What Happens In A Cattle Feedlot – My Introduction As A Kid


Steer calf in feedlotSo what really takes place at a cattle feedlot?

Many folks refer to these places of business as factory farms. There is strong fascination among activist groups to uncover acts of cruelty and abuse from these locations, not only animal abuse, but irrevocable harms to the surrounding environment and communities.

I have been lucky enough to spend most of my life experiencing the beef cattle business from beginning to end, in several different environments, including feedlots. Growing up, my family sent upwards of 12,000 yearling cattle each year to be finished in feedlots just like the one pictured above. We would have the cattle from the time they were weaned (most approximately 6-8 months of age), keeping them on pasture, until they were ready for the finish feeding stage of life, anywhere from 45 to 100 days or more. Then, the cattle were shipped on semi-trucks from our ranch in central Arkansas to the Panhandle region of Oklahoma and Texas. The cattle would then spend anywhere from 90 to 150 days in the feedlot before going to the slaughterhouse. The feedlot companies charged us for the feed, medicine and a daily “yardage” fee for looking after the cattle. The ranch still owned the cattle right up through the time Tyson purchased the beef at their Amarillo beef slaughterhouse.

Vacations as a kid were actually spent on trips on Spring Break or late summer to see our cattle in these feedlots. That is the only time my family could afford to leave the ranch for several days at a time and still be sure that the cattle were taken care of. These were some of the first opportunities I had to interact with the feedlots on a large-scale basis, with anywhere between 40,000 and 80,000 head of cattle in 1 place.

Some of my strongest first impressions and lasting memories of those trips were the people. Sure, I remember driving up one alley and down the next, stopping at several pens in each row to see cattle that had come from our ranch. But what I remember most is people working at the feedlots. They were friendly, great, knowledgeable folks, much like the small-scale farmers and ranchers back home.

I remember being amazed at their ability to look at a sheet of numbers and data and be able to read the cattle, their behavior, eating habits, recall their health history, and estimation of their performance while on feed. Not only were they able to take care of 40,000 animals a day, but they cared enough and had a passion strong enough to love their jobs that they knew more about taking care of cattle than many folks I had ever met before. As a high school kid who took care of and raised these cattle in the earlier stages of their lives, I found it very intriguing to learn about the finishing stages of the cattle industry.

A satellite view of the feedlot where my family sent our cattle for finish feeding. Wrangler Feedyard, Tulia, TX
A satellite view of the feedlot where my family sent our cattle for finish feeding. Wrangler Feedyard, Tulia, TX

A few years of college passed and those early memories of the Oklahoma and Texas feedlots stuck with me. So the summer after my sophomore year, I participated in an internship with Cactus Feeders of Amarillo, Texas. This company was whom my family sent most of our cattle to and at the time had the largest capacity of any cattle feeding operation in the world.

For 10 weeks, I arrived at the feedlot long before sunrise, some days as early as 3 a.m. taking care of cattle. I had the opportunity to work with employees in every position in the feedlot during that time. Everyone including the managers, cattle processors feed mill operations, feed truck drivers, veterinary crew, yard maintenance crew, and cowboy pen riders. I even rode around to several different feedlots within the company with cattle buyers, nutritionists, and veterinarians who were on staff.

It is safe to say I learned a ton that summer. More than I ever wanted to know about feeding cattle, keeping them healthy, performing necropsies to figure out why cattle died. I learned so much about marketing cattle, keeping their feed ingredients balanced and learning how to read their habits to predict how they would react to changes in their environment. And everyone I met and worked with, at every feedlot displayed several of the characteristics I described above of the men I had met during trips while I was still in high school.

What happened once I left college with the opportunity to decide my own path? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s blog post when I talk about my experience working for the largest feedlot companies in the world after college. Then, I’ll walk you through the daily tasks and events in a feedlot, describing exactly what you’ll see in those overhead aerial shots.

If you have questions or concerns along the way, leave them in the comments section below. If you would like to submit them anonymously or privately, use the blog contact form in the selection bar at the top of the page. I look forward to the conversations inspired by these posts and hope you plan to engage.

Continue reading Part 2 – People Behind The Beef

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12 Comments

  1. Hi, Ryan, A lot of what you’ve written here is very familiar to me, although the feedlot we worked at was just 3,000 head and about 40+ miles from Washington, D.C. and Baltimore and the most brood cows we ever looked after at one time was about 900. (Believe it or not, Maryland is mostly farms, mountains and piedmont, not wall to wall people and we still raise a lot of great dairy and good beef, sheep, chickens, etc.) As someone who was born and raised in a large city and didn’t experience farm life until my early 20s, I am still amazed at how little non-farm folks know about what we do to feed them. Or even that we do feed them! We always knew. We learned about it from our parents, but also at school, and maybe that’s part of the problem. Keep up your good work and thank you.

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  2. We would drive by Guymon, Oklahoma going to vacation in Colorado and would pass by a large feed lot. Thank you for your story. I would be curious about the death of cows. would you be reimbursed or was it just your loss?

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    1. Thanks for the comment Maur. My family used to send cattle to Hitch Feeders near Guymon as well.

      When cattle die in the feedlot, it is the loss of the owner, whether that be the feedlot or the ranch where the cattle came from. So if we still owned the cattle, and were paying the feedlot to feed them for us, it would still be our loss when cattle died. % death loss was a critical factor in determining the quality of care a feedlot provided their cattle and sometimes a determining factor on whether we continued business with a specific feedlot.

      So it is, in essence, in the feedlot’s best interest to care for the cattle to the best of their abilities to retain business from ranchers like my family.

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  3. Great article Ryan. I spent many years in the feedlot industry. I lived in the Guymon Ok area for near 20 years. I worked most of those years at CRI Feeders and spent a small time at Hitch Feeders as well. It is great to hear an owners take on the way their cattle are taken care of. Most of the time we got to know the cattle very well, but not really ever knowing the customer/owners. Thanks for the insight!

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