A Rancher With a Passion for Animal Psychology

Anne Burkholder, a cattle farmer in Nebraska, talks about working and living in an area much more rural than the Florida city where she grew up.

Anne Burkholder (Rebecca Clarke)

Texas, the Lone Star State, is home to the most cattle in the U.S. But Nebraska, commonly nicknamed the Cornhusker State, also claims to be the Beef State, and for good reason: The state economy produces some 6.5 million cattle, and beef production is among the its largest industries, generating billions of dollars and accounting for a over 50 percent the state’s agricultural output every year.

Anne Burkholder, a cattle farmer in Nebraska, married into the farming business. She met her husband in college, and after graduation the pair got married and moved to the rural Cozad, Nebraska, to run a farm near her husband’s family. She’s now an enthusiast of all things beef, and tells stories about keeping cattle on her blog, Feedyard Foodie.

For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Burkholder about running a cattle feed yard for 20 years, the challenges of being in beef production, and whether she sees her children taking over the farm when she retires. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Bourree Lam: What do you do for work and how did you get into it?

Anne Burkholder: I am originally from West Palm Beach, Florida. I did not grow up in agriculture at all. I met my husband at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He is a farm kid from Cozad, Nebraska, who decided he wanted to see a different part of the country, so he played football at Dartmouth. I was a swimmer there, and we met on Halloween of my freshman year, fell in love, and got married. We spent a year on the East Coast before deciding to move back to the farm.

We decided that we wanted to live in rural America and be involved in agriculture. We always wanted to have a family and to raise our kids in a small town, and so we made a life choice, and farming fit into that. There’s a long history of agriculture and farming in my husband's family; they were originally Mennonites from the Ohio River Valley and moved to Nebraska in the 1950s. I was privileged enough to marry into it. We've been here 20 years now.

Lam: What do you grow on your farm?

Burkholder: We have a diversified farm. My husband is a crop farmer. The farm is about 4,500 acres in the Platte River Valley. He also has an alfalfa dehydration plant, where he dehydrates the plant and turns it into feed pellets, so we farm a lot of alfalfa acres.

I have spent 20 years running the cattle feed yard. We have the ability to feed 3,000 cattle. We are the last stop before the animals go to harvest. I went to work as a 22-year-old with not very much knowledge about agriculture, but I've learned a lot about cattle since then. I really love being around animals, and taking care of them. I've become an animal-welfare advocate; I do a lot of volunteer work within the beef industry to improve care for food animals.

I was a psychology major in college, and animal psychology has always fascinated me. Being able to understand my animals and to offer appropriate care at their level is really important to me. I love cattle psychology and implementing ways that we can allow our animals to naturally thrive.

Lam: Tell me about the cattle industry in Nebraska, and how your farm fits into that landscape.

Burkholder: Cattle is the predominant agricultural product. It’s the way Nebraska makes its money; it's a very important part of our economy. Nebraska is blessed because we have millions of acres of grass pasture where the soil is really ideal for growing grass and not for growing very much else. Nebraska is well-situated to be the beef epicenter. We've got ethanol plants in Nebraska, which give us a byproduct to feed to our cattle that comes from corn, once they take the ethanol out. We have lots of feed sources for our animals, and then we also have many packing plants. My animals will spend their entire lives in the state of Nebraska just because we have such a great set of resources here. My kids laugh that, in Nebraska, cattle outnumber people four to one. It's not a joke.

The cattle will spend the first eight to 15 months of their lives on grass pastures on the home ranch. Then, when they weigh somewhere around 700 pounds, they'll move to spend a few months getting ready to go to harvest. I'm very much the middle guy in the beef industry: I work closely with my ranchers, who have cow herds and birth the calves and take care of them for the majority of their lives, and then they come to me for a few months at the end of the life cycle. Then from me, they'll go to the packing plant. I harvest, or slaughter, my animals at the Tyson meat-packing facility about 16 miles from my farm.

Lam: What's a typical day of work like for you?

Burkholder: We start early. I go to work at 6 a.m. I start my day driving around the feed yard. Cattle are creatures of habit, so we try to make sure that we deliver feed very consistently to them twice a day. We have consumption data on what the cattle have been eating, and then I make a judgment call on how much they're going to eat today. We get feed trucks started and we run breakfast loads from about 6:30 a.m. until about 8:30 a.m. Then, if we need to vaccinate or process cattle—if we have newly-arrived animals that need to be dewormed and vaccinated—we’ll work cattle after breakfast is delivered.

We also do other odd chores: cleaning water tanks once a week, and putting feed in the elevator to feed to the cattle. We have all of those necessary chores that are not directly related to feeding, but we need to get them all done in the middle of the day. Then, we feed again in the afternoon; my kids call it “linner”—the meal between lunch and dinner. We try to get our workers home to their families by about 4:30 p.m.

Burkholder in her cattle feed yard in Cozad, Nebraska. (Anne Burkholder)

Lam: What are some of the challenges of your work?

Burkholder: The most challenging part of my job is dealing with the weather. In the summertime, if it's 100 degrees, we're outside taking care of cattle. In the wintertime, when it's negative 10 degrees, we're outside taking care of cattle. I've never known a farmer that hasn't had a very close relationship with the weather. On the business side, the cattle markets are very challenging and volatile. It’s hard to manage so that you can remain sustainable from an economic standpoint.

Lam: The prices of cattle futures have been very volatile. How does that affect you?

Burkholder: I've had to learn the markets and try to understand them. Over the last 20 years, they've become more and more volatile, which makes it very difficult for farmers. We're in the margin business, so we're growing food and we're selling it to somebody. When we sell, we have to get enough to be able to cover our costs of raising food and our salaries. Some years, we don't make any money. Some years, we lose money. And some years, we make money. I think it's becoming harder and harder everyday for farmers to navigate the business and market side of things.

