlisted NCA members with legal credentials in the effort. With no legal staff, a cattlemen's board, half made up of cattlemen who were attorneys, decided which cases offered the most potential.
“Just the concept we have a fund that's ready and willing to become involved in the legal arena is enough to reduce and, in some cases, eliminate the courts as the forum of choice of unreasonable activism,” Stuber said. “No one likes to get sued, including the government.”
In 1996, a hot story was the discovery of BSE in Europe. The public sensation that accompanied the discovery, and the hysteria over what it held for humans, decimated beef consumption throughout Europe, and threatened the same in the U.S. even though there were no domestic cases.
For at least a year prior, Iowa ranchwoman Connie Greig, as chairman of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) Cattle Health and Well-Being Committee, had been tracking the BSE phenomenon in the United Kingdom and its suspected link to Creutzfeld-Jakobs Disease in humans. When BSE broke, Greig was instrumental in helping form the U.S. position on preparedness and in dealing with the U.S. fallout. She was also the industry's public face, appearing on the Oprah Winfrey television show to assure nervous consumers about U.S. beef-production practices and beef safety.
Cedar Rapids, IA
The beef industry had wrestled for years with inequities in federal meat inspection. Foremost was USDA's rule allowing poultry to gain up to 9% in water weight during processing, while red meat could gain none. It meant poultry processors were selling 2 billion lbs. of water — at poultry prices — to consumers annually.
But years of working through the regulatory process had produced scant progress. In 1994, a handful of Iowa consumers and producers, led by Wythe Willey, a self-described “cattleman first, attorney second,” decided to force change through the courts.
Two years later, the 8th Circuit Court sided with the challengers. And in July 1997, the federal district court ruled federal poultry regulations on added water were based on “arbitrary and capricious” standards, and directed then-USDA Secretary Dan Glickman to issue new regulations on added water for poultry.
John Harris and Dave Wood
When the beef industry began talking about being consumer-focused, Harris Ranch of Coalinga, CA, was way ahead of the curve. In fact, the firm had been atop that wave since the late 1970s. By 1977, it opened its own restaurant and was collecting consumer feedback — daily — from as many as 1,500 diners at its Harris Ranch Restaurant and Inn.
“Polling customers helped us embark in the 1980s on a branded-beef program that we continue to build on,” said Dave Wood, chairman of the Harris Ranch beef division. He, along with John Harris, corporate chairman-owner of Harris Ranch, earned the 1998 Trailblazer Award.
Involved in production from ranch to table, the firm opened the door to new-product development for the industry, pioneering the development of heat-and-serve entrees in the early 1990s. More recently, Harris Ranch introduced a line of fresh, seasoned-beef products, as well as ground-beef products.
Cle Elum, WA
Water rights law
Livestock and farming use to be king in the Pacific Northwest. By the late '90s, however, ag's very existence was deeply threatened by the competition for water — ag had the historical rights to it but cities, developers and activist groups wanted it.
Out of necessity, ranchwoman Mary Burke transformed herself into a self-trained scholar on water rights law. Burke's involvement in water rights issues — and by logical extension, property rights — grew to be an avocation of immense proportions.
It's a fight in which Burke became a frontline soldier 30 years before, when the state of Washington began aggressively adopting water and environmental laws. If you owned a ranch, she said, you had to get involved. Her motivation, intellect, preparation and articulation of the issues won her respect and admiration from friend and foe alike.
“Mary is a visionary,” Greg McElroy, a top legal expert on water law, said. He credited Burke as the first to tie water rights regulation and water quality regulation together.
“Most lawyers thought that idea was nuts,” McElroy said. “Now, everyone agrees with Mary. Even if you can protect your legal right to use and appropriate water, it isn't worth anything unless your livestock can drink from the streams.”
On May 16, 2000, a landmark event in U.S. public health history took place in Minnesota. It was the first day irradiated, or “cold-pasteurized,” ground beef was commercially available to U.S. consumers. Dennis Swan, a third-generation farmer-feeder from Balaton, MN, was an integral cog in gathering the support to make that day a reality.
All the excitement was over a 2-lb. box of frozen, ground-beef patties produced by Huisken Meats, a small, independent processor located in Chandler, MN, just 20 miles south of Swan's 1,300-acre farm-feedlot in Murray County. The first boxes went on sale in Minneapolis that day. Within two months, it was available in 48 states.
The day was the culmination of a three-year effort by Swan and staff members of the Minnesota Beef Council he had chaired since July 1996.
