Most of y'all, not being born in cattle country, may or may not have an idea of how beef cattle are raised and the various steps within. I'm certainly no expert, since my roles in the industry have been more on the sidelines - except when my Dad had cattle when I was a kid. So, this may be long winded, and not entirely accurate, since I'm doing a lot of shootin' from the hip.
Baby beef cattle are called calves. The stockman who raises calves has to have cows - fully mature female cattle. He also has to have at least one bull - fully mature male. There are many ways farmer/stockman are involved in raising cattle, and this is the most traditional. It could be said he has "pairs" meaning the cow/calf pair. Sometimes, the stockman raises specific breeds - such as the more common Herefords (red and white, trait - red whiteface) and Angus (mostly black). Usually most herds are a hodge podge of breeds and varieties, with certain traits that stand out. Generally one can tell by the coloring what the animal's ancestry is, as well as the size parameters, characteristics like wide hips, long frames and so on. You can really tell if one has some Brahman because they'll have the droopy ears and the large muscle knot on their front shoulders. The farmer raising pairs will try to keep his cow herd updated - cows that are getting old or ones that don't calve are replaced, and more often than not, by cattle of a certain size and build rather than specific breeds. The overwhelming preferred characteristic in cows is wide hips for easier birthing. Some narrow hipped cows never give a lick of trouble, but it's a problem often enough. The herd owner will also maintain his bulls as well. Even though there is a ready supply of future bulls and cows within the calf population, using your own supply can lead to inbreeding.
Most stockmen sell their calves when they hit a certain weight. Some keep 'em and raise them to feeder weight. But, generally, when they hit weaning age, out the door they go. Most of the time, the market for weaned calves is better than for yearlings, which are heavier and there is less profit in them for someone who "backgrounds" cattle. This process takes cattle from the lightweight calf stage to the feeder weight stage - and feeders are still considered calves. Big ones, but still calves. So, someone backgrounding calves would buy a fresh bunch and pasture them out plus feed them whatever supplements are necessary as well. My father used both approaches - he had pairs, and he backgrounded calves. Dad liked backgrounding heifers because even though they didn't bring as much, they didn't cost as much initially, either. They were generally better behaved than steers, too.
Oh, steers. That's another story. Male beef cattle put on weight much more profitably and palatably when the testosterone levels are reduced. At some point, the calves must be branded or tagged with ear tags, horns pulled, and certain drugs are injected or large pills stuffed down their throats. When we got in a batch of calves, that is when this processing occurred. The calves might have been shipped from Florida or North Dakota, but one thing was sure, the trip had really worn them down and they were pretty susceptible to getting sick. Doctorin' was required. And all the little bulls get castrated. Rocky Mountain Oysters, anyone?
We had to feed our cattle during the winter. Our pasture isn't capable of letting cattle gain weight all by itself. Dad had baled feed sorghum and also had silage - which is ground feed sorghum that is allowed to ferment. We'd have mineral and salt blocks out - large blocks of concentrate that the cattle would lick for some of their missing nutrients. Sometimes, we might feed some processed grain - if Dad had some crummy seed wheat, he might have it rolled and maybe some molasses mixed in. Our feeding program was not very intensive - because the calves at that age just don't put on weight very fast.
But by the time they reach six hundred pounds or so, they're ready to pack on the pounds. The average farmer isn't equipped to feed cattle with the techniques necessary - it's the ol' economics of scale taking effect. Off to the feedlot it is for them.
Feedlots are large facilities that keep cattle in lots or pens - not allowing the freedom of movement that a pasture provides. They are fed on a progressive ration that changes as they become accustomed to the ratio of certain ingredients or lack thereof - mostly roughage. The feedlots I hauled grain to the most ran four rations - but that is all up to the individual feedlot and the nutritionist's thinking. The four rations were the starter ration, two intermediate and one finishing ration. The initial ration consists of some sort of roughage - in this area, it's chopped alfalfa. Then there is usually a grain of some sort that has been milled. The best milling solution is steam flaking - where the grain is dropped into mill rollers, but it's superheated with steam before the milling process. This helps the feed value considerably in milo (grain sorghum) and quite a bit in corn. Milo's protein coat is largely indigestible for cattle and grinding it doesn't change anything. Steam flaking breaks down the proteins into something more accessible to a ruminant. Corn gains from this as well. Plus, the flaking reduces fines - the "dust" from the grinding process. Cattle don't eat fines, but they'll slop up flakes big time. So less feed is wasted.
