Celebrating in cattle country

Community festivals are known for their food, fun and fel­lowship. And the inaugural Missouri Beef Days in Bolivar checked all the box­es. Parade. Rodeo. Banquet. Concert. Vendors. Held May 16-21, this first-ever event offered all the activities usually found at small-town shindigs and more.

But education—not just entertainment—was a key focus of the weeklong festival. Learning opportunities for farmers, students and the public were inte­gral parts of the Beef Days schedule.

“Many of the festivities were just good ol’ family fun, centered around our celebration of the beef industry,” said Matt Henenberg, president of the Missouri Beef Days board. “But the other goals for this event are to educate everyone about the importance of the cattle industry to this area, our state and the nation as well as recognizing and appreciating those who work so hard to make beef available to everyone else.”

The genesis of Beef Days started three years ago when members of the Boli­var Chamber of Commerce and local community leaders wanted to create an event that would help bring people to town and highlight what the area had to offer. Their brainstorming led to agriculture, specifically cattle production. According to USDA, Missouri ranks third in the nation in the number of beef cows with 2 million head. Polk County, where Bolivar is located, consistently ranks as one of the top three counties in the state in the number of beef cattle as well as one of the top 20 counties in the nation.

Those statistics made a beef-themed event the logical choice, Henenberg said. A nonprofit group was created, board seated, committees formed and plans written. However, like many gatherings over the past two-plus years, COVID-19 put everything on hold. When pandemic relief finally came in sight, Missouri Beef Days became a reality. 

“Beef is our biggest industry in Polk Coun­ty,” Henenberg said. “The ground here is too rocky to be suited for anything but livestock, so our farmers use the land to produce the best source of protein out there. We are also the most efficient beef producers in the country with more cows per square mile than any­where else. We believe that we need to honor that.”

With education at the core of their mission, organizers decided to kick off Missouri Beef Days by giving attendees a firsthand look at the area’s cattle industry with tours of farms and businesses during the first three nights. The itinerary was designed to show various ways that area residents are contributing to the success of the beef industry—from training farmers and ranchers to raising cattle and processing meat. More than 300 people participated in the tours, a number that Henenberg said exceeded expectations.

“We recently bought some land, and I was interested in see­ing what farmers are doing,” said Betsy Berry of Bolivar, one of the tour attendees. “I think this is a great thing for our commu­nity.”

Tours started on the campus of Southwest Baptist Universi­ty, where Dr. John Murphy, associate professor of biology, and several students gave a presentation about the college’s new ag­riculture program. Starting in the fall of 2022, SBU is adding a four-year agribusiness degree and a three-year minor in agricul­ture production. These programs are designed so that students receive hands-on education with coursework in business, crop production, soil science and animal science.

Murphy, who is heading SBU’s new agriculture program, owns and operates a nearby 800-acre farm with 200 head of cattle. Students already are using his farm to conduct research projects, with a team winning a national research award this spring.

“Our first year is coming up, but we’ve been conducting research for the last four years,” Murphy said. “I’ve had 24 stu­dents go through our research lab. They have published scientif­ic papers and presented at national conferences. So, while it’s a new program that we’re going to roll out, we’re already making an impact, and we’ll continue to build on that.”

After the presentation at SBU, tour attendees loaded on buses to visit Missouri Prime Beef Packers in Pleasant Hope, a state-of-the-art, USDA-inspected plant that processes some 500 head of cattle each day. The facility is the local home of Show Me Beef, which provides retail and food-service establish­ments with beef that is raised, finished and harvested in Missouri.

Next stop was Lazy L Ranch in northern Polk County, where attendees toured the diversified cow-calf and feeder cattle operation. The ranch recently expanded into Wagyu cattle, a Japanese breed known for its top-end, highly marbled beef that’s prized by restaurants and consumers. The American Wagyu Association only shows about 5,000 head of Wagyu mama cows registered in the United States. Lazy L Ranch has 60 full-blooded cows, making them one of the larg­est Wagyu operations around.

The tour ended at Buchen Processing in Humansville, giving participants a glimpse into a local meat-packing business. Owned and operated by fifth-generation cattle producer Patrick Buchen, the facility processes 12 head of cattle each week with six full-time employees—including a certified chef as the meat cutter. Buchen and his wife, Susan, purchased the processing plant from its longtime owners, the York family, in 2021. The Buchens also raise feeder cattle on their nearby farm with a focus on genetic testing to produce prime-grade beef.

While tour participants snacked on beef eggrolls, Buchen gave an overview of the facility, which he said brought him “full circle” in the cattle business.

“I grew up in this industry, and I’ve worked at three different purebred associations,” he said. “But once we started pulling the hides off, I was dumbfounded about how much I didn’t know about this industry that I love. It’s that end product that we, as producers, should know better than anything.”

Beef Days’ educational offerings extended beyond the tours with efforts to reach young people in the community. The Polk County Cattlemen’s Association provided beef lunches to nearly 2,000 students in Bolivar schools as well as 1,500 Southwest Baptist University students.

“There’s a lot of negative news and false information about the beef industry out there, so one of the things we wanted to do was help change that perception with our young people,” Henenberg said. “We fed the students all-beef hamburgers and then shared some information with them about cattle produc­tion and beef nutrition.”

Another big draw to the event was a presentation by re­nowned professor and animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, who is noted for her trailblazing work as a spokesperson for people with autism and her lifelong work with animal behavior. Some 1,300 people attended her presentation on Saturday night.

In total, Henenberg said he estimates more than 10,000 people attended Beef Days this year, and plans are already in the works for next year’s event.

“We’re proud of our heritage, way of life, and what this industry means to us, our families and communities,” he said. “I hope everyone takes home a better appreciation for cattle production and our farmers and learns something about the beef industry.”

To learn more or keep up with plans for next year’s event, visit online at missouribeefdays.com.

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