A Good Place To Be

Beef Northwest: Quality and service that uphold the rural fabric
Story by Steve Suther, Certified Angus Beef

A Good Place To Be

Millions of cows graze from the Great Basin's sage-covered hills to the Pacific glades. At weaning time, the cows come home but most of the calves leave the valley ranches for California pastures, local feedyards or over the Great Divide to the Plains.

It may sound like a big place, but the Northwest has something in common with Hawaii, which sends many of its cattle there. "It's kind of like an island, cut off from the rest of the cattle industry," says Ron Rowan, customer service and alliance manager for Beef Northwest. The feeding company based in North Powder, Ore., was started by cousins Jim and John Wilson in 1991.

With its irrigated valleys, the location is also an oasis. The first settlers coming up the Oregon Trail appreciated that and many stayed, like the Wilsons in the 1870s. Horses and cattle soon became a way of life for the family, which supplied mounts for the Pony Express.

As early as the 1920s, the Wilsons helped run a 1,000-head finishing yard, and quality was always important. "Our fathers fed at their small yard at North Powder until the early 1970s," says Jim Wilson. The family's separate Wilson Cattle Co. has grazed and fed cattle all over the West for many years, partly as a service for area ranchers.

Today, Beef Northwest's three feedyards at Quincy, Wash., and Boardman and Nyssa, Ore. can hold nearly 100,000 cattle. But quality and service are still the keys.

Under Rowan's leadership, the company became a Certified Angus Beef (LLC)-licensed partner in 2003. "Being a partner is our core identity," he says. One example is the Northwest Premium Genetic Alliance (NPGA) with Thomas Angus and Harrell Hereford Ranch, both of Baker City, Ore. It offers ranch customers feeding, partnering and marketing options that reward quality and return data to use for targeted selection and management.

For its cooperative spirit that helps producers hit the brand's high-quality target, Beef Northwest was honored at the CAB Annual Conference in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, Sept. 13, as 2008 Feedlot Partner of the Year, for yards greater than 15,000-head capacity.

The pioneers who stopped in eastern Oregon certainly appreciated cooperation and partnering. Some of them stayed, some moved on after a few years, and some came back to join in that spirit.

"Our family stayed here because the grass is strong and the roots are deep," John Wilson says. But, since the Pony Express days, Wilsons have insisted that the next generation acquire an education and experience away from the valley before returning to their own roots. That background shows in their grassroots approach to building both community and business today.

The Wilsons worked with government and conservation groups to restore riparian areas, enhance wildlife habitat and raise water tables on their ranches. "We applied some of those lessons to our feedyards," Jim says.

Deep well monitoring ensures the purity of groundwater in those areas. "We are trying to do everything as green as we can," says Nyssa manager Barry Kane. "We're planning to change our waste management by filtering the water through hybrid wetlands that can take up most of the nutrients. At the other end of the system, we can either recycle to our cooling sprinklers or use the water to irrigate."

What would otherwise be potato waste from a nearby Ore-Ida plant can make up half of some rations at Nyssa, Kane says. "Some days we get more than 15 truckloads of this," he says. "We load them into a remote-control hopper so there's always a batch ready for the feed truck driver."

Higher fuel costs affect feedyards everywhere. "All we can do is try to conserve," Jim says. "But the feed byproducts we get are a unique advantage here. They keep our cost of gain relatively lower, and it's one more reason for Northwest cattle to stay here." Transportation can add $90 per head for area cattle shipped to Nebraska, he adds.

Every employee has some management responsibilities. Outside business experience led the Wilsons to adopt a management model for Beef Northwest in which decisions come from the "bottom-up" rather than "top-down." Everyone has a role in running the company, along with varying degrees of shared ownership, John explains.

That helped build the sense of shared purpose that Rowan, who joined the company in 1995, applies in his work.

"There aren't too many producers in the Northwest, so it matters to us that all of them can succeed," he says. They range from small cow-calf herds to large ranches in the desert and Hawaii, and feedyards from the Snake to the Columbia River valleys, with packing capacity to match. "We want to build relationships to attract those calves and help all of us do better," Rowan says.

Rugged individualism can be a cowboy stereotype. "But we like to form joint ventures," John says. "We like to leverage what we know and need with what other producers and other companies know and need."

When a potential rival near the Boardman yard began building a 22,000-cow dairy, the Wilsons found common ground. Rather than duplicate feedmill capacity, the dairy contracts with Beef Northwest and partners on feeding the dairy steers. Rowan says, "It's always what can a neighbor do? How can we help each other?"

