If you want to hear from someone who has decades of experience in the beef industry, today’s episode is for you! Barbara Jackson grew up on a feedyard in Arizona and has remained connected with agriculture throughout her career. She is part-owner of Red Rock Feeding Company, a 30-000 head feedyard in Southern Arizona, co-founder and co-owner of Animal Health Express, a Tuscon-based online business that sells animal health supplies and more. She is also a former president of the American National CattleWomen.
In this episode of the Trailblazing in Agriculture podcast, Barbara shares about her experience growing up on the feedyard, her career with Syntex and how she and her husband launched Animal Health Express. She also talks about her extensive industry involvement.
Barbara’s story is one that hopefully encourages you to find your passion and work to achieve it.
Episode 8 Transcript
This transcript has been edited for clarity
Jessie: Hey, Trailblazers! It’s Jessie and it’s time for another episode of Trailblazing in Agriculture. A podcast for anyone interested in hearing the stories of the agriculture industry’s pioneers and innovators. Today we continue our series highlighting trailblazing women in agriculture and in this episode you get to hear from a woman who has blazed a trail for women in the U.S. beef industry.
On this episode of the Trailblazing podcast, we’re talking with Barbara Jackson, a former American National CattleWomen’s president and business owner. Barbara grew up in the beef industry and never left. Barbara is part-owner of Red Rock Feeding Company, a 30,000-head feedyard located in southern Arizona, as well as co-founder and co-owner of Animal Health Express, a Tucson-based online business that sells animal health supplies, tack, livestock equipment and pet supplies. Her career also includes time at Syntex, where her roles included sales representative, national accounts coordinator, director of public relations and advertising. There is no question that Barbara has done great things in the beef industry and I’m excited for you to hear from this trailblazer!
Thank you, Barbara, for joining us today. We’re so excited for the opportunity to visit with you about your experience with the agriculture industry and the things that you’ve seen over the years. You grew up in the beef industry and you’ve remained connected with agriculture throughout your career. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself as we get started?
Barbara Jackson: I am a native of Arizona. My parents came here in the early ’50s to build and manage a feedyard for another company and in the mid-‘60s they ventured out on their own and started our own family feedyard, which is still in operation today. It is managed by my brother and sister. It’s a 30,000-head custom feedyard. A lot of people don’t realize commercial feedyards we know today really started in the Imperial Valley in southern Arizona in the ’50s and ’60s. I grew up in the feedyard business and went to college. After college, being the youngest of four kids, the family business was a little crowded, so I ventured out on my own and got into the pharmaceutical business. I still own part of the feedyard and live close to home.
Jessie: It definitely sounds like you’ve had lots of experiences, Barbara. I’m excited to dive into some of those. I want to start first with talking about what life was like growing up in the feedyard.
Barbara: It was a blast. You know, I learned to drive when I was about 10 and helping in the feedyard – anything from branding, processing and receiving cattle to putting out hay for new cattle, loading the hay and grinding hay. You know, it’s really a 24/7 thing, unlike the cow-calf or stocker deal. Not that they’re not a 24/7 business also, but it’s kind of the same thing day in day out, and a lot of people don’t like it because of that; it’s a pretty routine deal. I got to do a little bit of everything growing up; it was a blast.
Jessie: I can relate to that growing up on the farm and ranch and some of those lessons that you learn and being immersed in some of that. What is one life lesson that you learned on the feedyard, Barbara?
Barbara: Well, I think, like for anybody with animals, it’s responsibility. They depend on you and if you’re not there to take care of them, they’re not going to make it. I think we’ve all experienced that, whether you’re the feedyard, cow-calf, whatever; if you don’t take care of those animals, it’s gonna be a wreck. You never quit ‘til the cattle were all fed and were all taken care of.
Jessie: Can you talk about how the feedyard has evolved over the years and maybe the role that technology has played in some of the advancements that have taken place?
Barbara: My father, Carl Stevenson, and the University of Arizona were on the cutting-edge of developing feed rations for feedyard cattle. We were pretty much some one of the first feedyards to utilize steam-flaked rolled grain, which is still a standard of the industry today. The University of Arizona used to have Cattle Feeder Days, and 600 people would show up from around the country and the world. The way we feed cattle has evolved and we can measure their performance so much better now and watch what we do and the impact on it. It’s technology but it’s just old-fashioned animal husbandry at the same time; you know how they’re performing with their health and everything else. And then the packers with their grids and their formulas and how they can optimize the meat and the carcasses better than we ever did before. It’s been amazing to watch the whole migration of the packer industry, too.
