by Jessica McCann, Nicole Sharp, Rick Temming, John Fluttert, Emily Duenk
The Midwest crop tour keeps on rolling. On Day 7, Five Rivers opened their doors to one of their 11 operations in Gilcrest, Colorado. This location is a large feedlot that sits on 640 acres where they have 65 000 head housed outdoors in 269 pens approximately an acre in size. In a typical week the feedlot will ship out 4000 head and bring in 2000. The company relies on 43 employees including one full time mechanic and veterinarian to run this diverse operation.
Upon arrival, we were catered a delicious Mexican meal followed by introductions of 6 employees. These employees ranged from the mill manager to the veterinary technicians, each giving a quick overview on their specific roles. After, an overview PowerPoint presentation was done by the assistant general manager of the operation, Eddie Crisp. The way this facility is structured is a steer or heifer is shipped in with attentive watch from the veterinary technicians on possible rejects. Rejects are cattle that don’t meet Five Rivers standards on a lameness to body condition standpoint. The group of accepted cattle are then held in a pen for 24 hours where they are tagged and vaccinated.
Once completed, they are placed in a pen where they will spend the next 160 days. The cattle will be fed a ration daily that consists of flaked wheat, corn silage, tallow, corn steep, and whey. The average daily gain Five Rivers shoots for is 4lbs/head/day for the steers and high 3s for the heifers. Currently, the feedlot is 80% heifers. After 160 days most of these cattle will be shipped off to the JBS to be processed. To wrap up the tour, the coach bus drove around the yard where we could see the relatively new automated mill built in 2008, along with the pens upon pens of cattle.
As we conversed with the employees at Five Rivers Cattle Feeding, it became clear that the operation was successful because of a strong focus around proper management of the feedlot employees as well as health and safety for both employees and the cattle.
Five Rivers Cattle Feeding recognizes that there is much more to a feedlot operation than just raising cattle. In order for a 640 acre feedlot to run smoothly and efficiently, appropriate management is crucial and it all starts with the treatment of the employees. Eddie Crisp explained to us that when they hire employees it is done with the intent to allow them to grow and develop within the company. He stated that, “feeding cattle is relatively simple, it’s the people that make the company”. Most of the individuals who are employed have a passion for what they do, and because their opinions are valued and respected, they can work to the best of their abilities.
The number one goal at the Five Rivers Gilcrest location is ensuring health and safety. Working with cattle and operating heavy equipment can be dangerous and one can never be too cautious. For this reason, they have weekly safety meetings to ensure that the proper training and techniques are provided to the employees to minimize risk. A safety concern that they did share with us is that they are often shorthanded in employee numbers and people get tired and worn out after working long hours. They are hoping to hire a few more employees soon to help with this issue.
To ensure the safety of the animals the feedlot has a veterinarian on staff that handles the proper medicating of the cattle. The company has also implemented low stress handling facilities to make sorting cattle easier on both the employees as well as the cattle. These low stress facilities are modelled from Temple Grandin, a well-known professor of animal science at Colorado State University.
After having listened to the Five Rivers team, it was apparent that no matter how one might be involved in the agricultural industry, many of the same challenges and opportunities may arise. Much like the other locations we have visited or individuals that we have talked to, Five Rivers face the issue of having a limited pool of potential employees. There is an ongoing issue of being unable to employ enough people to sustain the company. At Wagonhammer Ranch we also saw the issue with having enough capable employees that were willing to live in a remote location, at Cargill the hours and labour made it difficult to retain employees.
It is known in agriculture that there are far more jobs available than there are people to fill the positions. This however is also combined with a decreased interest in working in the industry. Five Rivers Cattle Feeding proved that the long hours, lack of overtime pay, and safety-based experience qualifications make hiring and maintaining employees difficult.
To overcome this difficulty, operations are now investing back into the community and lives of the people they employ. Innovations like this not only help gain interest in the industry but they are also helping the companies to reaffirm their place in the community. This is being done by sponsoring 4-H clubs, rodeos and the Future Farmers of America (FFA). This is a strategy that is often undervalued because the return on investment is very slow, but creating interest in another generation is only beneficial in the agricultural industry.
