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You know those people who you visit with and are instantly inspired by? Well, for me, Betty Jo Gigot is one of those people, and I’m so excited to feature her in the inaugural episode of the Trailblazing in Agriculture podcast.
Betty Jo’s story is remarkable. Despite not growing up in the agriculture industry, she went on to manage the office at a feedyard in South Dakota before creating sophisticated computer programs that transformed the way feedyards collected data, which led her to launching her own company and, ultimately, becoming the editor and publisher of CALF News magazine. Along the way, she’s also written several books, traveled to Australia on three separate occasions and was in charge of the Miss South Dakota scholarship program for a number of years.
Her story is incredible, and I can’t wait for you to hear it. I hope Betty Jo’s story inspires you to try new things and gain unique experiences…I know I’ve added a few things to my goal board after my visit with her.
Episode 1 Transcript
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Jessie Topp-Becker: Hello and welcome to Episode 1 of Trailblazing in Agriculture – a podcast for anyone interested in hearing the stories of the agriculture industry’s pioneers and innovators. I’m your host, Jessie Topp-Becker, and today we’re launching the first series on our podcast, which will feature trailblazing women in agriculture.
On this episode of the Trailblazing podcast, we’re talking with Betty Jo Gigot, the editor and publisher of CALF News magazine. Betty Jo is a talented writer, a cattle feeding industry veteran and, you guessed it, trailblazer. Today, Betty Jo talks about how she got her start in the cattle feeding industry and how that ultimately led to her involvement with CALF News magazine. She also shares some important lessons she’s learned along the way. I’m so excited for you to hear from this trailblazer.
Betty Jo, thank you so much for joining us today. You’ve been involved in the agriculture industry for many years, but it didn’t start out that way. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in agriculture and specifically the cattle feeding industry?
Betty Jo Gigot: Well, it kind of was an accident because I got a major in opera from Western College University in Gunnison as it’s called now. I was raised in a in a small town in Colorado but went off to college and then ended up teaching school for a couple of years, married a forest ranger and moved to South Dakota. That’s where I kind of ran into the cattle feeding business.
Jessie: What was that involvement like in the cattle feeding business, Betty Jo?
Betty Jo: There wasn’t anybody in the business in South Dakota in those days, or very few, and we were living in just a small town in Hot Springs, South Dakota. I ended up being on the hospital board and ran the Miss South Dakota pageant for about five years and was on the city council. A Texas cowboy named Topher Largent came to town and wanted to start a feedyard there. That was the time that you should do SBA loans, and so as a part of the community, we made stacks of Swedish meatballs and served drinks and raised the money. And when the money was raised, they asked if I would come out and run the office. And I laughed and said, “You know, I don’t know how to how to run a scale. But you know, I do play the piano really well.”
Jessie: Funny how life takes those twists and turns. You kind of started in the office manager position, but then it kind of evolved from there, correct? You had the opportunity to kind of develop some computer programming, right?
Betty Jo: Those were the days that they were just starting out computer programming and very, very little had been done. And so in 1974, I believe it was, all of a sudden why it was like it was the thing to do, so my boss sent me off to handy dandy computer school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And the first computer I saw was the System 32, it was in the top of a hotel in Wisconsin, and they had mattresses on the windows because it was such a secret. It was just being introduced. And so I had a chance to watch it develop there on the property.
Jessie: I think it’s interesting when you talk about that first computer that you had the opportunity to see. And as we think about technology and how it’s grown and changed so much over the years, you were really on that forefront, watching that evolution and being an active participant. I bet it’s interesting to see how those programs have changed over the decades, and to know that you were on the forefront of that innovation that kind of transformed the industry in terms of the programs that were available to feedyards at that time.
Betty Jo: It was a totally different thing. And, basically, at first we did everything by hand, then we started putting it into the computers. And we realized that you know that this was going to be very valuable as far as the accounting and that type of thing. And, of course, we were not keeping records on everything on the computer. That computer had about 13 megabytes and was the size of a big office desk.
Eventually as things evolved there at the feedyard, my bosses were killed in a plane crash, I went out as a consultant with computers. And interestingly enough my major in music and the ability to write music made it very, very easy for me to transfer over into writing computer programs; it takes the same kind of mind. I ended up as a consultant for a few months up north in Bellevue, South Dakota, for a feedyard. And then, because I didn’t know any better, I started my own company, and we started selling computer systems across the country. The first system I ever sold was in Oshkosh, Nebraska, the computer itself was $50,000 and the software was $50,000. Today, you could buy that for $2,500, and it’ll keep every record you have and communicate with the trucks and communicate with the cowboys.
