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Young Cattlemen's Conference trains future leaders

By Holly Martin

Editor's note: Holly Martin was selected as the media representative for the 2012 Young Cattlemen's Conference, a leadership training program for National Cattlemen's Beef Association. You can read her personal thoughts on the YCC trip at her blog: as well as view a photo gallery.


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What do you get when you throw 60 cowboys and cowgirls in to a bus? Throw in some feedlot dust, give them hairnet hair and a briefcase and you've got the makings of the Young Cattlemen's Conference.

National Cattlemen's Beef Association's YCC is a program designed for leadership development. Since 1980 when the program began, over 1,000 young cattlemen and women completed the program. Today's participants are nominated by NCBA affiliates and the program serves as a training ground to expose and educate future leaders to every segment of the beef industry, said Mavin Kokes, vice president of association marketing for NCBA.

In 2012, YCC was a 10-day experience beginning in Denver, stopping in Chicago and finally ending up in Washington, D.C. The success of the program is due to the people who participate, said Kokes. "This industry is full of leaders from all over the United States. Each year, participants experience things that they wouldn't ever get to experience on their own," he said. "YCC participants share a special bond that is difficult to replicate. The program creates lifelong friendships and business relationships, all the while preparing them for leading the industry in the future."

The importance of unifying as an industry goes beyond a strong cattle membership organization, said Forrest Roberts, CEO of NCBA. Improving consumer demand and acceptance of beef is also key, he said.

Roberts talked specifically about the "movable middle"--the group of consumers who already consume beef one to three times per week. If that group moved to consuming beef three to five times per week, it would have a great impact on the demand for beef. That demand has been helped along by Beef Checkoff programs that have identified tender cuts as well as recipe development, as the YCC class learned.

Throughout the conference, a common theme emerged: Demand is key, but consumer confidence is critical.

Roberts said NCBA recognizes that and is working through groups like the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. "We want to look at ways we can enhance consumer trust in today's agriculture industry, not just within our own beef family but broader so we can speak with one voice," Roberts said. "We want to create a movement, not a campaign."

Nowhere was that message stronger to the YCC group than at OSI Industries. The company was founded in 1909 in Chicago as a local butcher shop by German immigrants and has grown worldwide. OSI sold its first hamburger to McDonald's in 1955. Today, 85 percent of McDonald's restaurants will serve at least one protein product delivered by OSI, according to Mike Boccio, vice president. The facility the YCC group toured in Aurora, Ill., near Chicago, produces up to 6 million hamburger patties per day. When issues such as Lean Finely Textured Beef pop up, it greatly affects the industry, regardless of the segment, said Boccio. Therefore, it is critical cattlemen tell their story to the consumer.

At the same time, beef producers must also do their part to help with meat quality, said Sharon Birkett, OSI vice president for food protection and quality. Carcass contamination with things like buckshot only reduces the profit from beginning to end, she said. She stressed that identification and traceability is important because their customers, who are restaurants and retail outlets, are asking for it.

Two of the YCC class participants were also intensely in touch with the consumer. William Bush purchases beef for Wendy's and Shelly Thobe is the company's director of Innovation, particularly hamburgers. Recently, Wendy's revamped its entire hamburger line, which includes 100 percent North American beef.

"Over 6,000 man hours went into the development of the new Dave's Hot and Juicy burger," she said. The company looked at every aspect of the hamburger, from developing a new patty process to extensive taste tasting.

Taste is far and away beef's advantage, according to Chancie Rose, Cargill Meat Solutions. Beef delivers an overall eating satisfaction because it can deliver tenderness, juiciness and flavor.

"But if you can deliver tenderness it will produce a halo effect that will take care of the other two qualities," she said.

Cathy East, with Safeway agreed with the need for quality to meet consumers' expectations. East is group director of perishables in charge of corporate meat procurement.

"At Safeway, we have a quality objective--offer beef that is considerably better and more consistent than grocery channel competition. It needs to be tender, flavorful and juicy," East said. At the same time Safeway is working to offer consumers that quality tasting beef in combination with convenience. During a tour of a Safeway store in Littleton, Colo., the group saw this firsthand. The meat counter offered hand cut steaks, as well as seasoned burgers and ready-to-eat microwaveable beef sandwiches.

Making connections with retailers, like Safeway and Wendy's is important to the YCC program, said NCBA's Kokes. "It is critical that producers understand what goes on beyond their ranch gate or their feedyard. Every day decisions producers make, directly impact everyone in the beef supply chain. Having individuals from organizations who have a direct consumer interface each day, help producers understand their role in building consumer confidence and demand," Kokes said.