Jessie: Much of the United States is experiencing drought conditions this year. Can you talk about what conditions are like in Arizona where you’re at and maybe even where the feedyard is located?
Barbara: The feedyard is north of Tucson about 30 miles, and then my husband and I have a little cow-calf ranch out east of Tucson about 45 miles, and we are feeling the drought big time. I would say Arizona has liquidated or lowered cow numbers 30 to 50 percent. It’s not just Arizona; the whole West is burnt up. It’s certainly taken its impact. I spent last night up every two hours feeding a premature calf that was born to a replacement heifer that shouldn’t have been bred and was too small and too young. That’s a typical thing of what the drought has done, you know; somebody got bred that shouldn’t have, so you have a premature calf. But, you know, we deal with it like everybody else: try to lower your numbers, try to find pasture somewhere else. As always, with the cow business, unlike other animal businesses, it takes so much longer to build it back, so we’re gonna feel this for a few years, even if we get a normal summer rain. Our monsoon season is when we get our rains – July, August, September – and you hear it’s going to be good, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
Jessie: I was back home this weekend having a conversation with my dad and another rancher in our area, talking about some of those hard decisions that producers have to make. And you know, they’re difficult decisions, because you don’t want to have to sell off those cows because it takes years and years to build up those herds. And a lot of producers in a lot of areas of this country are having to make those difficult decisions and it’s never fun and never something you want to have to experience. Even for Arizona. I mean, you guys are used to somewhat dry conditions, but you know it’s bad when it’s dry in the desert.
Barbara: Where we’re at normally, we get about 18 to 19 inches of rain. A lot of Southerners only get 6 to 8 inches of rain. We haven’t had two inches in the last two years, so it’s dry. Now you worry as summer comes on and the heat starts to crank up. Hopefully, we won’t have as hot of a summer as we did last year, but fire danger is here already. We’ve got the fires going everywhere. And the grass you have left, if you have any, you don’t want it to burn up.
Jessie: Can we transition to talk about your education? You attended Washington State University and got a degree in animal science. How did you kind of choose that college and what made you decide that’s what you wanted to pursue a degree in?
Barbara: Growing up in the cattle business, that was always my passion. I wanted to stay in the cattle business in some way, shape or form, so an animal science degree was always the goal. I did not want to be a veterinarian; those guys got a tough job there. I actually started here with the University of Arizona, Tucson, and decided I needed to get away from home and experience a different part of the country, and I was fortunate to be able to do that. Washington State University appealed to me because it did have a good animal science program, along with a veterinary degree program that I did not want to pursue but it had that there and was in a small town. You know, universities sometimes get to be in these big cities, and Pullman was a small town in the western United States where I wanted to stay and they had a good program. I went there, did my junior and senior year up there and graduated from out there. Great, great experience. I love the Northwest. Beautiful place and good people. It was a good choice.
Jessie: What did you do after college?
Barbara: I spent a year at home trying to see if I could fit into the family business, but that didn’t work. After a year at the feedyard, I watched as these pharmaceutical sales reps would come to the feedyards and I thought, “They’re not working near as hard as I am and are not near as dirty as I am, and they’re making more money than I am. I should look this over.” I interviewed and was fortunate to get hired by a company called Syntex, who was the company that invented Synovex implants. They had a line of vaccines and their major line was for feedyards, which is what I knew best, so it was a great fit. I spent 10 years with Syntex in sales, marketing, management, etc. It was just a wonderful opportunity, wonderful education.
Jessie: Did that experience with Syntex lead you to launching Animal Health Express?
