When it comes to an overall view of the U.S. beef business, it’s tough to think of a National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) incoming president with a broader industry perspective than Scott George.
A dairy farmer from Cody, WY, he’s part of a family operation that includes cow-calf and stocker production. He and his brothers also operate the local American Breeders Service dealership, breeding several thousand head of beef cattle annually. Plus, they raise all the corn needs, and the majority of hay, required to feed their beef and dairy herds, in addition to some small grains.
Still, George says, some folks think it strange for a dairyman to be a member of NCBA, much less its president.
“It’s all about cattle in the end, and the dairy industry provides 28% of the beef produced in this country,” George says. “I really feel I understand all the segments of this business – from breeding to calving to weaning. We raise our own replacements and I understand about developing heifers, growing cattle and feeding calves.”
J.D. Alexander, outgoing NCBA president and a Pilger, NE, farmer-feeder, agrees that George represents a new entity in NCBA’s volunteer leadership.
“Scott has a pretty non-traditional background, but our past presidents have ranged across all sectors and locations, though we’ve never had a dairyman represent us before. I think he could allow us to make some inroads in delivering a better understanding of how dairy fits into the beef industry, as well as foster some dialog on how the two can better work in synch to resolve some of our common issues.”
The 58-year-old George is disarmingly genial, a description you commonly hear about him. Alexander adds that he’s also a careful decision maker. “He really strives to understand any situation or item before making a decision,” Alexander says.
George sees his volunteer involvement as his “tithe” to his chosen profession. It’s not a surprising analogy once you understand the role that faith plays in this devout Mormon’s life.
“When I was asked by my church to serve as a missionary for two years as a 19-year-old college student, I saw it as a tithing of my life – a 10% tithe, as the Bible calls for. I spent two years doing volunteer work and it was about being of service to other people. That’s what I think about NCBA; it’s about giving service to your industry, and NCBA is a service organization.”
George says he’s been involved in volunteer association work for the past 30 years. His volunteer efforts began with the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation, but his fervor really took off as a member of the Wyoming Beef Council (WBC).
“In 1991, I was asked to serve on the WBC as a dairy rep, and I really learned what the beef checkoff was accomplishing. In attending the national meetings, I became very aware of the great coordination and effectiveness of the state and national promotion efforts.
“There are things we just can’t do at the state level, like nutrition research, but we can carry that message back to the influencers in our state. I was just amazed by what I saw being done on the national level in beef promotion, safety, research and advertising, the whole deal.”
As a director, then vice chairman, and eventually chairman of the Federation of State Beef Councils, he says he was able to associate with producers from all segments of the industry, becoming more and more aware of the policy realm in the process.
“I saw firsthand what this organization was doing for all beef producers at the national level on the policy side, and I believe it’s a very vital role for our industry to have.”
George is aware of a “we vs. them” mentality between some beef and dairy producers. Though regular surveys indicate the majority of dairy producers approve of the work of the beef checkoff, some chafe at the $1/head assessment they feel is inordinately high given the relatively low market value of a young dairy calf. For dairy producers, it’s a cost that comes on top of a dairy promotion assessment of 15¢/cwt. of milk marketed, which George says amounts to about $35/cow/year in his family dairy operation.
Meanwhile, on the beef cattle side, producers lament the black eye the greater beef industry has suffered as a result of a spate of sensational videos depicting downer dairy cows.
“Many of these issues regarding videos do revolve around dairy cattle, but you can’t make a blanket assumption that it’s the dairyman’s fault,” George says. “The Hallmark abuse case in California, for instance, happened six months prior to the video release. We don’t know if the animal was weak at the time she was sold, or was injured in transport. Perhaps some cattle jockey bought the cow, didn’t feed her for three days, thus weakening her before dropping her off to be processed.”
He says the industry has worked, and must continue working, together on these challenges in order to build a stronger overall industry. He points to NCBA’s work as a checkoff contractor in helping develop and distribute a list of best management practices for handling cull dairy cattle as an example.
