Ready for the Challenges, Changes of Cattle Feeding
Story by Maggie Malson, photos provided by Texas Cattle Feeders Association
When he takes the reins of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA) in November, Levi Berry will serve as the 45th president in the 51-year history of the association. When asked how his past experiences have prepared him for the role, he quips, “I don’t know that it has!”
The cattleman is quick to point out that nothing can quite prepare you for the position of leading the 5,000-member organization — 200 of which are feedyard members — representing 6 million cattle on feed. However, Berry has a spent his career living and working in the cattle feeding industry, gaining knowledge and the leadership skills needed to guide the TCFA. And he is not afraid to take risks.
He understands the magnitude of the responsibility he has and wants to give back.
“Levi is incredibly bright and one of the most informed leaders I have worked with,” says Ross Wilson, TCFA President and CEO. “I find few topics in which Levi is not conversant. His intellect allows him to analyze the complex topics and issues in the industry, and his sense of humor allows him to communicate and engage with audiences in a way that helps them understand those issues.”
Berry says that working with people and building relationships offers the greatest benefits in this business.
“I have gotten to know feedyard customers, and networking as a board member of TCFA has allowed me to meet a lot of people in the industry,” he says. “Participating as a board member of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), I have had an opportunity to be exposed to a lot of the process of how we change or introduce new policies.”
In addition, Berry hopes that the leadership skills he has gained while managing feedyards will also help him. “I am required to lead people every day and develop those skills.”
Berry is the general manager of feedlot operations for Smith Cattle LTD, headquartered in Amarillo. He and his wife, Jesse, and their three daughters, Daisy, Emily and Jane, run their family’s cattle operation in Happy.
“Jesse and the girls are a huge part of our own cattle operation and this allows me to be gone on these trips for several days at a time,” says Berry, who recently went to China on a trade mission.
Berry grew up in Texhoma, on a stocker cattle operation and grain farm, always wanting to be a cowboy and to own cattle. After graduating from Texas A&M, he returned to his hometown to do just that — farm and run cattle on pasture. He also partnered with a college friend and built a business sorting feedlot cattle for carcass traits using ultrasound.
“We were sorting fat cattle into grid marketing, managing discounts and trying to capture premiums on different kinds of cattle,” Berry explains. “Through that process, I developed a skill set that lends itself to managing feedyards.”
In 2003, he took his first feedlot manager’s job at Flintrock Feeders in Gruver, where he remained until 2008. He began working for Mike Smith in 2009, involved more on the cattle ranch side of Smith’s business. As Smith’s business grew, Berry moved to the feedlot side again.
Berry became involved with TCFA and participated in NCBA’s Young Cattlemen’s Conference (YCC) in 2011. The following year, he was selected by his peers to serve as YCC chairman because of his leadership skills. He had participated on several committees prior to this, and once he completed the Conference, he was asked to join the TCFA board of directors.
Throughout his two decades in the industry, Berry has seen his share of changes, many of them related to changing technology.
“One of the big things was adopting beta agonists [a class of non-hormonal compounds that reduces fat and increases lean muscle] as a technology, then later taking one of them off the market,” he says. “Every year, pharmaceutical companies try to apply new and different technologies and new diagnostics around the detection of illness in cattle. They are trying to get a precise definition of what ‘clinically ill’ means.”
This cattleman says it needs to be a more repeatable process and not as subjective as it was when he was a kid.
“The old cowboys knew which cattle were sick, and they just knew because they knew,” he explains. “As we have a new generation of employees coming up, we have to arm them with more tools. Maybe in some cases, it is the adoption of technology to make them more successful in caring for cattle.”
Another difference he has noticed has been the futures markets.
“We moved from pit trading to the Globex, electronically traded platform, where cattle were traded 23 hours a day,” Berry says. “Now we have gone back to trading hours that are similar to how it was done when I was young. There is also more use of algorithmic trading, which can enhance volatility.”
Consolidation of pharmaceutical and feeding companies continues as well.
“There are fewer independent feedyards every year,” Berry observes. “That creates some opportunities and some challenges and it’s not just in the livestock segment, but all of production agriculture in the U.S.”
The additional challenge of educating consumers on food production continues and Berry sees this as an opportunity for the industry.
“With the antibiotic rhetoric we hear and some of the misinformation about how animals are produced, consumers are concerned about where their food comes from,” Berry says. “I think sharing scientific facts about why we do things is just as important as being transparent with consumers about how their food is produced.”
Berry recognizes this as a challenge because people are becoming more removed from rural America.
“We need to explain those things we take for granted, things that ‘everyone’ knows or understands,” he adds. “We can help consumers understand that we are good stewards of the land and animals and have their best interests in mind. It is a constant challenge to communicate this to as many consumers as we can and get that message across to them.”
As far as specific goals he would like to accomplish, Berry says that increasing the demand for beef will be a top priority.
“We have a duty to create as much demand for our product as we can and increase trade in some of these different areas,” he explains.
Recognizing that a part of the issue with getting access to other countries is animal ID and traceability, Berry says that cattlemen need to be open to creating a system that will help increase export markets.
“I will work with members of TCFA and NCBA to push some of those processes forward,” he says. “If it’s a requirement for these trade deals, then I would like to see animal ID adopted in whatever form the industry can accept. We will also deal with the issues that we currently have no idea of what they are, but we will work through them as they come.”
While some may not like the ever-changing nature of agriculture, Berry thrives on it.
“It’s never boring,” he says. “Whether it is a weather challenge or a market challenge, I never get complacent or bored because of the diversity of the business. There is always a new issue or some project that needs to be tackled. I think that this is what keeps me engaged in the business; it is never the same two years in a row and I like that about it.”
Challenges, Changes of Cattle Feeding is excerpted from the September 2018 issue of The Cattleman magazine.
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