Monday, September 8, 2008

Sell by the Pound: Observations from a Feedlot

For one week in mid August I worked at Cattlemen's Feedlot just outside Olton, Texas. Every morning Dad and I pulled into the office at 6:45am, punched the clock, and went our separate ways to do our separate jobs; he to work the books, me to weigh the trucks, three of which were already waiting for the scale to open at 7. The sun hadn't even finished waking up yet; neither had I.

When I say trucks I'm talking about big-rigs, 18 wheelers, each hauling just over 25 tons of corn, wet distillers grain WGD, and supplements- all the ingredients that get mixed together to make over a million pounds of feed the cattle eat each day. These trucks pull onto Cattlemen's scales everyday to replenish the mills storage hoppers so the cow can keep putting on the pounds.

My job was simple: when the trucks pull onto the scale I print the trucks weight- minus the driver- and give the driver a ticket which they will give to the mill operator for inspection purposes. This first weight is the truck's gross weight, its loaded weight.

When the truck finishes unloading the driver will pull back onto the scale and I'll print the truck's tare weight- again minus the driver. The tare weight is the weight of the truck minus the product. Subtracting the truck's tare weight from the gross weight gives me the load weight. The driver then comes to my little window I prop up with a piece of PVC pipe, and returns the mill ticket I gave 'em earlier. If the driver was hauling corn he'll also give me Ziplock bag filled with a sample from his load. I put a copy of his ticket in the bag and save it for lab boys to analyze. With all the forms finished I'll send the truckers on their way, giving them an adios as they leave. And that's the job. It's quick, easy, and stress free; of course my first day even these simple processes seemed a bit overwhelming.

There's not a lot of interaction between me and the truckers. Often times the trucks are lined up waiting to unload so they can go back and haul some more. I did get a chance to meet some the truckers and share a few pleasantries with them. I'd never talked to truckers before, and by and large they're a hard workin' breed. One of my favorites was Larry, a wirery dude in his 40's with a handlebar mustache. Larry hauls corn, and I'd see him about two or three times a day. Larry makes his runs with his little son who's probably about 8 or so, and was out of school on summer break. Instead of daycare, Larry just loads him up in truck with him. The boy gives me the corn sample on his way out. Larry was one of my favorite truckers and I'm glad I got to chat with him three minutes at a time as he gave me corn samples. He delivers a lot of corn for the feedlot, and it takes a lot of corn to feed the campers.
Cattlemen's Feedlot is one of the areas biggest feedlots. The whole operation sits on a half section of land. That's 320 acres, which is 13,939,200 square feet, roughly the size of 242 football fields. On this piece of land sits the base, where the trucks are weighed and the all the bookkeeping is done; the mill, a massive structure webbed in a maze of pipes and hoppers where the feed is made, and, last but not least, the cattle, about 37,000 of 'em. Although the cattle are the most obvious and smelliest part of the operation, the mill is where all the action takes place.

The mill looms large over the whole feedyard. It's the highest point in Lamb county. It's towers are so tall in fact, cell phone companies put their antennas on top of it. I was given a tour of the mill by Earl Ford, head mill operator and general fix it man. He's also a Harley rider, and like most Harley riders, wears a Harley shirt everyday of the week. My biggest question for Earl was how does all the product I'm weighing go from the truck to the cows stomachs? The answer was not simple.

After the corn trucks are weighed they pull into the receiving bay and position the load over grated openings in the floor. Before the load drops, the mill hand will collect a sample of the load and take it in for inspection. A scoop of corn is poured into a sifter, a brass machine that spins the corn at high speed, thus separating the foreign matter- pieces of stalk and what not- from the kernels. This sifting is done three times to make sure all the foreign matter is spun out of the corn. The tester will then calculate the percentage of the foreign matter to corn. If the foreign matter to corn percentage is too high, the load is rejected and the corn truck is sent back to where it came from. If the percentage falls within acceptable limits, the truck driver is given the go ahead to dump his corn. Along with assessing this percentage, the mill worker will crush and bake some to the corn at high temp to assess the moisture levels of the corn. If any of these measurements don't meet government regulated specs, the corn is rejected. These sample checks are just a small piece of the product analysis process. Every ingredient that goes into the feed, and subsequently into the cows, and ultimately into our bodies, is thoroughly tested and must meet strict government imposed guidelines.

Once the corn is dropped into the bay floor, oggers feed the corn up one the tall pipes and into the cylindrical storage hoppers. From the hoppers, the corn is fed inside the mill to the first stage of prep: the flakers. From a smaller hopper the corn falls into the flakers where it is chipped and flattened by the roller spinning inside (seen left). The rollers are serrated steal drums whose surface is rough like a metal file. The corn must be flaked so the cows can eat it. The roller room resounds with a loud din and smells like a big bag of Fritos; a welcome change from the sweet smell of money outside. When the rollers finish flaking the corn, it spits it out underneath into an air tube that suctions the corn up and out to the mixing bay.

From the mixing bay, a dude in a front-end loader begins shoveling all the ingredients into a mixing hopper equipped with a large ogger; kinda like mixing ingredients for a cake on a massive scale- instead of a teaspoon of sugar it's a bucket full of flaked corn. The mixing bay is a tight space and the fella driving the front-end loader maneuvers the machine with a sniper's accuracy. He scoops from the piles of corn, wet distillers grain, and chopped hay that amass in the holding bays.