Barbara: I made a lot of contacts in that business and growing up in an entrepreneurial family, owning my own business was kind of a goal, an aspiration or, you know, something I wanted to do. It wasn’t that I was going to start a pharmaceutical company, but I could get into distribution, so that’s what I did. I left Syntex in 1987, moved back to Tucson, and I was trying to put together some things when I also met my soon-to-be husband. We got married and wanted to launch a mail-order animal health business, and with our experiences and our connections, we’re able to do that. In 1990, we started Animal Health Express as a mail-order company to serve the West. There were several other mail-order companies, but they were all based in the Midwest. In the animal health business, the way we run beef cattle in the West vs. the Midwest is different, and we felt we could serve that Western market better. So that’s what we did. And here we are, in 2021, still running Animal Health Express.
Jessie: That’s awesome. Can you talk about how the business has evolved over the years, Barbara?
Barbara: We started mail-order way before websites and the internet and all that. We printed the catalog and mailed it out, which we still do. Then we eventually got into the websites and that type of thing. But you know, ranching has innovated in different parts of the country, so we’ve just tried to provide the products, innovation and service to keep up with that. And I think we’ve done well with that. We’ve seemed to carve out a little niche as companies have gotten bigger and merged both on manufacturing and distribution sides. We’ve stayed out here on our own as a small independent, which is a little unusual today. I’ll be honest, it’s tougher and tougher all the time. But I love it. I love it. I wouldn’t trade it.
Jessie: You talked a little bit about how it’s a little unique what you do with the business being online and not having a traditional storefront. How did COVID-19 impact your business last year, Barbara?
Barbara: Ranching and ag goes on as usual, so it really didn’t affect Animal Health Express. My husband and I did, in the early 2000s, open a local feed store and that was affected by COVID. Not bad, though. Because we have the mail order, they can call and we can ship it to them, so we were fortunate in that aspect for the local feed store. I mean, you can’t ship hay and sacks of feed and that kind of stuff, but our main business is still pharmaceuticals, so that went on and we weathered COVID pretty good.
Jessie: You talked about going from the mail-order catalogs to having an online store and a website where some of those changes may be difficult to adapt to, or you just kind of took it as they came?
Barbara: The whole social media technology has been a learning curve for all of us. And as I get older, I’m not as innovative as I’d like to be, but you know, you do it. Customer service is No. 1. With my staff what I pound is “we have nothing to sell different than anybody else other than customer service.” So if I can serve my clients better via internet connections, social media or websites, that’s what we’re going to do. The bottom line is how can we help the livestock owners do his or her job better, more efficiently? I’ve been in the pharmaceutical business over 40 years and what still get my kicks is when I see new technology come on the market. I think our job is to go out and help them apply it, so it works in their operation. You look at ranchers, cow-calf people, we do the same thing all over the country. We raise those babies and sell those feeder calves or feed them, but we do it so differently in different parts of the country and even within our own state. We do it differently in northern Arizona than we do in southern Arizona. That’s all over and so helping ranchers apply that technology is fun because we can help them do better at their business faster. That’s what’s neat.
Jessie: Do you go to trade shows and things like that as a way to connect with producers?
Barbara: Yes. Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada; the Southwest is where I concentrate my efforts. We ship to 20 to 40 states every month; you never know where somebody finds you. You learn something every time, what they’re doing differently. Working for Syntex and getting to travel a lot of the country, and then in my experiences with the American National CattleWomen, knowing women all over the country, it’s been fun to learn how we all do it, but do it differently.
Jessie: Over the years you’ve been extensively involved in industry leadership positions, including serving as a member of the National Beef Speaker’s Bureau, committee member on the National Beef Cook-Off and Animal Wellbeing committees, president of the Arizona State Cowbelles and involvement with American National CattleWomen’s, including serving as president in 2013. Why have you prioritized being involved in these various organizations that strive to support and promote the beef industry?