One cooperating producer is Jason Johnson, who runs 1,000 Angus-base cows and a 4,500-head grower yard near Vale, Ore. He and Rowan discuss the changing markets that may see local ranchers keep calves closer to home this fall. Johnson is part of the growing process-verified network that dovetails with the AngusSource® age-source-and genetics-verified program, which Beef Northwest has used for years.

Three-quarters of Johnson's 55 bulls are registered Angus, with Charolais used terminally. "We try to keep our herd black," he says. "We can buy some pretty good cattle around here, too. With all the data I get back from Ron, we find out whose you want to buy again or stay away from - it only takes one or two times."

Maintaining the cooperative spirit, Johnson shares data with interested producers. "Usually guys are pretty eager to improve their own operation," he says. Like all regular Beef Northwest customers, Johnson appreciates the focused management and marketing there.

"People talk about where they can ship cattle or sell on different grids, but the grids don't really vary so much," Jim says. "The market's the market.

"However, there's a tremendous amount we can do to classify the cattle. Grids are set up for the packers to get what they want," he says, "but we can sort here and make a lot of money per head. Quality cattle really come into play, and that's why we try to not just buy lumber."

In a sense, Beef Northwest has a joint venture going with Angus producers, John says: "Ranchers here rely on Angus for raising a high-quality animal adapted to their environment. We need Angus genetics in the feedlot to meet the points of our grid formula for the packer, who needs to meet consumer demand for Certified Angus Beef."

At the Nyssa yard, 1,700 enrolled cattle last year achieved greater than 20.2% CAB acceptance, well above the national average. More than a few of those came from Ironside Ranch, a 100,000-acre spread that runs 1,800 Angus-base cows where Ironside Mountain looms over the lower hills of east-central Oregon.

Since 2002, the ranch owned by the Berger family of San Francisco and managed by Jeff and Edie Palmer, fed more than 4,000 cattle in the Beef Northwest alliance. About 78% of the bulls are from Thomas Angus Ranch, and the rest are from Harrell Herefords.

"We had been working on the females, but just added a carcass focus in our bull buying," Palmer says. Harvest data from Beef Northwest already shows improvement. Last fall was the first time Ironside skipped grazing in California, and that was due to drought. This year, it will be due to higher fuel prices and results that include the first calf-feds making 38% CAB, triple their historic rate. Johnson's backgrounding yard serves to take in the calves, which arrive after three rounds of vaccine and 30 days after fenceline weaning.

"The rate of change is accelerating in this business," Palmer says. "The Bergers are long-term, five-year-plan kind of people, but these days we have to review everything continuously and maintain great flexibility." He appreciates the constant pressure to justify all decisions, from genetics to feeding.

When he and Edie took over management in 2002, the family asked Palmer to step up quality and back off size. "We sire-grouped the cows into four pastures and use half-brother bulls now. We AI (artificially inseminate) 400 heifers every year and I always say never again, but we calve them out and I like the calves so much, we do it again," he says. "That and moving up in the bull sales took a lot of investment, but feeding with Beef Northwest helped us prove the returns."

Grade moved up from 60% to 70% Choice to the 85% to 90% level this year. Since the female side was working well, Palmer just culls from the bottom end. Heifer's calves are individually tagged. "We keep a critical eye on them, knowing that's our one chance for close evaluation," he says. "We run with as little labor as possible."

At least twice since 2002, the Ironside calves were gate-cut to try feeding elsewhere. "But we know how they feed now, and nobody has topped the combination of feeding and marketing we find at Beef Northwest," Palmer says. "Edie and I put a lot into these cattle," he adds. "When we send them to the feedlot, we need to have confidence like we do in Barry [Kane] and Ron [Rowan].

They may handle thousands of cattle now, but relationships, both personal and professional, transcend variations in scale. If you see a redneck heifer in the Ironside herd, that's because Edie said it was "too cute to cull." Kane and Rowan have small seedstock Angus herds on the side, and Palmer has even bought a couple of bulls from them.

"It's been interesting to see the end results of our work on the ranch," Palmer says. "It gives us a whole new outlook on the business." That's an insight more Beef Northwest customers gain each year, as they find their way to this oasis of common ground, just off the desert island of commodity cattle production.

-Story by Steve Suther,
Certified Angus Beef