I'm A Drover: Telling Beef’s Story

“I see China as the emerging market similar to what Japan was 20 years ago,” says Joan Ruskamp, a Nebraska producer who completed a term as chair of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board in February. ( Joan Ruskamp )

U.S. cattlemen have long coveted the opportunity to send beef to China, where the growing middle class makes its potential as a U.S. beef buyer a game-changer. That’s why investments on your behalf continue to be made into developing beef trade with China.

“I see China as the emerging market similar to what Japan was 20 years ago,” says Joan Ruskamp, a Nebraska producer who completed a term as chair of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board in February. “We know the procedures and the steps of developing the market, and with the use of social media now, developing the Chinese market should be quicker.”

Ruskamp’s optimism for beef trade with China comes from a visit she made to Japan and China last year with the CBB and a contingent from the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF). The trip provided a first-hand look at how investments from the beef checkoff are opening doors and building relationships that help sell U.S. beef. Japan is the largest foreign buyer of U.S. beef, accounting for nearly 25% of all sales. China accounted for less than 1% of U.S. beef exports last year, but the value of U.S. beef exports during 2018 exceeded $8 billion for the first time.

“I’m really impressed with how hard USMEF employees work on our behalf in China, Japan, Peru, Mexico—anywhere,” Ruskamp says. “They work to give people a taste of American beef and how it fits into their culture and their diet.”

First Date

A native of Grand Island, Neb., Ruskamp was not raised on a farm, but became involved in the beef industry when she met her future husband. After earning an associate degree in veterinary medicine, she was working for a veterinary clinic when she met Steve Ruskamp.

“Our first date was riding horses around his family’s farm and feedlot,” she says. “We married in 1981 and had the opportunity to buy the farm Steve’s dad grew up on.”

The Ruskamps now operate J&S Feedlot in Dodge, Neb., a farming and cattle feeding enterprise where Joan says her role is in the cattle doctoring and processing area as well as record keeping. Over the years the couple raised five children, and when the last graduated from high school, Ruskamp became more involved in sharing her story with consumers through social media, and she was appointed to the CBB in 2013.

Initially, Ruskamp wanted to help educate consumers about beef, but now she wants to share with other producers how the beef checkoff benefits everyone. Before she began actively advocating for beef, she “had only a glimmer of an understanding of everything the beef checkoff does and how important the role of producers is in guiding the program.”

Once Ruskamp joined the CBB, she saw the “extensive work that goes into managing that $1 per head checkoff and making sure we get the best use of that dollar in the research, or the information or the promotion. It’s really an amazing job that is benefiting all producers.” 

Ruskamp’s service time on the CBB offered her a glimpse into the checkoff’s inner working.

“The checkoff is so much more than just advertising,” she says. “Today, with the use of social media, we are better able to tell beef’s story.”

Consumers want to know more about their food, where it was raised and the people involved.

“They want food that is safe for their family and they want to know what kind of farm did this food come from,” Ruskamp says. “The majority of farmers and ranchers are too busy on their farms to answer all those questions, though they are just as passionate about the work they are doing. That’s how our beef checkoff uses social media, advertising and other communications.”

Beef’s Sustainability

While continuing to emphasize the health and nutritional qualities of beef with consumers, Ruskamp says a critical role for the beef checkoff in the future will be in documenting beef’s sustainability.

“Demand for beef is growing around the world, and anti-beef activists see that attacking beef on nutritional grounds is not a winning strategy,” Ruskamp says. “So now they are targeting methane production (of beef) and trying to make people feel guilty for contributing to climate change by eating beef.”

To counter such claims, the beef checkoff funds research projects documenting beef’s role in a sustainable food system. Included  are projects showing beef’s efficiency and how cattle utilize feedstuffs that would otherwise be wasted.

“Cattle are not a detriment (to the environment),” Ruskamp says. “They are an asset. We are amplifying our own checkoff dollar by getting involved, using social media and furthering that message in our own circle of influence.”

Ruskamp says there are many checkoff benefits, such as:

  • added carcass value with new cuts such as the flat iron.
  • solid research on the nutritional benefits of beef.
  • providing sustainability research about the importance of cattle to the environment.
  • developing and strengthening export markets, which adds more value to the carcass through demand.
  • engaging in the digital age of communication through active participation and behind-the-scenes crisis management.

While Ruskamp’s service to CBB is complete, advocating for her livelihood and her family will continue.

“Just like other farmers and ranchers, my husband and I will keep working hard to care for our cattle, and hopefully make wise marketing decisions,” she says. “It’s good to know the beef checkoff program is working hard for me so that we may possibly pass this opportunity and way of life down to a grandchild.”