Other ingredients include fat solutions, molasses solutions, the leftovers from ethanol production, soybean processing byproducts, chicken feather meal, "cookie" meal (ground up stale cookies, crackers, bread and so on from large bakeries), custom made protein supplements in pellet form, wheatlage, cornlage, silage, and "wet" corn. Wheatlage and cornlage are immature crops swathed while still green and packed into a silo or trench like silage, packed down and allowed to ferment. Silage or ensilage is ground up feed sorghum crops, packed into silos or trenches and allowed to ferment.
Needless to say there is a multitude of feed ingredients - whatever works and is economical. The progressive rations start out heavy on the fiber side, then they get "hotter" to include more grains, proteins, fats and so on. As the cattle become accustomed to the ration, they start gaining weight far faster than is possible on grass. When they get to the finisher ration, there isn't much roughage.
The rations are collected in the feed mill . The feedyards I hauled to most frequently just put all the ingredients in a large clamshell - checking the weight of each one, then dumped into a feed truck that mixed that load. The feed truck would drive into the alley and select which ration it needed, the ingredients dumped into the clamshell and into the truck, and off the truck would go, mixing the feed as it went. When it got to a certain pen, it would lower it's chute off the side and auger the feed into a continuous bunk at the edge of the pen. The total weight dumped would be recorded, and the truck would go on to other pens until it emptied out. This used to be all manual back in the day, but they're all hooked up wirelessly in the new modern era and all the data is transmitted in real time. And mixing the load while in transit frees up the feed mill to send out another load, rather than spend time mixing and holding up the feed trucks. All timed out, for sure.
"Off their feed" is not something a feedlot wants to see. Sometimes bad weather, or if for some reason the feed cycle is interrupted - there are a multitude of reasons, but the cattle won't eat the hotter ration and the lower rations have to be reintroduced until they start eating again, which may even mean going back to the starter formula. This costs a ton of money.
It's not the feedlot that loses out, unless it's their reputation. Feedlots are called "custom feeders" for a reason. Investors own the cattle. Feedlots make their money from feeding. There are a variety of ways one can own cattle in a feedlot - the first is the most obvious - go out and buy some feeder weight calves and have them hauled to your favorite feedlot, and when they get old enough and finished out, the feedlot markets them to the local packing houses and you get a check minus the feed bill, or the feed bill exceeds the gross from the packing house. Another way is to "buy a pen" for a certain period of time - you generally get a choice how many cattle you want to feed by the size of the pen, or shares in several pens or whatever. You "own" the cattle coming through the pen for a period of time and when one crop of finished cattle is marketed, your money is rolled over into the next crop for finishing. As a general rule the feed bill is kept current, so if you're investment is losing money, you'll be well aware of it. At the end of the term, the bills and receipts are tallied and you either made big bucks or not. Some investors stay in for years and draw profits when they can, and some feedlots are pretty popular and they may not have "room" for a newbie investor.
I've mentioned marketing to the packing houses. They have a daily price they offer. They also have order buyers traveling the feedlots to find and schedule the cattle they need for production. If the feedlot and investor don't want to sell, the cattle get larger and are less marketable. However, shorting production hurts the packing house and they might pay more to keep the line running.
There are order buyers for the other stages of cattle as well. Most of the transactions are at a local "sale barn," where there are generally weekly auctions. Farmers haul or have their calves hauled there, and other stockmen and order buyers bid on them. When Dad wanted some calves, he'd talk to his favorite order buyer and tell him what he was looking for and the prices he'd go for delivered to our place. This order buyer had an established circuit he'd follow that took him to sale barns all over the Midwest, so he usually found what Dad wanted. He knew what Dad wanted in physical characteristics as well. Dad didn't always get what he wanted because the batches of cattle are not separable. When, say eighteen head of calves are brought into the arena, you get 'em all or nothing, and sometimes there are runts and some that look sick or whatever. The order buyer would know there were other lots coming up and maybe this lot would be available pretty cheap, so the problems might not be so costly. Dad ended up getting mostly what he wanted, and that was the best he could hope for.