“At NCBA we don’t set policy; we don’t decide about checkoff programs. We listen to our state affiliates; they define the issues and we ask what we can do on a national level working together to try to help address the issue. By the same token on promotion efforts, we strive to talk to the consumer first about their concerns and then work to address them. That’s what we’ve been doing all these years.”
He says he’s discouraged by talk that one sector is favored over another.
“We’re dealing with a multitude of issues in Washington, D.C. – antibiotic use in livestock, industry and environmental sustainability, disease traceback, trade, etc. Every one of those issues impact our producers, whether they are cow-calf or feedlot, stocker or dairy.”
George says the industry must unite and be proactive in addressing a multitude of issues. “Trying to operate in a bubble doesn’t work anymore. Our industry is so impacted today by so many issues – political and economic – and there’s a limited amount of influence we can have.”
He says a unified industry voice is needed, but folks in the country can’t afford to be sit back.
“We need input and testimony from producers who live it every day; if we don’t do that, we’re going to get buried. Our enemies would love to see the cattle industry gone; we don’t have the luxury of not speaking up. And one of our best tools is cattle producers themselves.”
George says he’s been most influenced by the example of his mother Evaleen and his late father Arley.
“I watched them all my life and I worked right beside them growing up. There was no quit in them.”
Oddly enough for this day and age, George can lay claim to being the son of homesteaders. His newlywed parents settled in the Big Horn Basin following World War II, when the U.S. government opened land in the Cody/Powell area of northern Wyoming to homesteaders.
“The government had built this storage dam up here called the Buffalo Bill Dam, along with some diversion dams, but the land hadn’t been cleared. My father learned the land would be homesteaded, so he applied and, darn, if he didn’t get a homestead. He and my mother drove up from Utah with my older brother who was just a year old at the time.”
Photo Gallery: Meet Incoming NCBA President Scott George
The small family settled near Heart Mountain, in a picturesque valley at 4,700 ft. elevation. The natural beauty, however, belied the difficulty that lay ahead in scratching out a living.
“They actually moved into a Japanese relocation camp from World War II, which had been abandoned for about two years. My parents say they literally had to shovel the dirt out of the barracks, which had settled up to the windowsills.” His mother still lives in the home they crafted from materials scavenged from those barracks.
The couple cleared the sagebrush off the land by cutting, buck-raking and burning it. There was no electricity at that time. The only light at night was that of all the sagebrush piles being burned around them, George’s mom says.
It wasn’t an easy life. “When they arrived, they had $17 to their name; my mom likes to say they didn’t have the money they would have needed to leave.”
Eventually, however, the young family bought a few milk cows to supplement their income. The dairy was formally established in 1954, the year George was born; the operation now milks around 600 head of Holsteins, twice daily.
Eventually the family grew to eight children. “We were the workforce,” George says. “We had to milk cows every morning and night, as well as help with the feeding and the farming. Vacations weren’t an option because the work had to be done every day.”
George was married and in his third year in the Brigham Young University dairy science program when his mom called with the news that his dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
“I had three young brothers at home at that time and my father could no longer handle the farm work. So I came home, but I figure I eventually earned my degree in the school of hard knocks.”
His father passed away in 1988. Today, George farms with two younger brothers, Lynn and Arley, as well as Lynn’s sons (Adam and Seth), Arley’s son (Spencer), and sister Sylvia’s son Charlie Laing.
The George family operation includes a 600-head dairy, 100 commercial beef cows (mostly Angus-based bred to Simmental), and 2,000 acres of irrigated farmland. They raise all their replacement heifers, and grow their Holstein steers and beef calves to a 900-lb. feeder weight. In addition, the George family sells bred dairy heifers and Holstein bulls.
The Georges boast a dairy herd that produces 25,000 lbs. of milk/cow/year. That’s pretty impressive when compared against a national average that is 10,000 lbs. less. So why venture into beef cattle?
George says the impetus was to make room for more family members coming home. “We didn’t want to milk any more cows. Plus, we love cattle, we understand cattle, and we love the cattle business. So it was a natural fit. We can grow more crops, grow more cattle, and generate more income for the family members coming back to be part of the operation,” he says. “Besides, Wyoming isn’t really a dairy area; it’s a ranching state.”