Crop Tour Day 7
Foote Cattle Company – Pioneer Feedyard, Oakley, KS
September 2, 2023
Introduction – Company Overview
Foote Cattle Company was first started by Bob Foote inn 1985. Bob unfortunately passed away last year, and now the business is run by his three sons, Scott, Greg, and Brad. Today, the business consists of multiple cattle feeding yards, farms, a bank, and a diverse set of investments. At a glance, Foote Cattle Company has 20,000 acres of ranch land in the Kansas Flint Hills, 30,000 acres of total farmland in KS and NE, and has an annual finishing capacity of 550,000 head of cattle across five feedyards.
Foote Cattle Company has several company initiatives which have allowed for continual business growth and improvements in environmental stewardship, animal care, and local communities. Investments into companies and technologies that improve weight gain, track genetics, animal health, and herd growth increases supply chain efficiency. Foote Cattle Company prioritizes animal husbandry by employing two in-house nutritionists, administering the proper antibiotics as needed, and by using top-of-the-line veterinarians. Temporal and financial donations to local churches, foundations, park boards, school boards, rotary clubs, and other charitable organizations allows Foote Cattle Company to have a large community impact. Employees are regularly exploring new sustainable feed ingredients, production processes, and animal health protocols which increases environmental sustainability. Lastly, Foote Cattle Company prioritizes on-farm research and development to implement the of use new technologies in the animal health sector as well as new corn seed for more nutritious feed.
Pioneer Feedyard (Oakley, KS)
While Foote Cattle Company operates five feedyards, our group toured the Pioneer Feedyard in Oakley, KS. This is the first time Foote Cattle Company has been a stop on the Midwest Tour. The Pioneer Feedyard is approximately 500 acres in area, has a 55,000 head finishing capacity, and can turn over two-and-a-half herds per year. The Pioneer Feedyard raises steers only, and there is no specific breed they are raising; however, a large proportion of their cattle are Black and Red Angus. The Pioneer Feedyard sources their cattle from multiple locations, and Foote Cattle Company’s own cattle ranches in the Flint Hills of Kansas supply only 10% of the feedyard’s cattle. The remaining cattle are sourced from Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma, and Alabama. Foote Cattle Company prefers to source cattle from these locations as the cattle are better adapted to heat than cattle sourced from northern states. Drought conditions are projected to reduce the supply of feeder cattle available to the Pioneer Feedyard, and as a result, there may be an increased proportion of dairy beef cattle raised at the feedyard in the months to come. When steers arrive at the Pioneer Feedyard, they weigh approximately 8 – 900 pounds. The goal is to produce a 1,450 – 1,550-pound steer for market after 140 – 150 days on feed. On average, 1,500 market weight cattle are shipped every week from the Pioneer Feedyard. All cattle are sent to National Beef Packers in Dodge City, KS, which is the fourth largest beef processing plant in the United States.
The Pioneer Feedlot employs anywhere from 45 to 55 employees. In addition to feeding Foote Cattle Company’s own cattle, the Pioneer Feedyard has several programs which provides products and services to other local farmers including contracting and selling ranch calves, high moisture corn premiums, and competitive prices for dry corn.
Cropping and Ingredient Sourcing
Feeding 55,000 head of steers in one of the dryer climates of the United States provides many challenges for an operation of this size. Pioneer Feedlot provides half of their annual feed demands, cropping 12,000 acres producing grain and silage corn, sorghum, triticale, and hay. Their cattle demands are 2 million pounds of feed each day, resulting in outsourcing of some of their feed such as both corn silage and grain corn. Pioneer Feedlot owns all their equipment including harvesting, planting, and feeding equipment. Dual purpose corn hybrids are planted to be harvested as either silage, grain, or high-moisture corn. In some parts of the USA, Enogen corn hybrids are popular for their high starch availability characteristics. However, Pioneer Feedyard does not grow Enogen due to poor flaking qualities of the kernels. Half of Pioneer Feedlot’s corn silage is grown themselves, and half is produced by other crop farmers who truck silage to their location are paid on delivery.
