When Bob McCan, incoming president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), was just a kid, one of his yearly highlights was helping his father and grandfather ship cattle from the railroad pens behind the small town of McFaddin, south of Victoria, TX. Nobody then could possibly imagine, as the 2- and 3-year-old steers clattered up the ramp into the wooden railcars headed for the terminal market in Fort Worth or pasture in Kansas, how much the industry would change in the 50 years hence.

In fact, with a few exceptions, things were pretty much the same since McCan’s great-great-grandfather, for whom the small town of McFaddin is named, bought the South Texas ranch in 1877 with money made from financing the storied trail drives north to Kansas. But even in young Bob McCan’s time, in the dust and commotion of the railroad shipping pens, the exceptions foretold of changes to come; the cattle were a Hereford-Brahman cross known as the Victoria Braford — the result of a planned, systematic crossbreeding system his grandfather put in place when planned crossbreeding was not a ranch-house word.

“I feel pretty fortunate to get just a little of that history, being a part of it when I was a child,” McCan says. “It was pretty spectacular for me to be able to see that and then watch where we’ve progressed.”

NCBA President Bob McCanHow the beef industry changed in the 50-some years since the last railcar of steers rolled out of McFaddin is indeed nothing short of spectacular. And even though now, just as back then, no one can possibly imagine the changes and challenges yet in store for cattle producers, McCan’s history tells him to get ready, because the velocity of change and challenge will most certainly increase.

 

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He’s seen that change happen in his own operation. McFaddin Enterprises now includes two family-owned ranches and a third leased operation. The combined acreage supports 3,000-5,000 Braford cows, depending on Mother Nature. And he’s seen changes happen in the industry: from the handwritten tally sheets of railcar counts to the computers and smartphones that are his constant companions today.

It’s the juxtaposition of that change and challenge, history and the future that provides the base from which the fifth-generation cow-calf producer will lead the industry in 2014 as NCBA president.

An advocate for advocacy

Beef industry advocacy is not new to McCan. Both his great-uncle and grandfather served as president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA), as did he; his father was also active in the organization. “Our family has been active in advocacy groups for cattlemen for a long time,” he says. “So I grew up in that environment.”

That early exposure to those who understood the important role that associations play in ranch life left an imprint. “Those guys, the leaders of our industry, they were my icons, my idols; they were my mentors,” he says. “So it just naturally sent me in the direction of preparing myself to be part of the advocacy for our industry, to give back to our industry.”

It was through the leadership ranks of TSCRA that McCan spent many years honing his leadership skills. Those skills will be crucial in the coming year as NCBA works to better represent all participants and all segments of the beef industry, says Matt Brockman, executive director of the National Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock, TX.

Brockman, who was TSCRA executive vice president during McCan’s leadership years there, says the rancher has a realistic vision for NCBA and how it can benefit the beef industry. He also has a style that can turn realism into action.

“Bob has always found a way to effectively communicate with the diverse mindsets and cultures within the cattle business,” Brockman says. “The glass is always half-full with Bob, and he has a personality and a mindset, and just a way about him, that gets people to trust him and converse with him. If the industry is ready to come together and truly address critical issues, Bob is a man who can get the sides together and find common ground. And that can lead to some good things.”

That history of industry advocacy and those finely honed leadership skills will be necessary as McCan works to help a sometimes splintered industry find its unity and its path forward.

“I am optimistic,” he says of the industry and its future. “We’ve got a lot of challenges, but we’ve got just as many opportunities, if not more. It’s going to be a good time to make some progress in the industry and move the needle to make things better for our producers.”

All for one and one for all

One challenge where McCan sees a lot of opportunity is a growing acknowledgement among producers regarding the importance of industry unity. Industry organizations have come through a difficult and divisive time, he says, “But I think people are realizing that unity is extremely, extremely important for this industry right now.”

Given his years in the leadership trenches both at the state and national levels, he’s not naive about cattlemen’s natures. “We’re going to have differences,” he says. “But if we obsess too much on the differences, it will split us. If we can work on getting those differences worked out within the industry for the betterment of everybody, it’s going to be really good for the industry. We’ve got to concentrate on the things that will help our industry and move our industry forward.”

Industry unity is important for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the most important is that an industry working against itself isn’t working for or with consumers. To that end, one of his goals is to up the octane in the industry’s “gate-to-plate” efforts. For years, producers viewed packers and retailers as antagonists, when in fact the end game — providing a product that consumers will buy again and again — is everyone’s goal.

