Ranchers explain beef production story to media
In October, Colorado State University, the Center for Meat Safety & Quality and collaboration of Colorado beef producers through the beef checkoff program offered a one day seminar called “Beef + Transparency = Trust” to industry professionals, consumers and media representatives to help explain the beef production story, from pasture to plate. While audience members heard from chefs and packers, they were able to get close to the ranch, too. Sara Shields and Gary Teague, two Colorado ranchers, shared their stories, in order to help show consumers and the media that producers care about the land, the animals and the beef they raise.
Shields is part of her family’s multi-generational cow-calf operation, San Isabel Ranch, and she explained the intricacies of the cattle business.
“Cowboys have their own lingo,” she said. “Every now and again when I have folks visit the ranch, they get confused about what we’re talking about. What’s a feed bunk? What’s day help? What’s the vet shack? What’s the difference between a heifer and a bull? What’s an outfit? Do you think about the clothes you where or the ranch? With that cowboy lingo, sometimes ranchers forget that it’s not the normal vernacular the way everybody else talks.”
Shields stressed that ranchers need to meet consumers in the middle in explaining what they do, using terms they can understand. The first point she wanted consumers to understand is that ranching is a business.
“When you think about ranching, often times you think about it as a business, and that’s what it is,” she explained. “We have to be able to provide for our families and make a living. It’s also a huge responsibility because we are raising food that consumers buy at the grocery store. If we are going to survive as ranchers, we have to have a business plan, with a long-term and short-term vision.”
She admitted that even though it’s a business, it’s a tough one.
“The cattle business is a narrow-margin business, offering less than 4 percent on your investment,” she said. “For those of you financial gurus out there, you might think that’s crazy and wonder why we do it. It’s because we love it. And, sure our beef prices are high right now, but so are our costs. Have you ever tried to buy a tractor or a pickup? It would take 450 mama cows to make a middle class living. The majority of our industry’s ranchers have a cowherd that consists of 40 head or less, so these folks are relying on off-farm jobs or other ways to support their cattle income.”
Teague, whose family raises crops and hay, as well as operates a feedlot, further explained the business saying, “Can you imagine being involved in an industry where we get to take things that Mother Nature gives us – air, water, land, animals, children – and produce food? Another great thing about agriculture is there is no other business that is that much ‘incentivized.’ If I don’t get out there to help that newborn calf, I will lose it and lose money. If I don’t plant my crops, they won’t grow, and I won’t get paid. We have the incentive to do well. That’s why I’m excited about what I’m doing. This is a great business. In our operation, we want to do it, do it well and find a way to pass it on to our kids, and that’s a challenge in our business.”
Teague mentioned the buzz word, “sustainability,” and defined it on his own terms.
“So, what is sustainability?” he asked. “Socio-sustainability means we are part of our community. It’s important to me that our neighbors understand what we are doing and why. We think that as being a part of a community, we have a responsibility to support that community. Economic-sustainability means that our ranch has to be financially supportable. If I can’t make a living doing, I won’t be able to continue to do it. Environmentally-sustainable is important, as well. We drink from wells that are right next to the feed yard. We breathe the air. We eat the foods. We care about if the land and environment is cared for because it impacts our lives, too.”
The big question, according to Teague, is, “Where’s the food going to come from that we are going to provide to this growing planet?”
“We haven’t even begun to tackle the challenges of feeding a growing planet,” he admitted. “But, we are efficient in what we do. We put water on land to produce corn that we feed to cattle to raise beef.”
However, there are certainly fewer doing the job of raising the food. With a 2011 U.S. population of 285,000,000, there are only 2,100,000 people who farm or ranch. Less than 1 percent of U.S. citizens claim farming as their occupation, which is why explaining the beef production story is so important – a task the Beef + Transparency = Trust Conference certainly helped to accomplish.