Steve Foglesong loves being a cattleman. Sure, he sees challenges in the beef business, and as incoming president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), he'll be the point man in addressing those challenges for the U.S. beef industry in 2010.

But Foglesong, who heads up a diversified livestock, grazing and cropping operation near the central Illinois town of Astoria, also believes there's plenty of opportunity in his profession.

“Ultimately our job as cattlemen is to efficiently convert sunlight into protein. There's no more noble profession to choose or a better lifestyle in which to raise your children. We get to be stewards of a God-given resource. What could be better than that?”

Foglesong comes at that determination via experience. He, wife Linda and their children, Nate, Drew, Cole and Kaitlin, have carved out a successful livelihood on reclaimed coal ground an hour southwest of Peoria. Developed in 1994, their Black Gold Ranch and Feedlot today consists of 5,000 acres of cropland and pasture under intensive rotational grazing by 1,200 cows, and they are building numbers. A few years ago, they added a slatted-floor confinement feeding facility of 5,000-head capacity.

The Foglesongs' ranch also produces thousands of feeder pigs via three farrowing units in which they partner with investors. All the manure from these confinement facilities is injected into their pastures and cropland, just one aspect of the Foglesongs' impressive environmental stewardship record.

The operation's website also lists stock dogs, colts and yearlings, ranch horses and “wild cow catching.” Steve laughs. “When you have kids you get into more dang stuff — strictly hobbies,” he says.

But describing exactly what the Black Gold operation consists of is akin to shooting at a moving target.

“It's been a progression,” Foglesong says. “Linda always wants to know what we're doing next year because it seems we're always changing, but we can be very versatile in this part of the country. We're supposed to get 38-40 in. of precipitation/year; and we got 50 this year. So we're going to raise something here every year.”

Family-built, family-run

Foglesong is a barrel-chested chap with a ready smile and a strong, calm confidence. The first thing you notice about him and his largely family crew is how much they enjoy the business, the lifestyle and each other. They laugh and joke easily amongst themselves. Everyone is empowered to make decisions and he encourages it.

He tells how the operation was largely a farming enterprise when he and Linda moved onto the place; Steve was the manager and they later purchased 5,000 of the original 8,000 acres.

“We built it from scratch, as a family. Every bit of this ranch is reclaimed coal strip ground. There wasn't any fencing to speak of when we moved in so we put up some high-tensile wire and later converted it to barbed wire.” It's the type of land Foglesong says he's worked his entire career, first with his brother and now with his wife and children.

When he and Linda purchased the land, it was mostly in crops. “An awful lot of it had never seen cows, and we've been building fence and turning old waste strip-mined ground into productive pastures ever since,” he says.

“We're always in the expansion mode; we've never been static. We've always been growing or changing. So we're always looking for someplace else, over the next hill. Where can we expand, what can we do that's a little bit different?”

Foglesong says they've neared the carrying capacity on their home farm and are looking for leasing opportunities to run more cows. “Our business model calls for owning the cows whose calves we're going to feed out and our buildings are big enough to hold 5,000 head. That's where we want to wind up.”

Large-scale cattle feeding isn't the norm in his locale. Foglesong describes his operation as a “ranch tucked into cornfields; public relations is my number-one job,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “that's why we have a lot of new barbed-wire fence.”

In this locale, cattle feeding consists mainly of farmer-feeders feeding 300-500 head their own grain. But the abundance of ethanol production facilities in the area makes it a great place to feed cattle, he says.

“We're blessed with an abundance of distillers' grains in this area. Years ago when we had our old feed yard, we were at a disadvantage because northwest Iowa was a great place to feed cattle because their corn wasn't worth anything. But now with all the ethanol plants that have popped up, the price of corn is largely the price of corn, except for those areas that have to pay a freight differential.”

Foglesong has a long record of industry service. He's a member and past president of the Illinois Beef Association, and has served in numerous positions within the NCBA policy division. He was an appointee to the Cattlemen's Beef Board and the Beef Checkoff Working Group.

Foglesong sees it as his duty to become involved, but says that involvement has offered him numerous personal and professional insights. That's in keeping with Foglesong's personality as an observer; he says he loves to drive truck across the region because he has a chance to look around, assess the crops, etc. It's the same with his industry affiliations.

“If I look at my business, most of the people I do business with are people I've been associated with in various cattlemen's associations. My wife and I talk about this; she sometimes thinks we might be stretching a little further than we need to be. We're always looking to do something different. And I tell her: ‘Look at the people I hang out with. If you get to know people like Paul Engler and W.D. Farr and those kinds of people, those are the people you emulate, people who are successful and aren't afraid to take a risk.’

“We're not risk-averse around here,” he adds. “We're willing to change in our business level and go forward at breakneck speed. The challenge is to have a banker with the entrepreneurial spirit who's willing to do that.”

Next Page: Telling the ag story

“If I look at my business, most of the people I do business with are people I've been associated with in various cattlemen's associations. My wife and I talk about this; she sometimes thinks we might be stretching a little further than we need to be. We're always looking to do something different. And I tell her: ‘Look at the people I hang out with. If you get to know people like Paul Engler and W.D. Farr and those kinds of people, those are the people you emulate, people who are successful and aren't afraid to take a risk.’

“We're not risk-averse around here,” he adds. “We're willing to change in our business level and go forward at breakneck speed. The challenge is to have a banker with the entrepreneurial spirit who's willing to do that.”

Telling the ag story

Foglesong's volunteer association duties have taken him to Washington, DC, as well as the Illinois statehouse. He says one of the realizations he's had in testifying before Congress is that folks elected to office typically want to do a good job.

“Everyone assumes these elected officials have agricultural experts on their staffs, and I'm here to tell you they don't. They need help on it and that's our obligation and one thing I intend to stress the hardest in the coming year — we have to be actively engaged.”

The battle is important, he adds, because “some of these heavy-handed regulations being put into place, such as regulating dust and greenhouse gases, run the risk of moving livestock production out of this country.”

Foglesong says that in the coming year he plans to exhort all agriculturalists, not just cattle producers, to take an active role in government.

“Fewer than 1% of the U.S. population today is involved in agriculture, yet we produce food for everyone in this country and several foreign countries, to boot. And we have such a small voice. We have zero clout when it comes to electing politicians. But once they are elected, every person in agriculture needs to make it their business to make contact with those people and tell our story.”

In addition, he says, from the association standpoint, he wants to do everything he can to empower state affiliates, both the beef councils and the state associations, to take a more active role in the overall organization.

“NCBA can only be as strong as the state affiliates that make it up because those state associations touch individual members so much more effectively than you ever can from the national perspective.

“From a personal membership, so many of these things that happen in DC have an opportunity to affect what I do. Just as I might hire a truck driver or an accountant, through NCBA, I can hire the best and brightest people to work for me in DC and Denver. These people are working to guarantee our livelihood, as well as promoting our products and getting them moved. We must have both; they work together, and you can't have one without the other,” Foglesong says.