Jessie: It’s remarkable to hear about that and knowing that had the ability to just really watch that technology develop. You didn’t have this background in agriculture or even with computers, and so how was it learning both of those industries and determining what feedyards needed and being able to develop something that really met their needs?
Betty Jo: At the time, being on the ground floor at Fall River Feedyard, I saw the first animal come in; I weighed the first truck. My boss certainly knew cattle, and so through that 10 years that I worked with Fall River, I learned and learned and learned. And the computer thing, it was being developed the same time that I was developing, and so that came really pretty easy because it was in fits and starts. And so by the time that we got on down to doing the more complicated things, why I pretty much was trained.
I sat on the benches in the sale barns and, actually on that consulting job up north, I was the one that made the decision about who brought in the chutes, who brought in the trucks and that type of thing. So my 10 years at Fall River, and then the consulting job were worth more than my four years in college, I think, as far as how things developed.
Jessie: You learned the feedyard business from the ground up, obviously. But at what point did you realize that you were likely going to spend your entire career in the ag industry and cattle feeding business?
Betty Jo: Well at the time, basically, you just keep on keeping on. As I was doing consulting work, then I ran across a very interesting gentleman called Dr. Bob Hummel with Lextron. He came up to see me and knew that I knew the business, and he had an idea that we ought to take, at that point, the health system, the cards that we were keeping on the cattle that were going through the health system, and we should be able to put it on the computer. And so he then hired me away, and I headed up the information system that was developed by Lextron, which is now Animal Health International.
Jessie: And is that the program or the system that your name is on the patent?
Betty Jo: Yes. I flew to New York, to 45th Avenue and met with those attorneys, who were interesting. And so my name is on that patent. And at the same time, there were two other companies that were working on the same type of thing, and so we basically took the information that we put on cards, put it into the computer.
Eventually, everybody put a scale under the chute. And then eventually, everybody knew that if an animal weighed 700 pounds, then you gave it this much penicillin. And at that time, there were a lot of interesting things going on in the cattle industry as a whole. We realized that we had some problems with the way that the shots and vaccinations were being given. And so when it came time for everybody to really look at that, and make the changes, those of us that were in that information business had put it together to the place that we knew what we were doing and where we were putting the needles and it really worked out well for the industry as a whole, I think.
Jessie: And I believe you kind of said, you know, during that time when you were developing some of that program and that system, that there was some opposition or people who said you’ll never be able to put a scale under the chute. Is that correct?
Betty Jo: There were two things they said: They said they’ll never put a scale under a chute. And they also said that they didn’t think that our cowboys out there in the field were going to want to run computers. And it turned out to be they loved them. As a matter of fact, three days in they said, “Now, what else can I do with this computer?”
Jessie: It is a good feeling when you can prove someone wrong? Right?
Betty Jo: Well, it’s always interesting to see. We were running on Tandy [computers] – we were running on tiny little machines. I spent one whole winter out at Miller Feedyard in Greeley Colorado – with saran wrap wrapped around a little computer – putting down the information and almost froze to death. But basically all of us that were working on that at that time had already out-thought the technology that was available. And so it was it was several years before we came up with the machines that had enough megs in them for us to be able to do what we were trying to do. The idea was first and then the technology came second.
Jessie: Waiting for technology to catch up was probably a challenge.
Betty Jo: We challenged every day and tried to provide what was said that we would do. Eventually those systems went on to track the trucks to track the feed. I know of one feedyard up north that honks its horn if it’s in trouble, the rest of time it runs by itself.
Jessie: What a transformation, if you really think about it, in a relatively short amount of time. That’s really remarkable.
Betty Jo: Well, if you think about the feedyard industry, basically I was so lucky. As I started writing about it, it was only about a generation and a half old, so we really, we moved terribly fast if you think about when we started feeding cattle for serious and then the technology and what they’re doing out there in those yards today.
Jessie: Today when you attend industry events, it’s not unusual to see women in attendance or in major leadership positions, and many women are out on the road representing companies as sales reps and in different positions. But in your case, when you started in the cattle feeding industry, was it unique or maybe less common to be a woman in your position?