Other crops are bought from local farmers as well. On the rare occasion they will refuse a load based on quality and appearance of the silage due to the load having a higher mycotoxin content which causes illness and decreases weight gain. Straw bedding is used in the hospital pens which is also purchased from crop farmers. Storage for feed is in large bunk piles on a cement pad at the front of the feedlot’s property. Annual corn silage and high-moisture corn demands are 100,000 tons 3 million bushels, respectively. Silage corn is harvested at 65% moisture as ensures optimal fermentation and other feed quality metrics. Even though we are thousands of kilometers away from home, it is interesting to see that the crops grown, and the storage practices used on a massive feedyard are pretty well identical to those of the feedlots in Ontario. The notable exception to this is sorghum/milo.
The manure from the cattle is gathered into settling basins where it settles and decomposes in storage. Manure is then sold to local cropping farmers and is a cheaper source of fertilizer compared to synthetic fertilizers, which is especially important when considering the past few years of high fertilizer prices. Catch basins are also seen on this farm, catching water runoff that gets used back in circulation for irrigation providing minimal waste in this system.
Feeding & Nutrition
Foote Cattle Company has two nutritionists, Elizabeth Mezersmith and Kelly Kriekemeir, both of whom hold Ph.D.’s in animal nutrition. Elizabeth accompanied us on our tour, and she has been employed at Foote Cattle Company for a year and a half. Elizabeth is from Central Nebraska, and holds a BSc., MSc., and Ph.D. in animal nutrition, with a focus in ruminants. Her job includes overseeing the cattle's ration and making changes if needed. However, she explains that changing the supplements or creating a new formula is a pain. For example, they have changed the ration six times over the past six years. We also met Dustin, who has managed production of liquid supplement blends for seven years. Dustin’s job includes, but is not limited to, ordering all the products for the week, contacting all cattle yards to see what their weekly supplement demands are, and scheduling all the loads for the week.
The Pioneer Feedyard supplement blending plant operates 12 hours a day, five days a week starting at 4:30 am each day to create the liquid clay supplement required for the cattle feed. Due to the fact that supplement blending does not occur on the weekends, they produce and store 18 loads of blended supplement on their property. Creating one liquid supplement blend takes 45 minutes to an hour, 35 minutes to add all the products into the tank, and 10 minutes to mix everything together at 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pioneer Feedyard uses a stainless-steel mixer to blend all the liquid supplements. During the last 10 minutes of mixing, the direction is switched to create a shear/vortex for better mixing. Above the control system, a white light will flash for the following reasons: the micronutrient ingredients are getting low in storage, or more than 50 lbs of the required amount was included in the tank. Through this process, they can create one to three loads a day. The tanks are flushed at the end of the day and when switching between starter and finisher liquid supplement mixture. To keep the longevity of the liquid supplement, they only allow the mixture to sit in the tank for two days; any longer, ingredients will begin to fall out of suspension, and the supplement as a whole will not be consistent in its protein or mineral content. Additionally, the liquid supplement created by Pioneer Feedyard is only used to feed Foote Cattle Company’s own cattle.
Foote Cattle Company requires two different liquid supplement mixtures. Depending on the age and weight of the cattle, a starter or finisher liquid supplement is mixed within their feed. The liquid supplement is a mixture of mostly protein and minerals with additional additives which includes corn syrup, monensin (for coccidiosis), trace minerals, urea, salt, limestone, dolomitic limestone, potassium, pro mag, liquid clay, and electrolytes. The list stated above increases daily weight gain, the digestibility of roughage, and protects against mycotoxins. Liquid clay is a vital additive as it helps molecules stay tight together and stay in suspension in the liquid supplement. Depending on the liquid supplement created, an antibiotic (CTC) can also be mixed in. However, monensin (ionophore) cannot be combined with CTC as this reduces its efficacy.
Foote Cattle Company has attempted to add liquid molasses to their liquid supplement; however, it did not favour cold weather and the company had to drive to Colorado to receive it which was not economically feasible. Additionally, tetrasodium pyrophosphate was mixed in the liquid supplement, but it caused flowability issues in the pipes. To unjam the pipes, they had to use a hammer to hit the pipes. As a result, the company stopped using it with no consequences. Foote Cattle Company has decided to use liquid supplements over solids as it is simple and easier to mix into the final product. If they did switch to dry ingredients, the pellets would have to be loaded into a sizeable micro machine, which would be very expensive.