McCan has always believed that you get more done working with others rather than against them, and he applies that philosophy to packers and retailers. “We’ve worked really hard to get in alignment with all sectors of the industry, from the cow-calf guy to stockers and feeders, packers and retailers. I think that’s very important.”

He’s fully aware that the concept has generated plenty of discussion and disagreement, and that it will continue to do so. “But I think we’ve got to be in alignment with the folks who help us in the production chain.”

It can be done, he believes, because he’s seen it happen before. “Just in my career in the advocacy world, I’ve seen different cattlemen’s groups that used to fight like cats and dogs kind of come together. With that unified vision, we’re way better off,” he says.

Young producers

Another part of McCan’s passion for the industry is the need to help young producers get started in the industry, and get them involved in industry organizations early on. That will benefit the industry in many ways, he says.

NCBA already has risen to the challenge. “We have a Young Producers’ Council, we have the Masters of Beef Advocacy program, we have the Young Cattlemen’s Conference trip and a lot of different activities for our younger members,” he says. “I think that’s going to help us develop a good core group of young leaders who are going to be able to transmit the messages about our industry better than some of the old guard can.”

That’s important, he says, because he views younger producers as the most important group within the industry — for several reasons. “They’re going to be the group that can relate to the millennial consumers,” he says. That’s the segment of consumers with birth years from the early 1980s to the early 2000s.

More importantly, they’re a group of producers with lots of ideas, lots of passion and lots of energy. “We’ve got a lot of producers in their 20s, 30s and 40s, and they’re very capable folks. And I think they have a very good feel for what needs to be done as far as changes to improve the industry,” he says.  “They are the key influencers we have in the industry, and we’ve got to make sure they are part of everything we do.”

But first, they have to have an opportunity to get started and be profitable. “With the good markets we’re enjoying right now and the advancements we’ve made with our export markets, I think it’s going to create some really great opportunities for our industry,” he says. “And I think we’ve got something we haven’t had for a long time — there are young folks thinking there are going to be opportunities for them. Hopefully we can retain some of these younger producers.”

To that end, he says NCBA can play an important role. “If there are some things we can do to encourage people to get involved in the industry, we need to look at that. I think about possible programs all the time, and maybe we can encourage USDA or some private groups to put forth some programs that will provide a little help.”

The industry going forward

One thing McCan is sure about, as he peers into the industry’s future, is that activist groups will only become more strident, more sophisticated and more outspoken. How, he wonders, will producers find the resources to respond?

“There are so many things coming at us so fast, not only from activists groups but with changing consumer sentiment,” he says. “We desperately need additional resources to combat a lot of things that are coming. I would hope that’s something we can accomplish in the next year or two.”

Those additional resources can come from several places. One is the industry’s ability to squeeze every bit of good from every checkoff dollar. There, both NCBA and the Cattlemen’s Beef Board have made some hard and difficult decisions. NCBA leaders responded by reducing staff and asking the organization to operate more tightly and efficiently. It was a hard decision, he says, but adds that he thinks “it was the responsible thing for NCBA to do.”

But belt-tightening only gets you so far. “We’re committed to enhancing the checkoff,” he says of NCBA’s leadership team. “Going forward, I just don’t see how we’re going to be able to do the things we need to do to promote our product, and do the research and innovation we need without additional resources,” he says.

He thinks the industry is ready to increase the checkoff assessment. Some states, in fact, have already made that move. “We are working very hard to get buy-in from the rest of the industry,” he says. “But it has to be a unified vision. Everyone has to be in alignment.”

He plans to help position NCBA as an even better resource for the industry. “One of my big focuses as an officer has been our state-national partners, and our partnerships with our state affiliates and state beef councils,” he says. “I’d really like to continue to improve and build on this relationship.”

McCan appreciates the support he’s had from his family and employees who have shouldered the responsibility of keeping the ranches running while he travels on NCBA business. And he feels good about the beef industry and NCBA’s place in it.

“I’m excited about the officer team we have assembled,” he says. “We have some really great people on our volunteer team, and we have a staff that is dedicated and passionate about the industry. We’re operating a lot leaner, but also a lot more efficiently and effectively. I’m very excited about that, and I think we’re going to see some good things come from it.”

 

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