Betty Jo: I think at that point, there were a few ladies. One, Barbara Jackson, she’s now down in Arizona, she was actually representing Syntex, and she was on the road. And I would have been one of the very few women that were doing that. But basically, if you built a reputation, if you got an audience with that person and could sit down and talk to that manager, they realized that you knew the industry, you asked the right questions. And of course, by that time, I had been out in the field and in the yards and in the hospitals that much, and so it worked out well. It also was one of those things where, when they did my cards at Lextron, they put “Betty Jo” on it instead of just “Betty,” which I’d gone by for years. And sure enough, when I went to Texas, Billy Joe would let me in his office. He thought I was a Southerner.
Jessie: How did your work as a consultant for the feedyards and your work there then lead to your involvement with CALF News.
Betty Jo: After finishing up the project with Lextron in 1989, I had written a couple of computer things and spoken at some of the computer conventions and had run into the people that were running CALF News at that time, the Dittmers. They hired me; I went down to Colorado Springs to become a sales manager for CALF News. As it turned out, the first month that I was working for them, I went back up to Sidney, Nebraska, to a feedyard where I was consulting for the Dinklage company. And they were shipping cattle to Japan. I had my dad’s camera; I’d never taken pictures, but my dad had passed away and I had his cameras, so I took pictures, wrote a story, got the cover, and from then on, I became not only a sales manager, but a reporter. I did that for a number of years, and then in 2005, I had an opportunity to buy CALF News. And so I’m the publisher and editor for the magazine.
Jessie: What was it like to go from writing those articles, and I know you were the associate editor for the magazine for several years, but what was it like then in that transition, jumping into the world of magazine management and running your own magazine, Betty Jo?
Betty Jo: It’s an interesting challenge. But basically, the secret to all of this, it doesn’t matter whether you’re running a health system or whether you’re running a feedyard or whether you’re running a magazine, it’s people. And so, there were there were people that came with the project that were very, very good. And then as with everything else you learned as you go.
The magazine itself is old, old, started in ‘60s. It was started by a man named Champ Gross, who has some friends; he was a funny little guy from Belgium. And he wore tweed coats that had leather on the sleeves. And he loved martinis and cigars, and is fondly remembered. And he had some friends that were in the feedyard businesses, and he decided that it’d be kind of nice to do a little pamphlet, which he called CALF News. And that’s how it started out in California.
And so the history of the magazine is a very, very, very proud part of what we do today. And, so you just carry that forward; you hire good writers, you figure out who can print it and who can take care of it. Quite frankly, I have a whole cadre of people that watch after me and make sure that we do it right. And we’re very, very proud of what we do.
Jessie: One of the things that has always intrigued me or impressed me I guess about CALF News is the focus on the people. And you’ve talked a lot about that and the importance of the people in the industry and that ability to get to know them. But was that focus on people something that you brought to the magazine or something that’s really been around since the very beginning?
Betty Jo: From the very beginning, Champ Gross would go into a feedyard, take a picture and he called in those days the Filet Mignon; it was always a lady that was on the back page, and there still is. As Champ said, when we changed the name, “Now, it’s the Top Cut, Betty Jo, it’s the Top Cut.” Basically one of the goals of Champ and Steve and everybody who’s worked with CALF was to show the people. If you pick up the magazine, I would bet that if you pick up a couple of them, you’ll find two or three people you know. You’ll read about some people that you wish that you knew, and it tells the story of the industry. We do some of the health things and different things for our readers, but a lot of it is actually keeping you up. I try to take you with me when I go, and that’s what the writers try to do, too. We want you to be a part of the industry and to feel like you went on that trip with us.
Jessie: CALF News is so well respected in the industry and in the cattle feeding industry by everyone who reads it. And I think that focus on the people and telling those stories is probably part of that draw for people, and getting to read those stories about people that they know, and maybe that they don’t know, but like you said, get to go with you on your travels, wherever you go, whether it’s to a feedyard in the U.S. or on your travels to Australia.
Betty Jo: I’ve done Australia three different times; and convinced my boss that it really made sense, you know I had to fly for, you know, for 18 hours, and I got to stay for a month. So I stayed for a month three different times. I spent a lot of time in the Outback – the opportunity to fly from station to station and stay three or four days, and write the stories about the people that live out there. One of the features in CALF today is called Recollections, which is going to be my book – eventually we’ll compile it – but it is the stories of Australia or it’s the stories of when I got to go visit with W.D. Farr and wrote his story. And then from then on history – the people that were still around were the ones that I got to write about. And a lot of those then, if you’ve been to the Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame, are the famous people that started the industry. And how fun to be able to honor them, not only as a Hall of Famer, but also in CALF News.
