By Megan Webb, Ph.D., Contributing Editor

Although many outcomes of 2020 were definitely not planned, the success of your operation, even if breaking even, is proof that you can improvise, adapt and overcome. Cattlemen are no strangers to challenges and having strong perseverance. During 2020, I spent much of my time telling myself, “Okay, what’s next?” and figuring out how to get through the next obstacle.

My family’s operation found strength by ramping up seasonal beef box sales to add another income stream. Jumping on the direct-to-consumer marketing campaign was a good option. Though there was a need to continue adapting the sales model when orders halted as a result of gatherings being canceled. Acclimating beef sales to contactless merchandising and selling shipments across state lines was needed. This adjustment offered another outlet for premium-cut sales to higher income clientele and shortened the time these cuts would sit in our local case. Having more versatility in product sales capability helped during COVID.

Ultimately, 2020 presented many lessons and recognition that the cattle industry can undergo extreme levels of turbulence, resulting in fractured markets, but can begin to recover. These challenges have brought us some new opportunities to refocus and recalculate as we listen to the market signals, adapt and overcome. Perhaps 2020 is just what we needed to let go of what was planned and adjust to new market opportunities.

Perhaps modifications to your business model have added a new streamline of income and another layer of versatility to your operation and ultimately, more strength. One of my greatest challenges is to continue to adopt what was not planned and be satisfied with the progress in its new form.

This need for adaptability experienced in 2020 makes me reflect on a trip I experienced years ago. In 2013, I traveled to Uruguay and spent two weeks engulfed in their beef industry while meeting many cow-calf, feedyard, packing operators and industry officials. I continued to be overly impressed with their versatility and willingness to adapt to meet and exceed their clientele needs.

Their beef abattoirs were immaculate and they made avid heritage beef marketing efforts for mainly their grass-fed Hereford beef. Yet, they were adapting to focus on corn-fed beef and adding feedyards as their grazing land was becoming more utilized for crop production. They recognized their consumers were demanding quality beef and knew how well the American fed-cattle model worked. They were adapting their genetics and focusing on the future.

This small country in the southeast region of South America, relied on exporting 80 percent of its beef as they were already the highest per capita consumer of beef in the world. Because the beef processors there were smaller, they were more agile and able to change their beef processing and fabrication specifications to meet changing export buyers’ demands.

We may not know what the future holds, but we can focus on being agile to adapt. We may not need to be the biggest operation or have the greatest number of cattle, but we can leverage our control of the situation and our business model, perhaps better.

I encourage you to take a moment and think about who’s on your team, challenging you to improve? If your veterinarian, Extension educator, grazing specialist, nutritionist, cattlemen’s association, cattle procurement and meat packer are helping you be more successful, you have a good beef team. If there are knowledge and commitment gaps, don’t be afraid to change and find another teammate who supports or challenges you to keep improving.

By no means am I advocating that you leave your heritage, but merely acclimate it to best fit opportunities, even if it wasn’t part of the long-term strategic plan. You may not need to change much. For example, just adding verification may give your operation a leg up on market access and make progress for your beef team. You may need to ask yourself if you are willing to be a good team member while becoming closer to consumers and evolving marketing practices.

Your affiliation with the packing industry may be closer than you think. Just like you need a good team, so do they, and I’m certain they are looking for good producers. Participating in data collection and quality monitoring can be part of a responsibility you can take on to be a good team member.

You don’t want to not be picked for the beef team that you need, especially if they are innovative and are adapting to domestic and foreign market opportunities. Sometimes it is these small steps in the right direction that end up being the greatest.