Music starts and the dark screen transitions to a salt-and-pepper-haired man in a purple button-down shirt sitting in front of a tin-barn studio backdrop.
“Hi, folks, it’s Dr. Dan from Doc Talk here today, and I’m sure glad you joined us,” he says with a smile and a slight twinge of a Midwestern drawl. “Today we’re going to be talking about something that is very common in the beef industry. Stay tuned, we’re going to have a great show.”
The screen goes black and roles to a commercial for a preventative vaccination for respiratory diseases in cattle.
Enter Dan Thomson, Jones professor of production medicine and epidemiology and director of the Beef Cattle Institute (BCI) at Kansas State University's College of Veterinary Medicine.
An essential breed of intellect who can dig into highly technical research and break it down into useful and practical implications on a production level has launched Thomson into a career of serving as a crucial middleman in a wide range of segments throughout the beef industry.
Like others who possess the same skill, he’s been there, done that; knows what works and knows what doesn’t. But that’s to be expected from someone raised by the farmer’s daughter from a diversified farmer/feeder operation in southwest Iowa, and the vet’s son from down the road who also became a veterinarian.
“My granddad started a vet clinic in 1938; dad joined in 1967. Mom’s side of the family had a commercial cow-calf and row-crop operation with a small feedyard,” he recalls. “A lot of my life growing up was spent at the vet clinic helping dad. His and granddad’s practice functioned a lot as a local processing crew, working everyone’s cattle at fall weaning and spring pre-breeding.”
As Thomson followed his family’s footsteps to pursue an undergraduate degree at Iowa State, he fell in love with the feedyard sector while riding pens and feeding cattle for the school’s research yard. He decided to dig deeper into his new interest, studying ruminant nutrition at South Dakota State University, and then heading south to Texas Tech for a doctorate degree.
“While I enjoyed veterinary medicine and our clinic very much, it was great to dig into beef production and nutrition as it applied to our own cow-calf operation,” he says. “And I had such an admiration for ranchers and feedlot operators that I wanted to get into production.”
Observations from three sides of the fence
It didn’t take Thomson long into his career to see a gap between nutritionist and animal health-care providers, but his experience on the producer side knew the two were typically not separated by producers.
“When you’re standing there as a producer, you never separate them — they all have an impact on your cattle and bottom line,” he says. “I realized there were other opportunities in veterinary medicine and decided to go to vet school.”
It was 1996; Thomson was married, with a young family. His wife, Cindy, had already earned a master’s degree in veterinary microbiology when Thomson decided he wanted to go back to Iowa State to finish up his education.
“She was very patient and backed me through it,” Thomson says. “Those were some intense years. I had a family to help support so I worked with a dairy-calf and swine nutrition company on the side. I’d hop on a plane for a consultation trip and get back just in time to take my anatomy test.”
Once he graduated from Iowa State, it was back south to Lubbock, Texas, where Thomson had accepted a teaching job with Texas Tech University.
“I quickly realized that I was teaching about things that I had never done in veterinary practice,” he recalls. “I had seen it done a million times but had never done it myself as a practitioner. I understood the veterinary practice life being raised in a clinic and in my parents’ house, but I hadn’t practiced my profession in the field on my own two feet.”
Once the year was wrapped up, he was off to work at Veterinary Research and Consulting Services in Greeley, Colo., until one day, he got a call from Cactus Feeders to serve as its director of veterinary service in Texas.
“I developed some of the best professional and personal relationships I’ve ever had while working at Cactus Feeders,” Thomson says. “I loved working there and with Paul and Mike Engler and Jack Rhoades — the feedyard managers and professional environment was second to none. Cactus Feeders taught me a lot about treating people and cattle right.”
Thomson had no intention of leaving Cactus Feeders. He had multiple job offers roll in but was very fulfilled with the working and learning relationship he had built with the feedlot managers at Cactus. Two of those calls, which Thomson politely declined, were from Kansas State University to teach and conduct research at its veterinary school. And then, he received a third call.
“When they called the third time, I was actually going to be driving through the area with my family on vacation, so decided to stop by,” he laughs. “There are only a few states that matched my expectations for having an involved beef industry, and Kansas is one of them. They have cow-calf operations, feedlots, packers and a progressive set of veterinarians and producers.
“I was impressed with the state’s industry and the university. And it was also a good time in our lives to make a move. My wife is from Minnesota, and our farms are 3.5 hours northeast of Manhattan. The move brought us closer to our families.”
Since joining K-State at the end of 2004, Thomson has had his sleeves rolled up to not only help the producers of Kansas but the industry as a whole.
He played a crucial role in the development of the Beef Cattle Institute, a research and educational organization that was founded in 2007. Thomson he now serves as the BCI director.
“Our group does a lot of research that pertains to what is going on with the industry today. We let the industry drive our research by listening to what is needed and what is relevant,” he says. “We’re here to serve the industry, not to serve ourselves.”
This attitude has led BCI to conduct a wide variety of studies instead of only focusing on certain areas of interest; from beta agonist and food safety to animal welfare and animal health, the researchers take it on. Through his position of director, Thomson wears many hats, including hosting a weekly animal-health and industry-issue segment, Doc Talk, that is broadcast nationally, and serving as one of Kansas’ Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) coordinators.
“BQA is a natural fit for any producer and veterinarian to be involved in beef production. It’s the cornerstone in the industry for producing safe, wholesome beef,” he says.
It’s also been a natural fit for Thomson, leading to him make BQA presentations in almost every county in Kansas, and earning him the 2015 BQA Educator of the Year from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).
Filling the gap for One Beef
“If you own beef, you are part of the industry,” he says, explaining his concept for One Beef. “From cow-calf pairs grazing in a producer’s pasture to a family in the suburbs grilling up burgers for a cookout, each is an owner of beef. Not one part is more important than the other and each holds responsibility.”
And in an industry that holds multiple players operating differently to reach the same outcome, there are a lot of gaps to fill: Cow-calf producers sell weaned calves to a backgrounder or stocker operator; calves transition to the feedyard to be fed to finishing weightpackers buy the finished cattle to process them into an edible product; and that meat is sold to retailers which is then marketed to the consumer where the final product is analyzed on their dinner plate. Not one segment of the multi-dimensional industry operates in one way, or even five — they’re all different. But if one player in the millions of stakeholders doesn’t do his or her part, it impacts the entire industry — as One Beef.
Thomson’s ability to see the missing pieces of communication across segments has also propelled him into many leadership positions within the industry. This includes serving on the Animal Welfare Advisory Board of the Food Marketing Institute, the global co-leader for McDonald’s Beef Health and Welfare Committee, and as an advisor to a handful of national industry associations such as NCBA and the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, just to name a few.
“That gap is my niche. It’s not so much being a visionary, but being observant and being a servant to the industry,” Thomson says. “And without involvement, there is no one to step in when a retailer group gets a hair-brained idea and ask them, ‘have you ever done that?’ and then explain why it’s not feasible.”
While Thomson has devoted a great deal of his time to helping bridge the communication channels, particularly when it comes to production and animal-health conversations, he encourages producers to not be hesitant when getting involved.
“The beef industry does so many things very well but sometimes fall back on communicating what we do. Take the opportunity to share beef’s wonderful story with people and to also listen and learn from them,” he says. “You drive the change and have a heck of a story to share — and if you don’t share it, the wrong person will.”