The circle of trust

Industry families bind together with like minds to produce great beef.

From pasture to fork, the success and satisfaction of each link in the beef production chain, including consumers, relies on the trust that everyone before them held true to their promises. These are no simple tasks.
Ranchers, feeders and processors hold the tremendous responsibility of stewarding land, resources, wildlife and livestock in a way that safely feeds the world while ultimately leaving it in better stead. They are expected to protect and nurture livestock, keeping them healthy and happy and, ultimately, producing a product that consumers can rely on to be safe for themselves and their families.
It’s nearly impossible for one family or business to maintain ownership and control of cattle from birth to consumption. Usually, a family settles into the segment of the beef business they know best and work to hone their skills for producing a more perfect product. Jim and Terry Wilson of the V Ranch in Thermopolis, Wyoming, excel at managing their herd on the range while Mark and Kenny Knight of Knight Feedyard in Lyons, Kansas, have perfected negotiating complicated rations and markets. The processor is trusted to humanely and expertly harvest animals, delivering a stunning array of delectable eats and essential beef byproducts. When it comes to cooking, chefs hold years of work in their hands and have the final task of presenting the toil of all those that came before them in the best possible light.
With reputations on the line, strong relationships between like-minded people are apt to be forged along the chain of production. The Knights and the Wilsons have a long-standing and mutually beneficial relationship.
“I’ve been working with Jim directly and indirectly for 20 years,” Kenny says. “I had met his father, Willard, through NCBA (National Cattlemen’s Beef Association) and known of them and their reputation for a long time. It’s important to me to be working with someone I don’t have to worry about. When he ships cattle to me, they’re always exactly like he says. I like that.”
Jim is a great rancher for the Knights to know. The Wilsons are leaders in the beef producing community of Wyoming and beyond. They’ve won national awards for environmental stewardship, served on countless committees and boards, and fine tuned their breeding and health programs to responsibly produce top quality beef. Being connectors who want to improve beef production as a whole in the United States, they’ve shared their genetics and programs with many other like-minded producers with whom they’ve banded together to ship the Knights even more premium cattle—roughly 4,000 head per year.
“The ranches we ship from have been in business a long time and have uniform, consistent cow herds that share genetics from our original Salers-Angus composite herd. That gives consistency in the loads and there’s an advantage to that at the feedyard,” Wilson says. “Different breeds of cattle and different groups of cattle feed differently. We’re able to take away some of that variability with these cattle that share genetics and management styles.”

Greater together

At 13,000-head capacity, the Knights still ring in as a small- to medium-sized feedyard. They rely on quality cattle coming in and quality cattle going out to stay in business. Buying reputation Wyoming cattle and feeding them year after year has allowed them to become familiar with what the cattle need to perform, resulting in hard-won consistency. But without large numbers, their marketing power may not get the Knights the premiums they deserve. So, much like the Wilsons, they banded together with like-minded and similarly sized cattle feeders to present processors with a large group of similar cattle. The Knights and 15 other Kansas-based confined feeding operations formed the Beef Marketing Group, known as the BMG.
“Instead of competing against each other, we’re joining together as a group to achieve a common goal,” Mark Knight says.
Since the group first formed in 1987, the members have leveraged their collective numbers to achieve better rates on inputs from animal health supplies to distillers grain and created their own marketing grid with packing giant Tyson—a profit-boosting perk usually only afforded to very large feedlots.
“While it started as a way for family-owned growing and feeding operations to work together in the face of consolidation, BMG has evolved. In addition, we now develop programs that create added value for our membership and in the cattle themselves,” says John Butler, BMG chief executive officer.

Improving on excellence

Producing a safe, quality product is the end goal for everyone in the chain. True to the progressive feeders that started the group, BMG has implemented an extensive standard of best management practices known as the Progressive Beef Program that all member feedlots follow.
Critical control points were identified in the areas of animal care and handling, food safety and sustainability, while standard operating procedures were developed around them. For example, each feed mill has a system to verify that all feedstuffs coming into the operation are exactly as ordered and that they’re free of pathogens and contaminants. Proper use of vitamins, minerals and other supplements are carefully outlined, and animal care and handling is addressed. There are animal health protocols and much more.
“The idea is with this system in place we can bring a promise—a Good Housekeeping Seal—to the cattle we deliver to the packer,” Butler says. “They can, in turn, use this verified system related to how we take care of the cattle to create differentiation for merchandizing the product to retail and food service customers.”
Lending further assurance that those high standards are being upheld, an independent third-party auditing company reviews the program. The Knights, who consulted with cattle handling icon Temple Grandin for the design of their cattle working pens, are happy to be counted among other feeders who go the extra mile for cattle comfort, health and the safety of the beef they produce. Again, it’s also about delivering consistency to the next person in the chain.
“The processor has identified the most desirable product for their facility and we produce to that standard,” Butler says. “They’ve said, ‘These are the kind of cattle we like,’ and they built a pricing structure that incentivizes us to produce that kind of cattle and impose consequences if we do not. It makes us produce more consistent cattle for them and creates efficiencies in our system because there is a consistent and predictable target.”
A good relationship with the processor also has resulted in valuable carcass data flowing back to the feedlots and trickling all the way back to the ranches where the information can be used to create even better beef. With this data and a consistent target, ranchers can start modeling cattle to fit the grid before they’re even born. These industry-spanning bonds mean ranchers, feeders and processors are able to collectively hone their objectives so everyone makes more money and the consumer gets a consistent, high quality, safe product, Butler says.