John Widdowson, a Angus breeder and owner of Sandpoint Cattle Co. in Lodgepole, Neb., said working together as an industry was perhaps his biggest take-away from his YCC experience.

"We, as an industry, have to work together as one," he said. "We cannot stand back and point fingers of responsibility or blame to other segments within our industry, because in the end it affects us all."

The story of the beef industry needs to be told, he said. "We need to inform people and answer their questions or concerns and not run away from the issues. We are proud of what we do, how we do it and why we do it, so show it."

Before retail

YCC Class participants hailed from all over the United States, including Hawaii. While it is hard for cattlemen in the heart of beef country to fathom, many do not have the opportunity to see large feedlots and packing plants. Part of the YCC training is to experience those segments of the beef industry as well.

The YCC class spent an entire day touring those segments of the industry that happen in between their farm gate and the retail shelf. JBS hosted the group at both its processing facility in Greeley and at the JBS Five Rivers Kruner Feedyard in Kersey, Colo.

The Greeley plant was built in 1960 and the facility is 740,000 square feet. The plant employs 3,200 people in three shifts. Over four million pounds of beef are produced in the plant each day. On the day the YCC group toured, the plant was processing 5,400 head.

Later the group toured the Kruner feedyard where Nolan Stone, general manager, told the group about a recent renovation that completely rebuilt the pens of the feedyard. The feedyard has a one-time capacity of 88,200 head on 460 acres. Their annual operating budget is $7.6 million.

JBS is one of the largest protein companies in the United States. Worldwide, JBS has $33 billion per year in revenue, according to Chris Gaddis. The company operates on five continents and more than 23 countries. Consequently, the company is extremely aware of how world markets can affect the beef business here at home.

Declining world production of beef is an issue, said Steve Williams, head of cattle procurement. "2011 was the fourth consecutive year of global beef production decline," he said. Similarly, the cowherd in the United States continues to decline. "We have the smallest beef cowherd since 1965," Williams said.

The issue was one that many segments of the industry brought up throughout the trip. The severe drought of 2011 did not help. "It is important that we match supply with demand," Williams said.

Some of the YCC class members hope to contribute to the growth of the beef industry in the future. Class member Laurie Johnson and her husband, Brandon, have recently purchased their ranch and are growing their cow-calf operation in South Shore, S.D.

Throughout the trip, Johnson took the opportunity to learn from her fellow YCC classmates. Class members ranged in experience levels from beginners in the industry, like Johnson, to cattlemen and women who have already held leadership roles in their business, as well as industry associations. Johnson took the opportunity to ask them what things they have learned and what they would do differently.

"I want to hear everything I can so that I can make the most informed decision I can," she said. "We don't do something just because dad or grandpa did it. We do what we feel is the best option for us based on what we have heard from others. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but we are making the decision on our own."

Johnson appreciates their willingness to share their experiences with her. "Everyone is willing to help other producers like myself just getting started. Many told me to not be afraid to call if I had a question or was in the area and wanted a tour."

Those discussions are key to the success of the YCC program, said Kokes. "By experiencing each sector of the business with over 50 other future leaders, the discussions are rich. Even participants who feel they have 'been around' come back with a greater appreciation for how dynamic the beef industry is," he said. "By having a better understanding of issues and their impact on each sector, prepares you to make more informed and objective decisions as a leader."

Boots on the Hill

Those experiences all lead up to what is the culmination of the YCC experience--spending three days in Washington, D.C. Armed with a greater knowledge of the industry, the group spent several sessions identifying important issues to the beef industry.

While the in Washington, the 2012 farm bill was introduced to the Senate floor. All 60 of the YCC participants scheduled meetings with their respective senators and congressmen.

Collin Woodall, NCBA Government Affairs vice president, stressed to the class members how much more effective it is for cattlemen to make calls and visits to their elected officials than a representative of an organization. And class members found that to be true.

"Your voice can be heard and make an impact on Capitol Hill. If you become active and put forth an effort in assisting and informing our leadership in Washington it just doesn't fall on deaf ears and good policy can happen," said Widdowson.

Johnson agreed. "Even though we may only feel like one producer, we are hundreds of thousands producers who are all pulling in one direction for the beef industry," she said. "Together we can make an impact on how things are done out in Washington and that our voice really does matter."

That is exactly what Kokes hopes happens to the future leaders that participate in YCC. "YCC alumni know that by getting involved in their state association and NCBA, they can make a difference for the betterment of the beef industry."

Holly Martin can be reached by phone at 1-800-452-7171 ext. 1806, or by email at

Date: 7/9/2012


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