Jessie: Absolutely. You’ve talked about some of those stories and the people that you’ve gotten to profile over the years. And it’s no question that the COVID pandemic has certainly impacted all industries in 2020 and been the big story of the year. And that’s true in the ag and cattle feeding sectors, as well. I’m amazed at all that has happened in the first eight months of this year, and it continues to change on a daily basis. But when we think about CALF News, what are some of the big stories you’ve published in CALF News in 2020, and in this big year of events?
Betty Jo: Well, it was kind of almost spooky, because when we start planning about 18 months ahead about what the issues are going to be about. And so when we came up on the issue before last, why what was it but “The State of the Industry.” Now what do you want to write about? The one before that was on the government and what was going on there. And so, all of my columnists and then our feature writers just immediately latched on to that. And it got to be funny, because we usually say, you know, how about about 1,400 words, that’s two pages. Or how about this much? And everybody asked for extra space the last two issues, meaning that our writers, our people that are out there in the country, were thinking we were talking about the right thing. Because we only publish every other month, I’m not going to tell you what the market is tomorrow, the future guys already know, but basically try to bring some sense, some observation to it that gives you, at least a picture of where we were and where we hope that we’re headed.
Jessie: You’ve obviously had the opportunity to observe a lot of changes in the cattle feeding industry. What are some of the most significant changes that you can recall over the years, Betty Jo?
Betty Jo: I think to begin with, when I first got into the industry and such, everybody was isolated, and everybody thought that they did it better than the last guy. And very few people, the feedyards didn’t talk to each other, each was their own little spot. And as times changed and we started and the associations became stronger and so forth, we’ve accomplished an awful lot. I think we’ve done it with the government, but I think the camaraderie or the coming together and realizing what our main goal is – and that is to produce beef as well and efficiently and our quality products – has really been a change. It wasn’t a part of the deal in the old cowboy days. It was, you know, basically, we were walking off of horses and into those offices. I’ve seen an awful lot of growth in the managers themselves. Basically, the men that are out there running these yards today and the women, they technically have to be sound, they have to have the education and the knowledge to be able to do this and to be able to stay with the business, because it’s a tough one.
And the COVID thing is a crisis for the world, yes. We go through crises really often. You name it, if it’s BSE or when we did the embargo in China, whatever we do, it affects our industry and it goes up and down and up and down. You have to be a tough person, and you have to really pay attention to what’s going on. The people that are there are the ones that deserve to be there because they’ve worked really hard. And I think that’s the change; there’s a lot less yards, there’s a lot less packing houses, and there’s a lot less magazines, and certainly a lot less computer programs. But basically, we’ve become sophisticated, we’ve grown up; good, bad or indifferent, we basically are a very strong business and we serve a major purpose.
Jessie: When we talk about agriculture, it’s very cyclical in its nature, and you mentioned that. But I think also in today’s day and age, it’s nice to hear about the ability of our industry to work together on some of those things. And knowing that the goal is to produce high-quality beef and for people to come together. There’s so much divisiveness and divide that you see in the news, and so I think it’s refreshing when we talk about the ag industry to just talk about that camaraderie that is apparent in the industry.
Betty Jo: I think we understand each other, and I think we do extremely well with it as it changes. Our customers have changed. Most of the feedyards in the old days, you know, 12 guys started the feedyard down in Texas, the guy that went in and bought it said, “I can understand why this didn’t work – because there’s too many chairs in the conference room.” And so the sophistication has developed. But I still like to think about W.D. Farr and Warren Monfort leaning up against the fence up at Lucerne, Colorado, watching that train come in when they’re going to send all of their heifers to Kansas City and saying, “You know, maybe we ought to feed a few of these.” And they did, and they lost money to begin with.
But we do. We make and lose. But I still say, you know two generations ago, we were the ones that are walking down the street with guns on our hips. The people that do this kind of business have to really think about how to do it because it’s a tough business.
Jessie: As you think about how the industry has evolved and looking to the future, do you have any thoughts on major changes that the cattle feeding industry might experience here in the short term?