Barbara: It’s kind of what you grew up in. My mother was very involved and my father was very involved. He was a cattle feeder president, actually the first chairman of the Arizona Beef Council when it started. My mom was a national, at the time, Cowbelle president, so I just grew up seeing the need for being involved in your industry. If you don’t take care of your industry, you’re not going to have an industry. It was just kind of beat into me. Not necessarily, but you know, I grew up going with my mom when I was a kid to the Cowbelle things and it’s socially fun as well as professionally rewarding. When I started in the animal health business, I was one of the very first women in it, and I didn’t have any role models in my professional life. But my Cowbelles were kind of my mentors and role models. I saw these women come off the ranch, and they could ride and rope and doctor, and my mother would go out and pump water troughs and then go run the office and everything. These women are just amazing. They did it all, you know, raise the kids and do all that stuff. These cattlewomen were truly my mentors. And it was kind of a labor of love. I got more involved with CattleWomen, and then as you said, served as national president and that put me on the executive committee for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Somewhere along the line I got appointed to the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and served six years on that. There was about 10 years from about 1998 to about 2009 that I was super involved in a lot of national committees. It’s an insight that most people don’t get in our industry, and the trade association and how important it is. I wish more people not necessarily experienced it but just be made aware of how it all works, because we need it. As the saying goes, we’re less than 2 percent of the population. We don’t have many votes when it gets to D.C., so we’ve got to pick our battles and go get them and go win them.
Jessie: How do you think we get people to be more involved, Barbara? Just as you said, we’re 2 percent of the population, so how do you think we get those young producers or I guess any age producers to be involved and to be a voice for the industry?
Barbara: I wish we could be more cohesive as an industry, the beef industry. You’ve got to admire the individuals that do it. They are all independent, hardworking people – men and women. It’s kind of like herding cats. It’s hard to get them together on certain issues. I’ve done a lot of BQA, educational meetings, etc. When I go to a local sale barn and have a meeting, I always do this: I say, “how many of you know about the beef checkoff?” Oh, boy, about 90 percent raise their hands. “How many of you know it works?” Like two of them raise their hands. They have no idea; they have no idea. Then you get some disgruntled members of the industry and we go off and we start R-CALF and we go off and start U.S. Cattlemen and we go off and start Independent Cattlemen. You know, we need one association, one group and one message. That would be my dream, if I could somehow put that all together. But no matter which trade industry association that you’re hopefully a member of, you just need to pay attention. We have what? 700,000 cow-calf producers in the United States and the average cow herd is less than 40 head. Well, those guys got a day job and they got cows on the side, so I don’t even know if they really consider themselves in the cattle business. They certainly don’t belong to an association. When you add up all the members of all those cattle associations, it’s a pretty small percentage of all livestock owners, beef cattle owners in the country. I wish that, you know, whether it be NCBA or Farm Bureau or whomever, that we can devote more time to educating the grassroots cow-calf guy. When I went to college at Washington State University, I didn’t know a soul. So, when you start meeting kids in class, they say, “Well, you come from a ranch.” No, I came from a feedyard and you get that funny look on your face. You know, too many ranchers think the feedyard and the packers are enemy. The feedyard and the packers are market to get the beef on the table. That lack of cohesiveness. In my national roles on committees and everything, I’ve sat in a room with the Secretary of Agriculture and nine different associations, and I guarantee you there was not one cohesive message going to that Secretary of Agriculture and he just looked at us like we all need to get it together. And we do.
Jessie: Yes. And in today’s day and age when we’re facing not necessarily scrutiny at times, but questions from consumers, that cohesion is probably more important, maybe today than it has been before.
Barbara: Yes, definitely.
Jessie: Going back to your service as CattleWomen’s president, Barbara, can you talk about some of the issues that were top of mind for you and your association and the cattle industry at that time?
Barbara: I think that was about the time pink slime hit the deal. We were passed through mad cow, the cow that stole Christmas and all that. We had a couple of things that flared up about that time, but I think the beef industry did an excellent job with mad cow disease. We’ve had a few cases since then, but nobody even notices them anymore. We did not handle the pink slime thing very well at all, but it finally passed. Beyond that, I think part of our industry not being cohesive and being reactionary instead of proactive. We’ve learned from it. I’m sure Colin Woodall and his team at NCBA are more proactive. One of the things that I’m proud that we did get done is the CattleWomen got more involved with the Cattlemen’s legislative things. CattleWomen is a separate organization, we don’t rubber stamp everything NCBA does, but we’re in fairly good alignment. Where we feel strong about it, we go forward and voice our opinions, and we go to The Hill and make our views known. I think those couple of issues were probably the hardest thing.
