By Martha Mintz
The mountains that earned the area the name Grand View, Idaho, are about the only things that stand stationary as one gazes out across the crisscrossing pens of Simplot Land and Livestock’s expansive feedlot. The 750-acre home of up to 150,000 cattle is in perpetual motion. Feed trucks, cattle trucks, earth movers, loaders, pen riders, repairmen, nutritionists, veterinarians and managers scurry about ceaselessly catering to every want and need of their four-legged guests.
Each bee in this hive of activity is carrying out carefully plotted and researched tasks designed to ensure cattle are converting grains and forages efficiently into delectable, taste bud tempting beef. They’ve found the secret to achieving those goals is keeping cattle healthy, happy and very comfortable.
As trucks towing trailers drop over the rock-rimmed hills that protect the feedyard deliver the next round of cattle, freshly emptied pens are scraped clean. Tractor operators artfully create large, rectangular mounds in pen centers. Those dry, raised areas will command a view of the lush valley and soon be a favorite sunny perch for the calves calling the spacious lot home.
“It’s like changing out the sheets and putting a mint on the pillow at a hotel,” says Bronc May, Simplot custom cattle feeding manager, as he flashes his best concierge smile from under the brim of a light grey Stetson. “We want it clean and nice. The mounds are ready to go, the pens are clean, the water is fresh and there’s feed in the bunk. When an animal comes in he’s not waiting on anything.”
A stay at the Simplot feedyard would rival that of a full-service hotel in the cattle world. Just as a hotel host may meet a priority guest with a hot washcloth and a glass of champagne to ease the strain of travel, so too does Simplot consider arriving guests’ need to unwind.
“We want to handle cattle in as low stress of a manner as possible when they hit the feedyard. We make sure they get proper feed, water and exercise immediately,” says Randall Raymond, Simplot Grand View director of research and veterinarian services. “Exercise is extremely critical. We’ve done some research, and it seems to positively impact their ability to acclimate to feed and water and affects their health and growth pattern.”
Assessing and sorting cattle by risk as they enter the feedyard is a critical first step.
“Managing cattle so they’re not commingled is extremely important,” Raymond says. “We bring cattle in as peer groups that were together before the feedyard and manage them together in those peer groups throughout the feeding process.”
Cattle transitioning to the feedlot from Simplot’s own meticulously managed herds or cattle from trusted customers, like Riverbend Ranch, are considered low risk. They’ve been managed strategically to have strong immune systems that help them float through stressful transitional periods, such as entering the feedyard, with ease. These low-risk cattle get to take a pass on antibiotics. They do receive a modified live five-way viral vaccine and an eight-way clostridial vaccine to boost their immunity.
“We really try and simplify what products they receive on arrival and focus on ways we can improve their health and reduce stress before they arrive,” Raymond says. They achieve that through working within their own operations and with their regular customers on developing strong mineral and health programs as well as low stress and other management protocols. They actively run research programs on Simplot ranches and feedyards to identify the best practices and products to meet the needs of the cattle.
Cattle that are freshly weaned, have a truck ride longer than 6 hours or that were commingled prior to arriving at the feedyard are classified as high risk. These cattle are under more stress and, in the case of the commingled cattle, have had more disease exposure. They are far more likely to develop disease outbreaks. Due to these circumstances, which Simplot tries to avoid, high-risk cattle receive antibiotics along with the standard vaccine boosters.
“There’s a lot of good research that demonstrates the effects of health on marbling and tenderness,” Raymond says. “Adverse health events negatively impact ability to grow and convert feed to protein, so it’s something we really try to avoid. None of these things are healthy for our business and, ultimately, aren’t the right thing for the cattle either.”
Far more than a cursory glance is needed to discern any differences in a row of fat calves perched atop their pen mounds contentedly chewing their cud. This kind of uniformity is a reflection of quality and repeatability and is a key factor in making packers, chefs and consumers happy. This even batch of black beauties is a testament to precision management and free-flowing data from start to finish in cattle production.
“We sort every pen of cattle and do a lot of individualized management by pen and peer group,” May explains. “Most people think we just throw cattle in a pen and throw a little feed to them. We spend hours and hours looking back at data trying to find the right information to move ourselves forward, help us better market the cattle and help us sort the cattle.”
Far from just some feed tossed in the bunk, rations are carefully plotted and monitored for maximum performance. When cattle come to the feedyard off grass, their rations are slowly tweaked over a 30-day period to transition them to the higher energy flaked corn and wheat, high moisture corn, potato byproduct and alfalfa rations. Cattle are fed three times per day by trucks armed with computers that precisely measure and mix each ingredient for each individual pen. A feeding manager then evaluates the bunks every day to make sure cattle are eating their rations.
This meticulous system generates a lot of data to be reviewed, crunched and turned into useful information for all the cogs in the beef production machine. And thanks to carefully nurtured friendships, that data does move up and down the chain.
“A great part of our relationships is that we are sharing information from the packer, through the feeding facility, to the rancher and all the way back to the seedstock producer who influences the genetics,” May says. He shares every scrap of information he has on the cattle at Simplot with his ranching customers, including daily gain, conversion, health cost, death loss and grade. The goal is for producers to take that information and adapt their systems to improve feedlot performance. The result is higher quality cattle that earn them more money, are more predictable and profitable for the feeder, and provide a delicious experience for diners. And they do it all with the knowledge that they’re not just fattening cattle; they’re feeding the world.
“At the end of the day we have to keep in mind that we’re feeding someone’s family,” Raymond says. “Everything we do to these animals is to promote them to be healthy and comfortable and to produce a healthy and nutritious product for people to consume.”