BeefSD shows young U.S. farmers the ropes
The number of young farmers and ranchers in the U.S. is 469,138, according to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture. This number represents a 19.6 percent drop from the 2007 census. And it’s no wonder. The challenges for young people to get into and stay in production agriculture are sometimes insurmountable and vary from competing against larger, more established operations for land, drumming up enough capital for rent, equipment and livestock, paying the day-to-day costs of the ranch, and turning down more lucrative jobs away from rural areas.
Despite the challenges, many young people charge forward with their careers in production agriculture, a few gaining some of the tools they need to succeed through a program called beefSD.
“BeefSD is an intensive educational program designed to take participants to the next level in beef production,” said Adele Harty, MS, South Dakota State University Extension cow-calf field specialist. “Participation in the beefSD program is an excellent opportunity for beginning producers to help increase knowledge and understanding of all aspects of the beef industry and develop the skills needed to be successful. After completion of beefSD, participants will be equipped to make wise beef enterprise management decisions that lead to sustainability, and therefore contribute to ongoing South Dakota beef production, land stewardship, and rural community viability.”
Components of beefSD include interactive workshops, case studies of successful beef enterprises, a post-weaning calf performance evaluation of participants’ own calves, a mentorship program connecting young producers to established ranchers, educational webinars, and travel study trips.
“In July, we took a trip to Chicago to visit the Chicago Mercantile Exchange,” said Harty. “We visited a few farmer-feeders along the way, and once there, we made stops at a Whole Foods store, a local meat wholesaler, a farmer’s market, an import/export marketer, and an upscale white tablecloth restaurant that served prime beef. The trip explored the various marketing options beef producers have and opened up discussions on how they could potentially capitalize on these opportunities in their own operations.”
This is the second class of beefSD, which runs from 2013-2015, and there are nine operations represented in the current class. Seven of those outfits have two spouses participating in the course.
“What we saw with the first class of beefSD is those that came together as a couple got a lot more out of the experience because they would go home and discuss what they had heard. That dynamic is really important to beefSD,” said Harty.
Reed and Amber Cammack of Union Center, South Dakota, are one of the husband-wife teams participating in beefSD. Reed runs a cow-calf operation with his parents, Gary and Amy. His full-time job is building wood cabinets in town, but he hopes to get into production agriculture full-time some day down the road.
Cammack Ranch is a commercial cow-calf operation that prides itself on water and wildlife habitat development.
“We put a lot of focus on the land and wildlife,” said Cammack. “For example, we recently purchased 1,800 acres of pasture that we split into seven smaller pastures. We put in a well and added water. This enabled us to go from running 100 pairs on this ground to 200 pairs, so we have definitely seen the benefit of our management on this land. Not only did we improve production capacity, but we made advancements on the health of the land, as well.”
He credits good nutrition derived from the grass to his family’s success in the cattle business.
“We take a big responsibility in land and wildlife management,” he said. “We manage our grass and water, so that our livestock can thrive. The two go hand-in-hand.”
The Cammack Ranch was hit hard by the October 2013 Atlas blizzard, losing 100+ head of cows and calves.
“It was a challenge and a struggle to go through that experience, but a lot of blessings came from it, too,” he said. “After the storm, we evaluated what really matters in life and gained a deeper understanding of where our hope comes from. So many people came forward to help. It was a wake-up call to see what Mother Nature is capable of, and it was heart-warming to see what friends, neighbors and strangers are willing to do to help people in need.”
Cammack had just started beefSD when the winter storm swept across the prairie, and he was humbled by how quickly his class offered their help. Although he turned down the donations, he encouraged them to give to others who had been impacted by the storm.
For Cammack, beefSD has opened up a world of new experiences and a chance to network with other young producers in South Dakota. More than that, it’s helped him communicate better with his spouse.
“Taking beefSD with my wife has been truly rewarding,” he said. “The courses go much deeper than opportunities in agriculture. We learn how to set goals as a family and communicate with each other, so we are moving in the right direction. It’s definitely helped our marriage and taught us how to work better together toward achieving smart goals.”
One thing Cammack has taken from the beefSD experience back home to the ranch is focusing more on carcass traits in his breeding program.
“After classes focused on carcass quality, touring Allen Brothers – a USDA prime beef supplier in Chicago, and tours of farmer-feeders, beefSD has changed my view on how I’m choosing my sires and which traits I’m focusing on,” he said. “I’ve started talking to the folks who are buying our calves and trying to get data back to see how our cattle perform at the feedlot and at the packer. This will help to see where I’m at, so we can make better decisions down the road.”
He credited the Calf Value Discovery Program for helping him see how his genetics are affecting the final result of his work.
“We always try to buy good bulls, but until you take things through to the end product, you don’t know exactly where you’re at,” he said.
Although it takes time away from his business, the ranch, and their two boys, Ian (age 3), and Elliot (age 1), the Cammacks agreed that the time was well spent at beefSD.
“BeefSD has reminded me to always continue learning,” he said. “It’s pretty easy to get stuck in a rut and do the things you’ve always done. This is a big industry, and it’s been interesting to explore how others raise their beef and thrive in various markets.”
Originally from Lake Norden, South Dakota, where he grow up on a Red Angus seedstock operation, Justin Namken currently works as a ranch hand for Christensen Land and Cattle of Reliance, South Dakota. Namken heard about beefSD from some friends in the first class. After expressing his interest to his employer, ranch owner Christine Hamilton, she agreed to sponsor his tuition and give him days off to participate.
“When I talked to Christine about the beefSD opportunity, she agreed that it would be a great way to further my education, expand my network and potentially bring new ideas to the ranch,” said Namken. “I’m always looking for new ideas and ways to improve myself and the beef industry, so this seemed like a great fit for me.”
While Namken helps to run Christensen Land and Cattle, he’s also building his own herd of commercial Red Angus, which are run back home on his family’s ranch.
“I’m kind of in a unique situation because I’m trying to build a cowherd while also managing this operation,” he said. “My long-term goal is to have my own place someday and run cattle, but for the next 5-10 years, I’m happy to manage this ranch and learn as I go.”
One component of beefSD is goal-setting and creating business plans. For Namken, he has developed two plans as part of the course – one for his current job and one for his future business. He credits his peers for helping him develop short- and long-term goals.
“So far, the best part of beefSD has been the contacts that I’ve made,” he said. “Our class has a private Facebook page, and the ability to bounce ideas off one another, as well as our mentors, has been huge! There’s many little things from both the case studies and learning about my peers’ operations that have opened my eyes and help me direct my own goals and business plan for the future. Some of the presentations on heifer development and longevity and fetal programming have been very interesting and have been brought back to the ranch here for discussion and implementation.”
The trip to Chicago showed Namken and his peers the many misconceptions that are circulating about beef. He said beefSD has taught him that all segments of the industry must work together to correct misinformation.
“The Chicago trip was a big eye opener to see how misinformed some of our consumers are,” he said. “One thing that has been discussed is that we are all in this together and need to work together and not fight amongst ourselves. It doesn’t matter if you are raising grass-fed, organic, all-natural, conventional or purebred seedstock, we are all striving for the same thing – a great beef eating experience for the consumer. From birth to harvest we know that the animal comes first, and we need to prove that to the consumer.”
“In both classes of beefSD, we have seen huge growth in personal development, as well as a broader understanding of the beef industry,” said Harty. “We see them keeping better track of their financials and making decisions based on the facts and not just because that’s how grandpa did it. Being able to use those tools and evaluate their system and what they are doing to make management decisions is going to be key to their future success.”