What saddens me, makes me upset is, I’m not kidding you, since I was a little girl when my mother was a Cowbelle, you have heard issues from the consumers about antibiotics and animal welfare. And we’re still hearing it. The fact that we have not successfully neutralized, diffused and responded to that consumer demand just blows my mind. It just blows my mind that we haven’t been able to do that. And we haven’t. That’s the first thing you hear is “I don’t want antibiotics or this kind of stuff.” It’s stupid, because there are no antibiotics in red meat. If there was any residues, it didn’t get through the kill plant. But we’ve not been able to do that. Again, funds and focus. I did serve one stint on the Long Range Planning Committee, the NCBA – National Cattlemen’s Beef Association – and CBB – Cattlemen’s Beef Board. It grabs individuals from across the United States, men and women, and tries to get the focus for what our effort should be with checkoff dollars, etc. In my opinion, we try to do too much. I wish we could focus on a couple more issues like that.
Jessie: Why do you think that those are still questions that we’re getting from consumers and that there’s still so much misconception about it? What do you think it’s going to take to get those put to bed and for people to understand that information?
Barbara: Communications and a marketing campaign, which costs money. We don’t do television anymore. People are just ignorant. They don’t know our rigorous standards. I’ve been fortunate to travel abroad a few times and I’ll never forget the first time I went to Europe and went to a meat market. There’s meat in saran wrap; you don’t know if it’s rabbit, beef, pork or what it is. Our products are so well labeled. Now you’ve got people selling organic and they say no homeruns Well, everything’s got hormones – lettuce, peas – everything’s got hormones. It needs to say, “no added hormones,” but even that is almost counterproductive to our industry. Nothing in the meat case has antibiotics in it; it’s been screened. The antibiotic thing blew up here about we’re using too many antibiotics and how many tons of antibiotics the livestock industry uses. Well, when you’re dosing a 1,000-pound steer, it’s different than when you’re dosing a 100-pound human. I think the abuse of antibiotics in people is way worse than it is in animals. But because we use so much more of it, we get blamed for it. And I think it’s just marketing and telling our own story. The majority of the cattle never even get doctored, they never get sick, we don’t even give them anything. Those that are, are monitored. You go to a 100,000-head feedyard and any animal that gets an antibiotic, a shot, any treatment is individually logged and recorded; they know exactly what that animal got. I don’t think most kids are that well recorded. We do a good job. We just don’t communicate it to the industry. And consumers don’t know what a good job we do.
Jessie: It comes back to telling that story and that cohesion that you talked about earlier, for sure. As a woman who has done so much to blaze a trail for women who are passionate about the beef industry, Barbara, what advice would you give to young women involved in the industry today?
Barbara: Figure out what you want to do, follow your passion and do it. We do a better job now than when I was younger, but network, mentor. Whether it’s men or women, I don’t care, but work with others in that industry and watch and listen. Follow your passion, the opportunities are there. I ran into some glass ceilings and some doors, and you can either go around them, under them or over them. I got past everything, so it can be done. It takes persistence. You have to have a little bit of a thick skin because you know you’re going to get your feelings hurt somewhere along the line. Just be smarter and work harder.
Jessie: You’ve obviously done a lot, Barbara. We talked about growing up on the feedyard, your experiences in college and with Syntex, launching your own business and even your leadership experience in the industry. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would that be?
Barbara: I wish I had started my own business sooner. So if you have a passion to do something on your own, go for it. We all have a finite amount of time in our lifetime, and we don’t know what that is. My mother died at 51 and my father’s alive at 103. You never know what’s ahead of you. Find your passion and go get it. Working for big companies offers some advantages, you know, more capital, a bigger path they cut. You don’t have to be an entrepreneur, just find your passion and go do it. Don’t let anybody tell you no.
Jessie: The last question that I ask all of our guests on the podcast, Barbara, is who a trailblazer has been in your life or a mentor, someone that has made an impact in your life?
Barbara: It would have been my mother. She did a lot of things in her short life. Her name was Pat Stevenson and she blazed some trails too. There’s lots of examples. Just find one and go do it.
Jessie: Feeling inspired? I know I am. Barbara’s story is one that should encourage us all to find our passions and go after them. If you have a passion for the industry and are willing to work for it, nothing can stop you.
Thanks again for joining me for today’s episode of Trailblazing in Agriculture, featuring Barbara Jackson. Join me again next time as our journey to highlight trailblazing women in agriculture continues!