One of the largest family-owned feedlots in Nebraska is in the small town of Broken Bow, where a few Doane graduates are making a big impact on the company.
When Amy Staples ’99 was still Amy Adams, and a little girl in farm jeans, the Adams Land & Cattle feedlots near Broken Bow were her playground and first workplace.
She fed the spindly bottle calves that were born on the lot. She scraped and painted horse barns with her siblings and cousins until most of them shined white again under the central Nebraska sky.
When her family vaccinated steers, she liked to draw on the chute with the waxy orange livestock marker.
When she was older, she weighed the trucks delivering much of Custer County’s corn harvest each fall. By high school, she was in the office doing timecards, filing and computer entry, eating the lunches her grandma unfailingly delivered.
“It was all second nature to me because our house was surrounded by the feedlot at that time,” she recalled.
Amy loved where she grew up— both Broken Bow and the feedlots surrounded by the gently rolling Sandhills—yet she didn’t consider returning after graduating from Doane in three years. She put her Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology to work at pharmaceutical companies, including Novartis.
Jump forward 20 years. Amy has been an Adams Land & Cattle employee for 11 years, now directing Regulatory Compliance and Research and Development. Her husband, Corey Staples ’95, is at the company’s corporate office in Broken Bow, too, as vice president of technology and organizational development.
Their mutual friend and fellow Doane alum, Ryan McAlexander ’97, works in its Omaha office as director of sales and marketing. About two years ago, they were joined by one more Doane graduate, Dustin Schwartz ’12, who is one of the company’s IT support specialists responsible for its network, servers, and other technology.
Education, experiences, and family ties shaped these Doane graduates’ route to the company.
Now, a new Doane program set to begin in fall 2018 may open up more opportunities for students wanting to work in agriculture: Doane will offer a Bachelor of Arts in Agribusiness degree through the College of Professional Studies.
It will be Nebraska’s first agribusiness bachelor’s degree program with the option to complete all courses online, providing flexibility to students working full-time jobs or wanting to remain on their farms and ranches.
For employers such as Adams Land & Cattle, the program may provide more quality job candidates.
“We’re not a typical farm or ranch. We offer a wide variety of paths for someone in the agribusiness realm,” Amy said, using herself and her husband as examples. “It wasn’t our intention to come work at a feedlot, but we had that experience, that value–added degree and we knew we could add to this company.”
Adams Land & Cattle LLC is one of the largest family-owned feedlots in Nebraska, as well as one of the largest cattle research and development facilities in the world.
The company got its start in the mid ’40s, with Amy’s grandparents, Russell and Angenette Adams, who farmed and operated a dairy. Later, they began backgrounding cattle (raising the animal in the time period after it is weaned and before it is placed in a feedlot). When Amy’s father, Jerry Adams, returned to the farm after college in 1973, the family incorporated and switched to cattle finishing. Now led by Jerry and his brother, Bill, Adams Land & Cattle has grown dramatically in size and scope.
Aside from its size, Adams Land & Cattle is recognized for a commitment to research, sustainability and animal well-being, which includes providing clean water and food for its livestock, a sprinkler system to control dust and cool the animals, and equipment that cleans the pens regularly, ensuring a dry place for each animal to lie down.
It is considered an industry leader in technological advances. The electronic ID tags placed on each of its animals are a prime example, starting from the point they reach the backgrounding locations.
“We know what the animal was treated with and when; what they ate; how they were handled,” said Amy. “It allows us to run a better business, to give assurance to consumers, and pull data out to see how we can do things better.”
The company employs its own veterinarians and even has on-site mobile hospitals. The cowboys or pen checkers who ride the pen daily spot sick or injured cattle. The hospital, which resembles a large horse trailer housing a chute, computers, and medical equipment, comes to their pen. Cattle enter the trailer for diagnosis or treatment, and exit back into the same pen, eliminating the stress of transport.
