So what really takes place at a cattle feedlot?
Many folks refer to these places of business as factory farms. There is strong fascination among activist groups to uncover acts of cruelty and abuse from these locations, not only animal abuse, but irrevocable harms to the surrounding environment and communities.
I have been lucky enough to spend most of my life experiencing the beef cattle business from beginning to end, in several different environments, including feedlots. Growing up, my family sent upwards of 12,000 yearling cattle each year to be finished in feedlots just like the one pictured above. We would have the cattle from the time they were weaned (most approximately 6-8 months of age), keeping them on pasture, until they were ready for the finish feeding stage of life, anywhere from 45 to 100 days or more. Then, the cattle were shipped on semi-trucks from our ranch in central Arkansas to the Panhandle region of Oklahoma and Texas. The cattle would then spend anywhere from 90 to 150 days in the feedlot before going to the slaughterhouse. The feedlot companies charged us for the feed, medicine and a daily “yardage” fee for looking after the cattle. The ranch still owned the cattle right up through the time Tyson purchased the beef at their Amarillo beef slaughterhouse.
Vacations as a kid were actually spent on trips on Spring Break or late summer to see our cattle in these feedlots. That is the only time my family could afford to leave the ranch for several days at a time and still be sure that the cattle were taken care of. These were some of the first opportunities I had to interact with the feedlots on a large-scale basis, with anywhere between 40,000 and 80,000 head of cattle in 1 place.
Some of my strongest first impressions and lasting memories of those trips were the people. Sure, I remember driving up one alley and down the next, stopping at several pens in each row to see cattle that had come from our ranch. But what I remember most is people working at the feedlots. They were friendly, great, knowledgeable folks, much like the small-scale farmers and ranchers back home.
I remember being amazed at their ability to look at a sheet of numbers and data and be able to read the cattle, their behavior, eating habits, recall their health history, and estimation of their performance while on feed. Not only were they able to take care of 40,000 animals a day, but they cared enough and had a passion strong enough to love their jobs that they knew more about taking care of cattle than many folks I had ever met before. As a high school kid who took care of and raised these cattle in the earlier stages of their lives, I found it very intriguing to learn about the finishing stages of the cattle industry.
A few years of college passed and those early memories of the Oklahoma and Texas feedlots stuck with me. So the summer after my sophomore year, I participated in an internship with Cactus Feeders of Amarillo, Texas. This company was whom my family sent most of our cattle to and at the time had the largest capacity of any cattle feeding operation in the world.
For 10 weeks, I arrived at the feedlot long before sunrise, some days as early as 3 a.m. taking care of cattle. I had the opportunity to work with employees in every position in the feedlot during that time. Everyone including the managers, cattle processors feed mill operations, feed truck drivers, veterinary crew, yard maintenance crew, and cowboy pen riders. I even rode around to several different feedlots within the company with cattle buyers, nutritionists, and veterinarians who were on staff.
It is safe to say I learned a ton that summer. More than I ever wanted to know about feeding cattle, keeping them healthy, performing necropsies to figure out why cattle died. I learned so much about marketing cattle, keeping their feed ingredients balanced and learning how to read their habits to predict how they would react to changes in their environment. And everyone I met and worked with, at every feedlot displayed several of the characteristics I described above of the men I had met during trips while I was still in high school.
What happened once I left college with the opportunity to decide my own path? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s blog post when I talk about my experience working for the largest feedlot companies in the world after college. Then, I’ll walk you through the daily tasks and events in a feedlot, describing exactly what you’ll see in those overhead aerial shots.
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