Sticking around the beef industry isn't a question for the inaugural graduates of the Collegiate Livestock Leaders Institute - it's the answer!

Some of this nation's youngest and brightest beef industry leaders are chomping at the bit to clear the path toward their futures. They believe that herding such fearsome creatures as vertical cooperation and biotechnology out of their infancy into mainstream acceptance will mean a better beef industry.

"The days of running a few old cows and one scrubby bull on the back 40 are over. Mediocrity can no longer be tolerated if this industry is to survive," says Brad Ramsey of Fort Valley, VA. He was representing Virginia Tech as one of 10 undergraduate students selected from across the nation to attend the inaugural Collegiate Livestock Leaders Institute (CLLI) in Baltimore, MD, last summer.

Planning to continue work with his family's cattle operation or begin his own purebred program, Ramsey believes, "We must forget the way it was always done. We must take a new, intensive and progressive approach to beef production. We must adopt new technologies and capitalize on new opportunities. If we are to preserve the industry, the tradition, our heritage and the honor that goes with being known as cattlemen and cattlewomen, we have no choice but to change."

According to CLLI graduate Trae Ottmers of Fredericksburg, TX, representing Texas A&M University, changes will likely fly or die based upon the age-old industry bugaboo of cooperation.

"If every division will communicate and determine the type of cattle that are demanded by each division, profit can be made from producer to retailer," he says.

With that in mind, Brian Shuter, Anderson, IN, says, "One of the biggest changes upon the horizon is increasing vertical integration... Some beef producers' viewpoints will have to change slightly for vertical integration to work (in the beef industry)."

A CLLI graduate representing Purdue University, Shuter says, based on his own experience in his family's operation, "Many of today's producers fear that signing contracts will force them to give up too much control over their own operations... Actually contracts help free up some management inputs and allow time to be spent on other activities to improve the total operation. The specialization that will result from vertical cooperation will allow for more efficient usage of management and labor."

On either side of a vertical system, though, Chad Green of Craig, CO, believes the best thing each producer can do for the industry is to produce the best product they can for the consumer. A CLLI graduate representing the University of Wyoming and planning to return to his family's cattle operation, Green emphasizes, "In order for the beef industry to be profitable in the future, I strongly believe that the entire industry must unite and work together."

Reality Revealed Of course, these young leaders point out all of this assumes that industry cooperation includes the consumer. Jennifer Smith from Butte, MT, a CLLI graduate representing Colorado State University, points out the global population is expected to grow by more than 3 billion people during the next century.

"The amount of food required to feed an increase in the population of this magnitude is incredible," says Smith. Along with that population increase will be increased lifespans that will further pressure agricultural producers, she says.

Communication with consumers is paramount, adds Leon Legleiter of Nevada, MO, a CLLI graduate from the University of Missouri. "A few weeks ago, I talked to the head butcher of one of our prominent grocery stores. He told me they recently changed their meat market to sell a well-known branded product, but it was costing them more to buy it, and they were selling less of it."

Legleiter says consumers must be educated about the value that comes along with that higher price tag.

Kelly Rouse from Hamilton, MT, believes information and communication will be a requisite to survival. "Records will be an important aspect of the beef cattle industry in the new century, not only to help producers make management decisions, but because of the development of electronic identification and source verification," explains Rouse.

A CLLI graduate representing Montana State University, Rouse has her sights set on veterinary school and a large animal practice. "Consumers will want to be reassured that a cut of meat they are buying has no injection site blemishes or violative residues from medications."

Janna Dunbar, a CLLI gradate from Richmond, KS, representing Kansas State University, believes food safety standards will increase. But, she's betting technology keeps pace.

As an example, Dunbar, who has already accepted a position in beef nutrition formulation, predicts, "Food irradiation will be commonplace in the future. It will be widely used and will become more accepted. Already, polls indicate that two-thirds of Americans would be willing to consume cold-pasteurized beef."

Within 25 years, she expects to see the elimination of pathogens and microorganisms such as E. coli 0157:H7, and producers will be more responsible for controlling those organisms, she says.

Luckily, folks like Kevin Harvatine from Thompson, PA, believe increased producer responsibility will be accompanied by unmatched production opportunities during the next quarter century. That includes the strides made via genomics, the application of enzyme systems in digestion, and DNA selection for consumer-preferred traits.

"The possibilities and capabilities of biotechnology are immense. However, the industry will have to settle on a balanced and sensible approach to utilizing these tools by integrating them into common-sense animal husbandry," Harvatine says.

Representing Penn State University at the CLLI, Harvatine emphasizes, "We will utilize these technologies to make the beef animal more efficient at producing human food from low-quality feedstuffs, but we will not have reinvented animal production or made it obsolete."

Feeling The Way Fast Obviously, the thought of still being able to recognize the industry amid even a fraction of these anticipated changes is refreshing to even the most aggressive proponents of evolution. After all, these young leaders want to stick around for reasons other than money.

For instance, looking down the road, Green explains, "I hope to have a really tight family of my own. I want to be at home and running a sound and respected operation that is helping lead the industry through example, and I'll be enjoying myself."

Likewise, Harrell Evans of Shubuta, MS, representing Mississippi State University at the CLLI, says, "Right now, I can see the beef industry's biggest impact coming from Washington, D.C. If it is our future, we should all do our part to see that it succeeds."

Evans, who spent last summer on Capitol Hill working with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association as the public policy intern, worries about the potential loss of public grazing lands in the West to eco-terrorists.

"If they are successful, cattle production will decline significantly. This would shift the focus of cattle production to the central and southeast U.S., which could further increase land prices and make getting started in production more difficult," he says.

"We are already fighting the battle in the courts. We need supportive legislation to help us stem the tide of those that would take our land because they want it on their terms. Our voice can be heard. Lawmakers must be aware of our concerns at all times."

None of these leaders are in favor of change for the sake of change. Green explains, "We must be willing to accept change if it is the right thing to do. However, we don't want to let others lead us down a dead-end path that will leave us all lost and unemployed. That's why it's important for us to unite together today to decide the direction of the beef cattle industry."

Or, as Evans says, "The future is bright, but we have to be a part of the light that shines."