Put enough miles on your saddle and the prejudice of experience can both cloud the view of possibility or the frankness of your opinions. That's why it's valuable to hear what those just beginning to blaze their own beef industry trails say and think.
That describes the 10 recent graduates of the Collegiate Livestock Leaders Institute (CLLI). It's a program sponsored by the American Society of Animal Science, the National Block and Bridle Club and National Cattlemen's Beef Association. It's coordinated by Nevil Speer at Western Kentucky University.
Roping The Future
“Information and the communication of that information is the biggest challenge we have today and will have in the future,” says Nate Jaeger of Silt, CO. He's a Texas A&M graduate enrolled in Colorado State University's Beef Industry Leadership program.
“There's so much information (about cattle) being generated by new technology today that being able to relay it back to producers is the biggest challenge,” he says. “But it is also the biggest opportunity.”
Indeed, T.J. Barclay of Vega, TX, says, “How we combine technology and information will determine how we survive as individuals and as an industry.” He graduated from Texas A&M last year and is now enrolled in A&M's veterinary school.
These young people belong to the most technology-savvy generation in history. But, this group isn't enamored with gadgetry for its own sake. They're excited about new technology only as a means to an end concerning a variety of industry topics, everything from biotech and DNA to new product development and food safety.
And perhaps because they've grown up amid such a fast-paced world, they recognize the value of adapting quickly to a better mousetrap if it comes along.
Blending Old And New
“This is such a traditional industry,” says Natalie Lamneck of High Springs, FL. “But, with the flood of technology that has come, I think people will start changing. They want to learn and know how to improve their cattle.” She's a University of Florida graduate with sights set on veterinary school.
Rene Brewer of Fresno, CA, believes adapting new technology can push the industry higher and faster because of the new talent from other industries it's likely to attract. She's a student at Cal-Poly.
Along with drawing new expertise, Nicole Harris of Liberal, KS, a Kansas State University graduate, believes new technology is helping build more bridges to the beef consumer. She points to a fast-blooming variety of convenience products.
“Maybe these convenience products will actually help bring the family back around the dinner table,” says Harris.
These emerging industry leaders are optimistic about the fruits of technology because they see research and development working with producers rather than apart from them.
“The research industry and the production industry are finally working together,” says Kristina Seybold of McGregor, MN. She's a student at the University of Minnesota.
Seybold believes different production segments are working more closely together, too, serving up more opportunity along the way. “I just want to ranch. I don't know how I will or where, but that's what I want to do,” she explains.
The cooperative aspect of the industry is something Brewer finds especially engaging. “It's not like it's one person against another. It's not out of the question for those of us without a family operation to start a small operation of our own.”
Nick Thompson of Grand Ledge, MI, a student at Michigan State University, agrees. “With all these alliances, we're accommodating smaller producers more rather than driving them out,” he says.
Lori Thompson (no relation to Nick) of Mountain Grove, MO, a University of Missouri student, has seen firsthand the power of cooperation. Her family launched its own natural branded beef program. “Even if the industry becomes highly consolidated, I believe we will still see family-owned operations,” she says.
Balancing The Scale
However, Nick Thompson emphasizes economics will have plenty to say about if and when producers adopt new technologies or concepts.
“I'm excited about things like electronic ID, source verification and tracking cattle to consumption. I think it will hold people to a higher standard and drive up quality. But, is it economically feasible?” he wonders.
Likewise, Scott Updike believes producers must be careful in weighing the trade-offs of change. A graduate of Virginia Tech and current graduate student at Ohio State University, he's wary of vertical coordination taking place in the industry.
“The beef industry is still the last place you can have your freedom… A downside to this technology is that it makes us seem more like manufacturers than cattle producers…,” he says.
Barclay believes the future will be driven by the consumer market rather than the commodity market. “Communication will flow forward and backward in the chain. It will be one of the biggest factors influencing how we make decisions,” he says.
But even with added opportunity, Carole Hicks of Statesboro, GA, expects charting a course toward profitability will remain as spooky as it is today. She grew up in and remains in the seedstock business, graduated from the University of Georgia and has returned there for graduate work. She wonders if some producers will become engaged enough in the industry to survive.
“It's nobody's fault but your own if you don't expose yourself to different aspects of the industry,” says Hicks. “Programs like this help you get out into the industry where you can meet people and keep up with what's going on.”
Keeping The Foundation
Amid all the change, though, these CLLI graduates are counting on some constants — some underlying and familiar principles they plan to enjoy.
“I see cow/calf and seedstock producers actually caring what genetics they produce and manage for the market,” Seybold says.
Nick Thompson offers a caveat. “Where it's turning into a pull-through rather than a push-through market, I think everyone is first going to have to step back and ask, ‘So, what is my market?’” he says.
Finally, Brewer explains everyone involved in the industry is responsible for its perception and reality.
“What excites me is that we can maintain our traditions and move ahead at the same time… Tradition is valued by the ‘good ol’ boys' in the industry, and it is just as valued by us,” she says.
This year's CLLI included an intensive seminar held in conjunction with the annual Association of Animal Science meetings in Indianapolis and further education on the way to and during the National Cattlemen's Beef Association meeting in Denver. For more information about the program, contact Nevil Speer at 270/745-5959.