Betty Jo: I think that we’re just going to continue to grow. We’re to the place now that, I admit, some of these as far as, as working with the cattle, we’re going to know which one drank how much and did whatever they did type thing. We continue to grow as far as we’ve been through a lot of phases as far as the breeding and the things that worked the very best. But I think we just perfected and perfected. We produce a product that you don’t find anyplace else. I don’t care if you’re going to Australia or France or a number of places that we’ve been, the United States beef production is amazing. And I think you’ll just continue to become more refined and more specialized and provide, you know, a product that’s going to be satisfactory to our customers.
Jessie: Earlier on in our interview you briefly mentioned your involvement with the Miss South Dakota pageant. Tell me how that happened and what that experience was like?
Betty Jo: I was living in a town of 5,000 in South Dakota that had always had the Miss South Dakota pageant, so they asked if I would serve on the board, and I served on board the first month of the meetings, and then I was in charge the next month. And so I spent five years doing that, then went to Atlantic City. The first Miss America that I ever saw was Phyllis George, who some people will remember, and Mary Hart was Miss South Dakota at that time, who a lot of people know.
Basically one of the things that did for me was that I found out if I could get 25 people to Atlantic City – parents, etc. – and get on with most of them. Then I could probably go to Australia three times by myself or make those changes. But everything is like that, Jessie. As far as city council, I had no training in business, but the city council in Hot Springs ran the liquor store, and so I ran the liquor store. And then if you start getting into politics, I rode in the back of a police car every Thursday night for about a year, trying to get a raise for the police. So each one of those little pieces then advances your education to the place that you can do just about anything that you decide you want to do.
Jessie: It’s interesting because as we’ve been visiting one of the things I have noticed in your experiences and in the things that you’re telling me that you’ve done is that you’ve never shied away from something because you’d never done it before. And I think sometimes people are afraid to try something new because they’re unfamiliar with it or they don’t feel qualified or it scares them just a little bit. But you’re a shining example of the life-changing impacts or changes that your life can take that come from taking a risk, and I think that’s really neat.
Betty Jo: Well, it just gives me a chance to talk about a full life, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I ended up in something that I didn’t know I could do. But I have a passion for writing, I absolutely love writing. And I absolutely love the group of people that work with me to achieve what we do. So every time a CALF comes out, it’s kind of like birthing a new baby; you look at it, you’re so proud of it, or you wish you’d done things a little bit different. But basically, I feel like we’re filling a niche in the industry and providing something that is valuable to our readers and to our advertisers. And I certainly know that my staff, the people that I work with are absolutely happy people.
Jessie: As we wrap up our time together, you know, the name of the podcast is Trailblazing in Agriculture. We talk about the word trailblazer and what that conjures up in your mind as a pioneer and an innovator, and you’ve certainly had a lot of opportunities in your life to be a trailblazer. But how is that experience of being on the forefront of the cattle feeding industry and your experiences with CALF News and some other things that you’ve done impacted your life?
Betty Jo: It has made a total difference in how I look at things and how I work with people, I think. Agribusiness, as a whole, is fulfilling. The people out there in the world really experience the joy of being able to do something that satisfies them. I don’t know how that’s changed me so much. I ended up here and then there and then someplace else. And as it was, it worked out and gave me a full life. My mother taught for 34 years, and I might have done that too, and made some differences in people’s lives. But I think that it did allow me a chance to help a lot of people and pass out a lot of information.
Jessie: You’ve certainly made an impact in the industry, Betty Jo. I’m really thankful for our time to get to visit today. Is there anything else that you want to say or anything else that we should touch on?
Betty Jo: Well, I do think that when you say “trailblazer,” the reason I have any little bit of fame, and I’ve been lucky to be recognized that I do, is the fact that I spent 10 years with 80-year-old men, the trailblazers of the cattle feeding business, and I got to write about them and have written several books about some of the special ones. I think I learned it from the best because I sat down with the guys that actually blazed the trail and learned how to feed cattle.
Jessie: What an incredible story. I hope you enjoyed hearing from Betty Jo Gigot as much as I did. She certainly has a remarkable story that should inspire each of us to try new things and gain unique experiences. Thank you so much for joining me for today’s episode of Trailblazing in Agriculture. I hope you enjoyed hearing from one of the cattle feeding industry’s leading ladies. Join us again next time as we highlight more trailblazing women in agriculture.
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