Back to the Future at CattleCon ’24

Imagine you could fast forward five years and attend your favorite industry conference. What changes would you expect to see? What would not have changed? That’s the opportunity I had returning to the annual Cattle Industry Convention and NCBA Trade Show – now officially called CattleCon – after a five-year hiatus.

I attended every CattleCon between 2006 and 2018 as a staff member of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) but went cold turkey after leaving the beef industry to become director of global communications at the Almond Board of California. Returning after five years felt like attending a huge family reunion with lots of hugs and catching up.

Probably the biggest difference for me was coming back as a regular attendee. I wasn’t tasked with knowing the location of every hotel, meeting room and bathroom in the convention center.

As I took stock of the conference and industry after my time away, a few critical changes quickly came into view.


One of the most noticeable differences in the massive trade show with more than 8 acres of exhibits was the proliferation of technology providers offering new tools to help producers track and monetize advancements in sustainable farming practices. Five years ago, talk was more prevalent than action.

I remember an industry meeting in 2012 when NCBA was debating whether to join the newly formed Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. Passionate people spoke on both sides of the issue with some seeing sustainability as an opportunity and others as a threat. Then NCBA President J.D. Alexander said something I have quoted many times since: “If you aren’t at the table, you are on the menu!” That sentiment won the day and NCBA took a seat at the table.

Three years later, in 2015, NCBA was sitting at the head table for the formation of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. And almost a decade later, in 2021, NCBA announced an industry-wide goal to “demonstrate climate neutrality of U.S. cattle production by 2040” as a key tenet of the U.S. cattle industry’s sustainability goals.

Fast forward to this year’s conference in Orlando and sustainability was a major topic of conversation with breakout sessions throughout the week and a Sustainability Forum on the main stage. At the forum, NCBA CEO Colin Woodall moderated a panel discussion that positively positioned beef producers as part of the solution to climate change. Featuring Katie Cook, vice president of farm animal innovation and marketing at Elanco Animal Health, Heather Donley of Progressive Beef and Gary Price of 77 Ranch in Texas, the panel focused on the importance of farmers and ranchers owning their own sustainability story.

I visited Gary’s ranch in 2012 as part of a program we called Beef’s Top 10, identifying ranchers who could host media within 90 minutes of the top 10 media markets (DMAs) in the country. Gary was a bit of an outlier then, a relative newcomer to the industry trying new things. Fast forward to 2024 and Gary is a leading voice sharing what he has learned with other producers. As we say, sustainability is a journey.

As Price so astutely noted during the session, “We don’t have to agree on everything to work together and move forward.”

One final note on sustainability: With sustainability still prevalent in the minds of consumers, the new, checkoff-funded “Voices of the Outdoors” program from NCBA helps address their concerns. The series of online videos pair an outdoor enthusiast with a farmer/rancher to explore how much common ground farmers and ranchers share with hikers, bikers, climbers, conservationists and others who want to protect the environment.

STEM Education

It was good to hear progress is being made in reaching K-12 students with accurate information about beef production during the Checkoff Highlight session. The American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture gave an update on their On the Farm STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program. AFBFA launched the program in 2016 with the goal of introducing beef curriculum in education. While changing the narrative about beef production in schools seems like a daunting task, AFBFA has made real progress. In 2023, the organization held its 12th Immersive Experience, reaching nearly 300 science educators to date with “authentic, relevant science education” on beef production.


In the area of beef nutrition, some things haven’t changed, like consumers’ reasons to eat more beef – adding protein to their diet – and reasons to eat less beef i.e., concerns about long-term health impacts and the perception that other meats are healthier. What’s new is a checkoff effort to spotlight beef’s importance in school-age children and school lunches. NCBA previewed a program coming in 2024, an educational webinar for school lunch professionals with the Culinary Institute of America’s Healthy Kids Collaborative with resources to beef up school meals.

Prime Beef

Finally, in good news for all beef lovers, the Beef Tenderness Survey is showing tremendous improvements in the percentage of carcasses grading choice and prime. To me, this is one of the most exciting developments in the industry. After all, the No. 1 reason to eat more beef is taste. As Randy Blach said at the CattleFax Outlook session, “Demand growth is choice and higher. That’s what our niche is. The choice is clear.”

As a beef lover and brand marketer, I say “Hear, hear!”

Daren Williams, senior vice president of public relations and reputation management at Curious Plot, has spent more than 20 years working in and supporting the U.S. beef industry.