“We did it because we knew irradiation could do for the beef industry what pasteurization had done for the dairy industry,” Swan said.
Guarding the graveyard shift at a ranch fire, R.A. “Rob” Brown Jr. of Throckmorton, TX, brainstormed an idea with his son Donnell. “We were wondering what we could do to help our customers, who pay a premium for good bulls, get paid for that,” Brown explained.
His ultimate solution was gathering together some ranching friends to form Ranchers Renaissance, a novel producer-created cooperative that launched its branded-beef program in 2001. It's the first-of-its-kind, vertically coordinated, pasture-to-consumer system based on partnerships with ranchers, stockers, feeders, a processor and a retail end-user.
What's unique is the cooperative works hand-in-glove with Excel as its packing partner, and retail behemoth Kroger as a retail partner. Together, they deliver what customers want, then share the added value that comes from added market share.
“We had to come up with some way to have a packer-processor involved. We also needed enough commercial operations that agreed with the philosophy of breeding cattle that would produce carcasses with more consistent salable meat of good eating quality, with tenderness being the key,” Brown said.
In April 2001, furor erupted when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation suspended irrigation allotments to 1,400 Klamath Basin project farmers and ranchers. Wildlife and fisheries agencies, with concurrence by a federal judge, had determined that habitat protection for two suckerfish species in Upper Klamath Lake and downstream coho salmon populations took priority over other water uses.
Klamath farmers and ranchers argued that “fuzzy science” led to the listing of the fish as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Among the crowd fighting for “good science” and a return of the water to the ditches in the Klamath, Mike Byrne of Tulelake, CA, stands very tall. Just ask U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR).
“Mike Byrne represents the best of what citizenship in America means,” Walden told the nation in a 2001 House floor speech.
K.L. Bliss, president of the national Public Lands Council, said: “People need to know that one person can make a difference. You can draw a direct connection between Byrne's efforts in the Klamath and a nationwide movement to get sound science involved in endangered species determination.”
When Lucy Rechel analyzed all the cattle doctoring she was doing each fall, she found bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) was the biggest culprit. So the owner of Snyder Livestock, a 4,000-head-capacity, cattle-development center, laid down the law in early 2003 — all cattle destined for her facility had to be tested and proven negative for the BVD virus before she'd take delivery.
That decision was aided by the news of a relatively affordable and reliable test used to identify cattle persistently infected (PI) with the BVD virus. PI animals, which remain infected for life, shed huge amounts of virus and are primarily responsible for keeping BVD in a herd, as well as introducing it into other herds.
Rechel's courageous and principled move was reported in a March 2003 BEEF article entitled “Getting Serious About BVD.” Rechel became the national producer face for BVD awareness, control and biosecurity, and helped spur a national effort to control PI cattle.
For U.S. beef producers, January 2004 was one crazy time.
On Dec. 23, 2003, USDA announced confirmation of a single case of BSE in a Washington State dairy cow. Within days, 95% of a $3.86-billion U.S. beef export market evaporated.
The new trading year began with four days of limit-down in the futures market, even with the limit extended to $5/day. Futures prices dropped 20%. So did cash — from $95 to $75 — or more than $200/head.
Riding the crest of a 15.4% increase in beef demand after a 20-year slide, the industry anxiously awaited consumer reaction to the BSE case.
It was into this maelstrom that Flint Hills rancher Jan Lyons stepped as 2004 president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).
“Her leadership was extraordinary in extraordinary times,” said NCBA CEO Terry Stokes. “She clearly stood on principle and sound science as all these issues were addressed on behalf of the beef industry.”
Joplin Regional Stockyards (JRS), Carthage, MO, has been the decade's most visible commercial champion of calf-management programs designed to improve calf health and value. In the process, co-owner Jackie Moore proved on a real-world stage that quality-based calf programs are both more profitable for the producer and more humane.
Calves out of this corner of Missouri, particularly fall calves, had a reputation for high morbidity. Most came off small operations as bawling calves with little health preparation.
Eventually Moore convinced sellers that vaccinating calves while on the cow would bring healthier calves and more profit. The value-added calf sale program that began in 1997 evolved into a passel of options for sellers — everything from health programs, optional feeding programs, weaning and individual animal ID.
In 2001, JRS added $500,000 in automated commingling facilities to sort small groups into load lots, a boon to the smaller herds dominating JRS clientele.
In 2003, JRS added video sales, and the first JRS sale of electronically ID'd calves was in June 2004. More than 200,000 source- and process-verified calves have since moved through the JRS sale ring.