Additional risks to the company or operation can be due to the changing industry and in order to continue to survive and be successful you must adapt. Every one of the stops that we have made have had to adapt and change their operation, and many have adjusted the way that they farm or do business many times over.
Five Rivers Cattle Feeding has adapted to a change in the cattle market by investing further in genomic selection. This tool is being used by both cattle breeders and cattle feeders. In the beef industry there has been a lack of genetic information on record. Beef cattle producers are trying to increase data on genomics in the industry. The 3 beef operations that our class visited this past week seem to be putting a much larger emphasis on identifying genetic markers and tracking maternal information in beef cattle. While this may increase inputs into the company the producers are all recognizing the value that this will add to the operation in the long run.
First week of crop tour at a glance
After having completed the first week of Crop Tour 2019 we can now reflect on the 11 stops across 4 states. We have toured a variety of operations as well as spoken with numerous individuals in different areas of agriculture. As we traveled through the mid-west we were able to see the changing landscape and how the operations have adapted agriculture to their region and circumstances. Although each stop was quite different from the next, there are similarities that connect all of these operations. Agriculture is an everchanging industry and at almost every stop we have discussed that in order to be successful, an operation must be innovative and be a good steward of the environment. Furthermore, among these stops a reoccurring challenge was the availability of labour.
In order to succeed many stops have had to innovate their operations. At the John Deere plant we saw that the majority of changes made were more innovative than just introducing electronics and robots. The changes they made did not only made the processes more efficient, it also allowed them to recycle paint and metal scraps. They were also able to improve the working environment by using cleaner machines and eliminating many sources of ergonomic stress.
At Green Plains Ethanol plant we saw innovation in which they market their business. While initially they marketed ethanol and adjusted the grade of their ethanol to stay competitive in the market, they are now developing their business into a corn processing plant. In order to do this, they were able to develop a plan in which they can market all aspects of corn processing. By innovating they have a high protein corn byproduct to market to a new group of producers, being poultry and swine operations.
At Corteva they are proud to have the largest commercial drone fleet in North America. By introducing these new drone technologies, they have been able to cover a much larger area and significantly increase the amount of data they are able to collect. Stand counts are taken efficiently and accurately every three acres, this is used as a blue print for yield estimates. This allows them to put themselves ahead in the industry in both research as well as customer relations.
In order for an operation to continue to prosper it was discussed at the stops that you have to be a good steward of the environment. This is seen in many forms at the stops we have visited so far. When it comes to both crop and livestock production water is a constant concern. At Corteva they were able to conserve water by not washing the interior of the pro boxes so no treated waste water was created. At Five Rivers Cattle Feeding they monitored the effluent water from the facility and limited the amount applied to the fields to stay within the regulated amount of nitrogen released onto their land.
When looking into the irrigation techniques there is an even greater emphasis on the importance of water. When irrigated crop yields can be almost doubled, farmers take great care to follow all regulations concerning water use. The amount of water able to be pumped and used for irrigation is limited and as such, farmers will only apply when the crop is in real need of water. Another method of water conservation used in irrigation are drop lines, these allow less water to be used and the water is applied beneath the canopy and is directed toward the roots. The irrigation systems also allow for Nitrogen to be applied along with the water.
Lastly, labour availability affected each stop. Whetstine Brothers increased farm capabilities to accommodate additional labour that comes with succession planning. Wagonhammer talked about how living near Bartlett is a unique lifestyle and it can be difficult finding people to work and live there. They also had a unique employee incentive program to attract and maintain good help on the ranch. Cargill also had the issue of a lack of labour during their busy season and when employees are on holiday but enjoyed the feeling of a small labour force. Both John Deere and Corteva experienced labour turnover after offering early retirement programs. Five Rivers touched on how experienced workers willing to work long hours needed to run the operation were hard to come by.
NB: this post, the only stop for the day, contains no images as the location does not permit photos to be taken.