Mixing the feed is the most critical operation within the mill. Computers help ensure the correct proportions of ingredients are added and will shut down if the batch isn't prepared properly. The control panel looks like something Spock used to fiddle with and attests to Earl's invaluable feedlot knowledge. While the loader adds the hard materials to the mix, the computer squirts in the vitamin finisher and other supplements completing the feed. With that, so far as I somewhat comprehend it, the feed is complete and loaded into a truck that delivers it to cattle for to chomp on.

There's much more to making feed than I covered here but that's about all I could understand. At every step of the way there's quality control checks- starting before the corn leaves my trucks and ending when the computer gives it final approval. The whole process of making feed starts about 2am and finishes around 4 each afternoon. Once the mill has done its job it's up to the cattle to EAT IT UP.
And here's the moo-cows, all 37,000+ of 'em, lookin' up with their longing eyes hoping for a bite to eat. All these cattle started off chewing grass at a ranch somewhere until they put on around 5 to 600 pounds, then their owners will send 'em off to the feedlot to feed on the hot stuff.

Now you've probably never seen cows out grazing in a corn field, and for good reason: cows stomachs aren't built to handle corn. The difficulty lies in their second stomachs inability to ruminate corn like it does grass. In order to ease the new cows transition to a corn based feed, supplements are added to mix, and, in the beginning, chopped hay as well. This first type of feed with the hay additive is called the "starter ration." As the cows put on weight and their stomachs adjust to a corn based feed, they are moved up the ration scale and when they reach second ration are weaned off hay entirely. A heavy cow, say one weighing upwards of 1,000 pounds, eats the "hot ration," the highest level of ration specially blended for optimal weight gain. Those skinny cows that arrived at the feedlot weighing a mere 500 pounds will more than double their weight in under a year eating feedlot chow.

The cows' only job is to eat- and the more they eat the better. To help the cows pack on the pounds quickly, each cow is injected with a growth hormone as soon they step off the truck. Then the cows are separated into steers (males) and heifers (females) so the feedlot doesn't turn into a massive bovine orgy. Some of the steers however will still want to sew some wild oats and look to their pinned in brothers for release. These steers are known as "bullers" and they're bad for business because they get the pin moving and can injure each other. Remember, a good money making cow just eats, relaxes, and lets the pounds roll on- kinda like a sumo wrestler. The bullers on the other hand cause too much commotion and are separated into their own pins by the cowboys.

That's right, cowboys. The feedlot employs a group of cowboys to ride the pins and check on the cattle. The cowboys' job is weed out the bullers and, most importantly, identify sick or injured cattle. When they find a cow in trouble they radio the feedlot doctor to come and check things out. Unfortunately, when you pin up 37,000 plus cows, some of them are going to have problems.

Cows with medical conditions are tended to by the doctor in a separate area, though some cows will never recover. Cattlemen's Feedlot loses an average of two cows per day, a strikingly low number considering. When compared to other feedlots, Cattleman's losses are actually very low, meaning they take rather good care of the cattle in their charge.

Dead cattle are taken off in the "dead truck." Of the 30 plus trucks I weighed each day, I always hated weighing the "dead truck." After loading up the cattle the driver will pull in for weighing, only instead of a bag of corn passing through the window, he'd hand me a couple of ear tags no longer in service. I'd record the weight and not look forward to seeing him the next day.

For cows who are injured, with just a broken leg or something, anyone can walk in and buy the injured cow, its weight setting the cost. My dad will sometimes split the price of an injured cow and send it off the butcher for steaks and chili meat, and soup bones for the dogs.

Of course the whole goal of the operation is sell the cows off at a good ripe weight around 1,200 pounds. When the cows sell the feedlot and the cattlemen make their money. The feedlot makes money by housing and feeding the cattle; the cattlemen make money when their big fat cows sell. Cattle prices are set by the pound and the cattle market, just like any other market, can be unpredictable.

Once the cattle are sold the feedlot's job is complete. New green cattle are brought in regularly just as big fat ones are sold, and the cycle continues. From the feedlot cattle are sent to the slaughterhouse and eventually end up on America's dinner tables or packaged in fast food wrappers. I have no first hand experience of how the cattle are slaughtered, only what I've read in books. My uncle works at a slaughterhouse farther north in the Texas panhandle, so maybe someday I'll have a post about the aftermath.

I learned volumes about the cattle industry in my one short week at the feedlot. I met a variety of interesting people who are passionate about cattle and beef. Though feedlots take a lot of bashing for their quick mass production of beef, I was surprised by all the checks and balances in the system. Raising cattle is a business, and like all businesses there are ethical and professional standards, not to mention governmental standards, regulating the industry.

Feedlots may be the bain of some people's existences, but they are a central piece of a complex economic matrix. Because corn is the key ingredient in the feed, the feedlot purchases massive amounts it which helps support "small town farmers," like the ones farming around Olton, Texas, that liberals are always standing up for but rarely if ever meet. Then of course there's all that shit lying around that's gotta go somewhere. Cattlemen's outsources that job to a local fertilizer maker who cleans the pins in exchange for the shit to go in his product.

Whether you agree with feedlot practices or not, and I have my reservations about the operation, they are good for business. The beef coming out of feedlots may not be as healthy as a granola bar, but it does meet governmental standards. In the end it's up to us consumers to decide what we put in our bodies, but we already knew that.

My time at the feedlot, though short, was one massive learning experience. At the end of my week at Cattlemen's Feedlot, Roy the boss approached me:

-Well Justin, what do ya think about the feedlot business?
-I know I don't wanta make a livin' out of it. The hours are terrible.


For a great article about meat production from birth to dinner plate, check of Michael Pollan's New York Times article Power Steer.

All photos by me, Justin Burrus.

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