I've laughed that I don't have to go to Las Vegas to gamble because, unfortunately, part of my job is essentially gambling everyday in the cattle markets. We employ some risk-management, and I've had to learn how to hedge cattle and do things to try to mitigate some of the volatility. The system is imperfect, and so there are times that we'll go for a significant period of time without making any money.

Lam: Has the beef and cattle market always been so volatile?

Burkholder: The beef market is cyclical, and so it has always had its ups and downs. The nature of the beef industry is not new, but the highs and the lows are farther apart and we have bigger gaps in between. We're still following the natural supply-and-demand cycle, but the volatility within the cycle itself has become more extreme over the years.

We've also started to have investors come into the cattle-futures market and invest. They don't actually own animals—they're just trying to make money on market shifts. I'm not really convinced that's beneficial for farmers, because we actually own the things that the piece of paper is supposed to be trading. I think that that has increased volatility as well.

Looking to the future, we are actually downsizing our cattle operation and going to concentrate some more on the crop side. That's very much a decision we made based on markets. Nothing stays the same. I think that part of being a responsible American is figuring out where your talents are needed, and on a personal and business level, shifting so that you remain current. We're on the cusp of embarking on a little bit of a different farming plan. It'll take about a year to implement it, but it'll be interesting to see how it evolves and where it goes from here.

Lam: What are some other challenges of raising cattle? Do you have concerns about greenhouse gases?

Burkholder: There are several things that we can do from a management standpoint to try to reduce that—whether that's changing the cattle’s diet or adding some feed additives that cut down on that gas. I think the other thing that doesn't get talked about quite as often is the fact that cattle actually benefit the environment in some other ways. You've got to be able to weigh the positive against the negative.

Cattle are really good recyclers, so we have all this grass out here in Nebraska that would go to waste. It wouldn't accomplish anything for us if we didn't have cattle eating it, and then turning that into human food. Where they're not out grazing grass, they're eating a lot of recycled foodstuffs. They can take foraged products, and byproducts from corn, and things that normally would be wasted, and they can turn that into pounds of beef that we can eat. I think that they play a very valuable role using things that would otherwise be wasted and then turning those into protein for humans. Unfortunately, the good things don't always make the headline at the top of a newspaper, but I think it's important to remember that they actually can be very positive contributors to the environment.

Lam: Tell me about your interest in animal welfare.

Burkholder: I'm a psychologist at heart, and so I entered the beef industry as a 22-year-old trying to figure out how a calf thinks. I spent quite a few years working with some veterinarians and working with my own animals to understand the psyche of a bovine. We practice what's called low-stress cattle handling. Basically, we don't expect our cattle to think like we do because they're not capable of it, but we are capable of thinking like them. We provide a very natural environment. When we handle cattle, we do it using non-verbal communication, which is how cattle communicate with each other.

We've become cattle whisperers. I'm part of a movement in the beef industry to really promote that so that our animals trust us as handlers. Unlike other proteins that we eat, cattle live for years and so they're the epitome of the slow-food movement because they do grow for years before they become beef. I'm a cattle nerd.

I work on my farm to improve that all the time, but I also work outside of my farm. I've done a lot of volunteer work trying to spread awareness of cattle psychology and the fact that mental fitness plays a big role in an animal's life, just like it does in a human's life. I’ve also done a lot of work with the Beef Quality Assurance program, which is a farmer-based animal-welfare program. I've worked with that for as long as I've been in the industry. I've been on Tyson's Animal Well-being Advisory Committee for about four years now.

Lam: You married into this line of work, but you've been doing it now for 20 years. How does being a cattle farmer relate to your personal identity?

Burkholder: I'm such a different person today than I was before I moved to Nebraska. I really think being a farmer, taking care of animals, learning to grow food, and living in rural America have made me appreciate all of the blessings in my life and pay attention to all of the little things. My perspective of the world is a lot different now that I've spent two decades as an animal caregiver. I love to work with animals, and I enjoy the fact that I'm growing food. It makes me feel good at night that I'm doing something meaningful.

It's pretty amazing to have a community in rural America. I never had that in Florida growing up. It wasn't long after I moved to Nebraska that an elementary school teacher said to me, "Anne, it takes a community to raise a child." I really agree with that, and I agree more every single day. I'm really proud to live in a small town. I'm proud to share my talents to make the town a better place. I spend thousands of hours as a volunteer athletic coach, and I'm the head coach of the local swim team. I spend a lot of time trying to give back to my community.

That's a philosophy that I've learned living in rural America, being a part of farming and agriculture. We're all neighbors, even if you're 30 miles apart.

Lam: Do you see your children working on, or taking over, the farm eventually?

Burkholder: I have three daughters. My oldest is about to be 17, my middle daughter is 14, and my youngest is about to be 12. My husband and I tell the girls, "We want you to find your passion. We don't care what you choose to do with your life as long as you find your passion and follow it." I hope that at least one of them will want to be involved in agriculture, and I hope that they are as enamored with rural America as I am. But we're going to support them wherever their life path takes them.

One of the things that I think is really invaluable about having a farm is raising kids on a farm. My kids have had chores since they could walk. There are animals depending on them, and there's an element of responsibility. There's also an element of empathy and compassion; I think it makes you less selfish because you’ve got to go feed animals. They develop some practical problem-solving skills in addition to a lot of responsibility, and empathy and compassion. I think that my kids will take those with them wherever they go.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a greenhouse lettuce grower, a park ranger, and a butcher.