In the corporate world, there are performance evaluations and peer evaluations, but the beef and food industries face the toughest critic of all: the American consumer.

“Ranch to Rail” research and the first Beef Quality Audit showed the beef industry was poorly trained. The American consumer was beginning to buy other proteins because there were a lot of issues from a quality standpoint.

Ranchers had gotten used to the fact consumers would eat whatever they produced, but a new generation of the buying public told the industry to change its tactics. The Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program was born in an effort to train the workforce.

“BQA helped establish national standards. By educating ourselves through the program, we earned back some respect and trust from the consumer because they knew what we were doing,” says Anne Burkholder of Will Feed Inc., Cozad, Nebraska.

She is the author of a blog called “Feed Yard Foodie” and was the recipient of the 2009 National BQA Award. Will Feed Inc. is a family-owned 3,000-head capacity feedyard. Burkholder, a former Ivy Leaguer, oversees daily operations.


Due to the nature of the industry, change is sometimes viewed as a revolutionary concept, but it needed to happen fast. Emphasis has changed as the BQA program has evolved.

“The industry had a lot of issues caused by our own doing. Tenderness, injection-site blemishes and abscesses were at the top of the list.

In the beginning, we were strictly trying to get producers to change injection site,” says Dr. Clyde Lane, extension beef specialist, University of Tennessee. Lane has been helping educate producers since 1999 and was the 2014 BQA Educator of the Year.

Changing the mindset of a group of strong-minded cattlemen is always challenging to say the least. Different levels of producers have a different learning curve.

“The educational side of BQA came later. We started working on a mindset to do the right things from an animal health standpoint,” Lane says. “Then we started trying to get cattlemen to handle cattle right and document their work. It’s all important to improve quality and food safety.”

“I basically came to the beef industry in 1997; before that I was an urbanite who ate beef to help compete athletically at a high level,” Burkholder says. “I knew we had to do something to deliver the type of beef the customer wanted. The BQA program helped us change our product.”

As BQA programs were embraced by the masses, things started to move in the right direction. Keeping customers was vital but adding professionalism to the beef industry was the first step.

“BQA training is critical to allow producers to move toward a more professional way of doing business. Not only to produce what the consumer wants but also to preserve their investment,” Burkholder says.

“Consumer outreach is another important part of BQA. We figured out to keep or build demand, we had to get our act together. To keep our consumers, they have to have trust and confidence, especially with a high-dollar protein.”

“Everywhere they turned, cattlemen were getting the same message, and I think it helped producers get on board. The same story made BQA more believable,” Lane says. “Then producers started using better genetics and handling them correctly. It was good for the industry.”

The program began to establish a foothold, and when the marketplace responded favorably, the program gained more steam. Producers who had been slow to grasp the concepts were missing out, and the learning curve changed.

“The learning curve and subsequent results were different with everything we did. Injection-site blemishes were cleared up real quickly. Quality issues were a little different, but most of this was changed by genetics eventually,” Lane says.

“The dollar had a really big effect on how fast things changed. Once there was a significant change in price from cattle that had been handled correctly versus inferior cattle, then producers started to act on it. The market was sending the same message to cattlemen as the BQA program.”

“I don’t like to buy anything that isn’t a pre-conditioned calf, especially in today’s market when they can cost $1,200 per head,” Burkholder says.

“Ranches that get employees BQA-certified set themselves up for success. Nobody really wants to buy a calf that has been compromised. Set those calves up for success at the next level, build relationships – and you will get rewarded. Health and proper handling have always been critical for that calf to meet feeding and harvest expectations.”

Changes have also come with consumer demand. Demographics in the buying public differ a little as the population keeps growing. Demand may be skewed a little today, because of supply issues, than it was when inaugural BQA programs first became the talk of the industry.

“It’s my belief in 2014 cattlemen need to raise the BQA bar to that next level. Production costs have risen drastically, and efficiency becomes a lot more important. Beef is also at record price levels in the grocery, so we have to instill more confidence,” Burkholder says.

“There is a group of consumers who are interested and very vocal about where their food comes from, but there still is a segment of the buying public; if beef is tender and tastes good, they are satisfied, but they all want enough information to have confidence about what’s on the table. It all starts with BQA.”

“It’s more important to do things right because our industry is very visual and we aren’t hiding anything,” Lane says. “We have to be proactive and deliver what the consumer wants. BQA is absolutely a building block for perception and regulation.”

More and more producers are doing the right thing. Many industry supporters have annual programs to train new employees or recertify old ones.

The pride factor it took to overcome the skepticism in the beginning could be the defining factor making sure the job gets done right. New marketing techniques open doors, but it all begins and ends with BQA.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but I think a lot of things will fall under the BQA umbrella and producers will be looking up at something successful. Producers have to always look for that extra edge in marketing their product compared to the next guy, and a lot of people are documenting what they are doing.

BQA was injection-site blemishes. As it evolved, it expanded to cover meat quality and animal welfare,” Lane says. “We will never reach 100 percent BQA certification, but part of the education process is tied to the ‘pride factor’ of folks making sure they are doing it right.”

“BQA is the building block to a lot of the things we do. All of our employees are BQA-certified and receive a refresher course during one of our vet’s 12 visits per year.

Putting your ‘money where your mouth is’ is very important in our business right now. Audits allow a third party to come in and verify what you are doing,” Burkholder says.

“In 2014, raising cattle is a professional business; the cattle are better and we owe a lot of that to BQA. It’s critical the beef industry continues to improve. The pride we take in what we do makes a difference every day.”  end mark

Clifford Mitchell is a freelance author based in Oklahoma.