By Martha Mintz
Room to roam is still plentiful for freshly weaned Wyoming calves as they make their way off the truck at the Knight Feedlot in Lyons, Kan.
The Salers-Angus composites we first encountered in their vast V Ranch pastures just prior to shipping Oct. 1 will spend the next few months of their life trimming up bright green blades of Kansas winter wheat and learning to eat from the bunk. While the green forage of Knight Farms may be novel to them, the sturdy construction of their wheat pasture fences will be very familiar.
“We have permanent 5-wire fences around all of our wheat pasture pens,” says Kenny Knight, who owns Knight Feedlot and Knight Farms with his son, Mark. “We don’t want to be out chasing cattle around all the time.”
Stout fences are one of many subtle indicators that Knight is no casual cattle backgrounder. It’s an integral part of the diverse, integrated livestock and farming operation he’s spent more than 50 years building and perfecting. And thanks to that diversification and aggressive forward thinking, it’s an operation that has proven as sturdy as the fine oak furniture Knight crafts when he isn’t busy turning out top quality beef.
Born and raised on the fringe of Lyons, Knight started out farming and then expanded into cattle feeding in 1972 with Mark. His operation now includes a 13,000-head feedlot, 6,000 acres of wheat grazing with 10,000 total cropland acres, a 500-head
Angus cow/calf herd in the Flint Hills and the Bar K Bar Trucking firm.
“Our various operations help offset the cost of each other and keep us more profitable and more in control of our situation,” Knight says. “The feedlot industry is overbuilt by about 30 percent and we’ve seen a lot of feedlots our size and smaller that haven’t been able to sustain like we have.”
The Knights have been able to turn failures on one operation into success in another. For example, when their soybean crop failed in 2012 they were able to bale it and get some feed value out of the otherwise worthless crop. Soybean hay was used to stretch their alfalfa hay supply by making up a third of the modified ration.
Fields also benefit from pivots delivering nutrient-dense waste water from the feedlot.
The Knights’ backgrounding and farming operations serve as a layover point for the high quality range cattle they bring in from Wyoming. Over time, Knight has patiently and strategically bought up land parcels surrounding his Lyons-based feedlot.
“I’ve waited years to buy these 80 acres,” Knight says as he looks out over a field freshly cleared of hedge trees just barely out of view of the feedlot. There are still a few chunks of land that will finish connecting the pieces of his farm, but for now he has 11 permanent steel satellite pens attached to wheat parcels that are all within 5 miles of the feedlot.
These conveniently situated satellite pens serve as receiving areas for calves such as those coming from the V Ranch. Each pen is set up so calves can be processed on site, instead of unloading at the feedlot, being processed and then moved again. Calves come off the truck and are settled into the pens with some bedding and are given a starter ration to get them broke to bunk feeding.
“Mark started putting out bedding straw for all the new cattle coming in,” Knight says. “It seems to make the cattle calm, like they feel a little bit at home. They’ll lay on it even if it’s 100 degrees outside.”
Great care is taken to make the cattle feel right at home. For starters, no hotshots are allowed.
“We use our own semis to get the calves and all of our drivers have been BQA trained. They don’t use hotshots, know how to handle the cattle and check them often,” Mark says. “We want it to be a peaceful process so the cattle will be calmer and adjust to their new home faster. We want them to unload, relax, go to the feed bunk, go to the water tank and settle in. Calmer cattle will attack feed a lot better.”
Mark notes that the cattle coming from V Ranch and the other Wyoming operations usually come in fairly calm and healthy thanks to selective breeding and effective preconditioning programs.
“With good preconditioning the cattle are just healthier. They’re good when they come in and they’re good 30 days down the road. We don’t have to bring them in and mass treat them. That’s why it’s important to work with ranchers we trust that have good breeding and preconditioning programs,” Mark says.
Calves sit in the satellite pens for 4 or 5 days before they are further processed. Provided the cattle are healthy, they are wormed, given an IBR/BVD vaccination and are tagged by pen. They’re also started on an extremely high energy diet of alfalfa hay, wet distillers grain, flaked corn, molasses and protein supplement mixed with some antibiotics for 6 to 10 days. Once they’re determined to be acclimated and off to a good strong start, they’re switched to a grower ration and are turned out on wheat pastures.
“We expect them to gain 2.5 pounds per day while on wheat pasture and grower rations,” Mark says.
The Wyoming-born calves typically graze from arrival in early October until January when they hit about 800 pounds. At that point they’re sorted and moved to the feedlot to start the next phase in their stay with the Knights.
“The Wyoming cattle do very well as the ranchers are using the preconditioning protocols we’ve provided them and we’ve been very successful with the calves when they do it right,” Knight says.