“The company is very big on continuous improvement and innovation. If you enjoy change, you would enjoy working here” Amy said. In a way, her Doane education prepared her for that as well. “I think Doane instills a good work ethic in you and you learn to be well-rounded, adaptable.”
Amy is the third-generation in the company and like those before her, found her own niche.
“For my grandfather it was farming. My dad loves the cattle business and challenges of the markets. Mine is the consumer-facing side, including regulatory, animal well-being, and food safety.”
Returning to Broken Bow was not in her plans as a new college graduate. She wanted to work outside of the family business she recalled, and her degree was a good fit for her early jobs in the pharmaceutical field. Meeting Corey through Doane connections and starting their own family of four daughters changed her path.
“Once we had a family, we said ‘Let’s get back to a smaller community.’ Coming here worked out really well with the experience we had.”
Today, Amy oversees regulatory compliance, including the on-site FDA-regulated feedmill. The company also has to meet the standards of the EPA, OSHA, and animal well-being. It conducts groundwater monitoring, air-quality management, and trains employees in environmental initiatives.
She also oversees the R&D and technical services team. Its work boils down to “what can we do better from the animal standpoint and from a consumer standpoint,” she explained. Consumer preferences, even trends on social media, play a big role in their work. “Right now consumers want to know, ‘Where did my food come from and how was the animal treated?’” But Adams Land & Cattle also has to consider what will be important five years out. “We do the trial work now to give us those answers,” she said.
As part of its animal well-being initiatives, every employee—from pen checkers to accountants—completes Beef Quality Assurance training.
“Even if they don’t work with animals, they can answer questions from people, and share our story,” Amy said. “More and more, people are distanced from understanding how food is produced. We help feed the world and we take care of our animals.”
Amy is proud of the company and its roots, long intertwined with Broken Bow, a town of about 3,500. The company is one of the largest employers in the county, and it strives for a family atmosphere, holding a summer beef cook-off with employees and families and offering internships and work with local schools. They encourage employees to be community leaders and have a Christmas–giving program to provide beef, toys, and necessities to families in need.
“We’re incredibly proud to call Custer County home. So it’s only natural that we want the best for our neighbors and truly enjoy giving back in numerous ways.”
When you work at a feedlot, you notice a common misconception about your job: “Everyone thinks you work out in the lots,” said Corey.
In addition to their core operations positions, which include heavy equipment, mechanics, farming, and cattle health, there are many non-traditional roles at Adams, like accounting, risk management, data scientists, human resources, information technology, animal nutrition, and communications positions.
Graduates of an agribusiness program such as Doane’s new offering could work directly in agriculture “but are able to play in many other arenas,” he said.
It’s natural for him to use sports terms. When he came to Doane from Ogallala he was following up on interest from then—head football and basketball coaches Fran Schwenk and Bob Erickson. He chose the basketball court, playing for, and later coaching with, Erickson.
Adams Land & Cattle is the fourth industry in which Corey has applied his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry degree from Doane from pharmaceuticals at Novartis in Lincoln to roles in the medical device field and in the food industry. His past experiences in quality assurance and continuous improvement have proven beneficial in his transition to Adams.
While he came in as a project manager, Corey now leads the IT and HR departments. One side, he said, is “big-picture work, developing and implementing company strategies. The other is more hands-on, such as supporting employee relations and developing young leaders.” He and on-staff developers worked with an outside firm to develop software and programs unique to the company.
The biggest challenge for him, he said, is the agriculture side. “I don’t have an ag background so every day I’m learning the business.”
A number of his friends came from family farms and returned home to apply their business degrees. “If an agribusiness program had been offered at the time, it would have been even more beneficial … I love that a small university like Doane is starting this program.”
How does a kid from Thornton, Colorado end up directing sales and marketing for a cattle operation?
He spends summers with his grandparents in a southwest Iowa town surrounded by corn and livestock. He graduates from Doane and marries the Grand Island native he met on campus (Sandra Lawton ’99).
