Day 7 - Saturday
theme: Animal welfare; corporate integration; land use policies
Day 6 of Crop Tour: 5 River’s Feedlot
by: Carolyn Redmond, Annemarie VanWely, Brandon Betts and Dave Muller
We started the day with a four hour drive across some of the driest production lands in the American Midwest. As the landscape changed from the sand hills of Nebraska and into the flat lands of Colorado the scale of animal agriculture also changed. On our trip from Ogalalla, Nebraska to Denver, Colorado we made our only stop of the day at the Five Rivers feedlot owned by JBS. JBS acquired Five Rivers Ranch Cattle Feeding from Smithfield Foods and Continental Grain Company in 2008. Now they operate 12 different feedlots throughout the mid-west United States with a total of 930,000 cattle. JBS is a vertically integrated corporation with six packing plants that allows them to add value to the beef before marketing their final product to their various customers. The Five River's feedlot that we toured on September 1st is called Gilcrest Feedlot in LaSalle, Colorado. It was constructed in 1970 under the previous owner Kenneth Monfort.
The current general manager of the Gilcrest Feedlot is Judd Butler. He along with three lead hands, Eddie, Brandon, and Doug discussed the dynamics and production practices of this extensive feedlot that covers roughly 640 acres and employs 47 full-time staff.
The Gilcrest Feedlot is licensed to house 100,000 head of cattle and uses 65 – 70% of this space in a typical year. Due to the drought and other economical factors they are currently operating with only 45,000 head. We were surprised to discover that the primary reason for this drastic decrease in herd size was not a result of increased food costs but due to the decrease in water rights because of the water shortage. Water is a key resource for a large feedlot, not only because of the large amount of water required to hydrate the herd but also to control the dust, and keep the whole operation clean and presentable. The scale and location of this feedlot in an arid environment with proximity to towns on all sides makes controlling dust a considerable challenge and requires a substantial amount of water. Four neighbouring communities surround the Gilcrest Feedlot and if dust is not managed properly the feedlot runs the risk of receiving complaints from neighbours and compromising animal health.
The nutrition program at this facility is continuously revised for each lot of animals. Generally, cattle are put on a straight hay ration for 14 days when they arrive on the feedlot followed by a hay corn mix for the next10 days. For the remainder of their 130 – 215 days on the feedlot, cattle are fed mostly corn. Like many other livestock operations, this facility is working hard to find enough feed to maintain their herd. Although some feed is grown locally, there is a significant amount trucked in from other states. In response to high feed prices, management is integrating unconventional feeds into the ration. Currently 1% of the dry matter used is sourced from pine fibre, and sugar beets are being considered as well. The high heat this summer has also affected the feeding program, resulting in the use of more forage rather than higher energy corn.
Before the ownership of this facility changed four years ago, manure management was a huge problem as manure was stockpiled and never taken off farm. After years of hard work, the current management has returned nearly all of the manure to farmland, at times paying for farmers to remove this valuable resource. Manure remains a considerable management issue for the future, as 90 – 110 tonnes are produced each year. Fortunately, a better relationship with local farmers is easing the logistical challenge of distributing the continuous flow of manure.
In any large-scale production system, especially one as sensitive as a 60,000 head feedlot, there are bound to be many public conflicts and misconceptions over the management and practices of the farm. Relationships with the surrounding communities and farmers are essential in maintaining a smooth running operation and creating positive relationships with the public. The Gilcrest Feedlot has been working hard to promote a positive company image by donating to local schools and community programs. Furthermore, Five Rivers Feedlots has a strict company wide policy that allows for immediate termination following any sort of mistreatment or abuse to any of the animals on-site. The transparency of the company is evident by the fact that the feedlot is bordered on three sides by public roads allowing those who pass by to see into the heart of the operation. Five Rivers has one of the most stingent animal welfare programs in the US and is proud to operate facilities that incorporate systems designed by animal behaviorist and doctor of animal science, Temple Grandin.
Animal health management is extremely important to Five River's Feedlots. The cows are checked daily and if they are sick they get transported to one of six hospitals onsite. Vet techs are responsible for the care and recovery of these hospitalized animals. Due to their intensive welfare policy they have a downer protocol which states that the vet techs must work to help the animal. However, if it cannot be treated it is to be euthanized within the hour and downer animal are never permitted to be shipped off or onto the farm.
Butler is very optimistic about the future of this feedlot and he prides himself on the improved relationships that have been cultivated between neighbours and employees. However, the future is not without challenges and the aftermath of this historic drought will be a challenging time. Many producers have already sold off their young animals as soon as they could in anticipation of prohibitively high feed prices. This adds further complexity to the industry as there is not likely to be enough animals available in the coming years, while herds across the United States are rebuilt. Butler suspected that it may take five years for the market to stabilize again. In the short term, it has become difficult to source enough cattle as many are sent from the northern states up into Canadian feedlots where the drought is less severe and feed prices are lower. Even in these hard times, Five Rivers has increased their standards of accepting cattle as they do their best to maintain herd health. Butler emphasized that the dedication and respect that all employees have towards their work is essential for the continued success of this operation. This was emphasized several times on our visit when we heard "employees are our greatest strength".
Overall, this was an eye opening visit for the majority of the participants on this trip as they have never witnessed such a large-scale feedlot operation. Many of us came into this feedlot with negative perceptions of the health and welfare of these the animals. These misconceptions were quickly dissolved after listening to Butler speak on the many management systems in place, and giving us a guided tour of the 5 River's feedlot. We soon realized that this is a very efficient and economical way to produce food, and the health and welfare of the cattle herd greatly surpassed our expectations.