I live right in the middle of the Golden Beef Triangle as it is sometimes called. I remember reading that a third of the US's beef production is in this triangle formed by Garden City, Dodge City and Liberal. All have one or two large slaughter houses, and we are literally infested with feedlots in this area. Since they require so much support feed wise from farmers, this is a very good thing for our economy, besides all the other support industries - construction outfits, machinery dealers, feed ingredient suppliers, veterinarians, equipment and supplies for horses, bulk fuel distributors, electric companies - well, you get the idea. Feedlots consume a lot of expensive things to keep running.
I drive by one pretty large lot every morning going to work. It's Midwest Feeders of Ingalls, KS. Their current capacity is 45,000 head, so it's a large feedlot for this area. I think the largest in Kansas is Grant County Feeders near Johnson, KS at 120,000 head. Most of the larger feedlots are owned by multinational food companies - Grant County is JBS Five Rivers, which had it's roots in the original Monfort lots. But, anyways, that's all another story for another time. We're gonna look at this feedlot:
The long strips are the pens - which are pretty large, by the way. The arrow pointing east is the direction I went while taking these pics - I started at the upper west corner and headed thataway. The smaller dark rectangles are the sewage lagoons - the runoff when it rains has to be stored there. That has not been a problem this year. You can also see that this feedyard takes up the better part of four quarter sections. It originally started at the lower left part, and their old feed mill (one mile south of the new one) is still there. Since the expansion, I don't think they use it anymore, because the mill was just a grinder back in the day.
Oh, and I got a new camera and am trying it out, so these pictures will imbeggenate and probably be of higher quality than the ol' Droid pics.
This is looking at the main office and the mill towards the east southeast. There is a truck scale on the south side of the office. There are cattle scales scattered over the yard as well. Performance has to be measured, after all, and trucks hauling grain in and beef byproducts (think manure) out need weights taken as well.
A shot of the mill. From left to right - the chopped hay shed, the feed mill tower, the feed truck loadout, and the grain bins. Feed ingredients are kept in the tower area, or in the hay shed. We'll see a bit more of it later.
Storage for feed trucks and other equipment. I'm not sure if this is their repair shop or not.
Now we've moved east and can see into the hay shed area. Live bottom chopped hay trailers can back into those slots and dump their loads, and the loader keeps the feed truck mixer loaded. Sometimes other feed ingredients are stored here and sent into the mix as well. To the left are their trench silos - the walls of dirt. They're all empty now, waiting for "wet" corn harvest, where the corn is cut at a certain moisture above normal, ground up and packed into those "slots" with large four wheel drive tractors. Then a plastic tarp is spread over the surface and held down with thousands of old tires so the whole thing can ferment.
The east side of the silage pits.
A view up one of the drainage lanes.
Where a drainage lane dumps into a lagoon. In the background are some of their outbuildings where cattle scales are, and the doctoring house, perhaps a partly open shed for the pen riders' horses, and feeding equipment for them and so on.
And we come to the east end. You might imagine, if you thought for a while, that sooner or later, all that manure is going to build up some. You would be correct. Most feedlots send loaders into the pens and buck up piles in the center and keep building them up over a period of time. The cattle like to play king of the hill on 'em. After they get so big, they'll haul from the pens to a storage area - this is their storage area. Later, manure spreading trucks will load there, weigh their loads, and go spread the product on a farmer's field. I think most feedyards don't charge for their manure if the hauler comes in and hauls from the pens to the storage area. Different yards have different procedures. It's sold to the farmer by the ton delivered and spread. That tiny little pile is all they have left at the moment - they'll get into the manure season later on this fall.
Another thing that should be noted is for such an open, free wheeling industry, the participants are pretty clannish. A lot of that has to do with all the handshake deals involved. Dad trusted his order buyer. His order buyer trusted Dad would come through with the bucks. The order buyer trusted certain truck lines to haul the cattle he bought. Feedlots trust certain grain merchants. If you are a cattleman in this area, you'd better have a lot of moral qualities, or you won't make it. Your word is your bond. So most of these characters don't take kindly to uninformed meddlers, as it were. They're an independent bunch.