Many of us students were intrigued by the on-farm liquid supplement blending process. To our knowledge, this is a practice that is not very common in Ontario as the majority of beef producers just individually include dry supplement ingredients into a total-mixed-ration. It certainly gave us a new perspective as to how this practice could potentially be introduced to beef farmers in Ontario. However, we recognize that this practice is likely limited by the smaller-scale beef production in Ontario. Upon further investigation, we identified that there are companies in Ontario that produce and sell liquid supplements for beef farmers, but again, most beef producers are not producing their own liquid supplements on-farm.
One interesting way that Pioneer Feedyard modifies their ration is in response to the extreme heat Kansas faces each year in the summer. They believe that by reducing starch intake in the form of steam-flaked corn during these extreme weather events, they are reducing rumen function and thus reducing heat generated by the steers.
Mill Operations & Supplement Blending
Upon arriving at the mill, we met the manager, Matt. He told us of his day-to-day activities at the mill. First thing every morning, he checks all five miles feed bunks, which takes about one and a half hours. He checks for the amount and quality of feed left in the bunks to determine which cattle group needs to be fed first and the total amount. He then goes back to the mill office and transfers all his data to the computer which will then be available to the truck drivers and loader operators. Five feed trucks are running all day starting at 5:30am. Large loaders fill the feed trucks with silage, roughage, distillers, high-moisture corn, flaked corn, and finally liquid supplement. Each load is about 33,000 lbs, with two million pounds of feed being fed every day in about 9 hours. Each pen is fed three times a day. The truck will first get the roughage, distillers, and corn which has been loaded into a batch box already. This ensures maximum efficiency as the loader does not have to wait for the feed truck as well as the other way around. Then the feed truck will drive around into the building and get its liquid supplement. All the ingredients get mixed for four minutes while the truck drives to the pen where it unloads the mixer in the correct bunk all regulated through the computer.
The ration itself is formulated by the onsite nutritionist Elizabeth and has been quite consistent the past few years. Upon arriving, cattle will receive a starter ration which consists of 50% and 42% energy and roughage content, respectively. This is much different than the finisher ration which consists of 70% energy content and only 8-9% roughage content. The switch between starter and finisher ration is gradual and takes 21 – 30 days. This consists of feeding 10% finisher and 90% starter, and then gradually increasing the proportion of finisher ration. At 40%, 60%, and 80% finisher ration, it may be held constant for a few days to minimize stress on the cattle. After cattle are on-site for 26 days, they should be completely consuming a finisher ration. The dry matter intake average of all the animals is 27 – 28 pounds per day.
Another interesting aspect of the mill are the three big flakers that are busy up to 18 hours each day. A 400-horsepower boiler powers the flaker to steam and flatten the corn to increase the surface area of the grain, improve starch digestibility, and enhance ruminant performance. The rolls inside the flaker weigh 3,500 lbs and break down the corn into the thinnest flake possible. In one hour, 26 tonnes of steam-flaked corn can be produced. On a dry matter basis, each animal consumes 11.5 pounds of flakes per day. For the boiler to operate efficiently, the water used must be softened as the water around Oakley, KS, is high in calcium with small depositions of nitrate infiltrating ground water. Softening the water is important to prevent calcium build-up in the boiler pipes which reduces the speed at which the boiler operates. As such, water softening increases the efficiency of the steam-flaking process.
Producing steam-flaked corn is the most limiting factor of their feeding operation because it requires 16 – 18 hours per day of constant milling. As such, there are plans to build a new mill at the Pioneer Feedyard. This requires extra planning as it will take close to two years before a new mill could be operational.
Foote Cattle Company showed our group how they are continuously making improvements in their management practices to increase beef production efficiency. Through investing in the proper knowledgeable staff and high-tech equipment, they showed us how they are innovators and will continue to stay leaders in beef production. Additionally, Foote Cattle Company graciously supplied our group with a delicious lunch and we are incredibly appreciative of their hospitality. We extend a huge thanks to Foote Cattle Company, and our hosts Elizabeth, Kelly, Matt, and Dustin. Future classes who go on the Midwest Tour and tour the Pioneer Feedyard certainly have a lot to look forward to.