He puts his political science degree and business knowledge to work for TD Ameritrade. He gains valuable experience, but eventually wants to try a different life, a small-town life in Broken Bow. Because he views agriculture with an outsider’s fresh eye, he is quick to appreciate the traits of the industry.
“In agriculture, people are so passionate about what they do and the story they tell. That really drew me in and makes me want to continue in the industry.”
Ryan is in his 11th year with Adams Land & Cattle now, living in Omaha, however he still spends a fair amount of time working in Broken Bow.
Ryan and his team analyze the cattle market and industry conditions to continually assess opportunity versus risk and anything that might disrupt the market, such as weather or trade negotiations. Their eye is on supply and demand, the factors driving price, the futures market, and the timing of cattle sales to packing plants to earn maximum revenue for each animal.
They leverage performance and phenotypical data, making sure each animal has reached its growth potential, striving for a minimum of USDA Choice or higher, in a healthy and safe way.
“I think (the agribusiness program) is a great idea. Coming from Colorado, I had a different career path in mind, but the more I was exposed to ag and especially the beef industry, the more I see a thriving industry that needs young, passionate people to continue to get involved and support it going forward.”
This fall, Doane University will welcome the first students to its new Agribusiness program through the College of Professional Studies. The program blends an agricultural sciences curriculum with Doane’s strong foundation in economics and business management.
As dean of the College of Professional Studies, Lorie Cook-Benjamin looked at areas for new programs, and agribusiness stood out as a natural fit. Nebraska has 48,700 farms (based on 2015 statistics) and one of every four jobs in the state is connected with the food and agricultural industry.
“We took what Doane does extremely well and added agribusiness to it,” said her husband, Don Benjamin, a longtime agricultural educator who served as curriculum consultant.
Don and a CPS team designed a program that matches the needs of this particular group of nontraditional learners—a flexible program that allows them to complete courses online, on the Lincoln, Grand Island, and Omaha campuses, or a blend of both.
It is the online portion that makes Doane’s degree unique. It will be Nebraska’s first undergraduate agribusiness program that can be completed entirely online. That means “students can pursue this degree from wherever they live,” Lorie said, while completing a degree that will open up a new level of opportunity.
A simple internet search shows how broad those opportunities are, Don said. “I recently looked at two websites on open jobs in Nebraska that require some type of advanced education. Probably 80 percent of those jobs would work for someone with an agribusiness degree.”
Although the program will be valuable to a variety of learners, the target group is transfer students who have already completed Associate in Applied Science degrees and may be working on a family farm or at an ag-related job. Following the CPS calendar of five eight-week terms, they can complete the degree in two years or less, depending on how many credits they bring with them to Doane.
Ag-specific coursework covers futures and options, law and policy, advanced agricultural technology, agricultural finance, agricultural sustainability, and advanced agribusiness management.
Don said graduates will be prepared to manage their own agricultural business or ag-related or food system operations in fields such as business and finance, international agriculture, agricultural marketing, policy formation, farm and ranch management, resource economics, rural development, banking, and real estate appraisal.
Doane’s mission comes through in the coursework, which provides a wide-lens view across all aspects of the industry with an emphasis on the global picture, ethics, and sustainable resources.
Technology is another critical component of the program, Don said, as the agricultural industry is one of the top users of technology worldwide. Students will learn to leverage the technology that is shaping the industry’s future.
Administrators expect rapid growth once the program is online. It’s powerful to think about the students this program will positively impact, said Don, who retired as interim dean of the agriculture department at Fort Hays State University. “I always had the philosophy that I can teach theory in the classroom, but I can’t teach the experience. That’s what’s exciting about the online coursework: The majority of students are going to bring the experience, take great classes, and go on to another level in their careers.”
The program can help employers and keep good employees in Nebraska, in Amy’s opinion. Many workers at Adams Land & Cattle have agribusiness or animal science degrees through the University of Nebraska–Lincoln or out-of-state colleges.
“It’s so valuable to hold onto people in Nebraska and give them opportunities here.”