By Martha Mintz
“That’s what I like to see as a cattle feeder,” beams Kenny Knight as he looks out over a pen of shiny Angus steers lounging peacefully in the unseasonably warm December sun at his Lyons, Kan., feedlot. “Those cattle are happy, healthy, calm and gaining weight.”
While the fat steers are happily soaking up sunshine in their pen, it’s the cattle feeder who is often found pacing the confines of his office fretting. Worry about how to stay afloat and still produce a healthy, quality product has resulted in much pacing and more than a few ulcers in the industry.
Cattle feeding is a tough business with staggering variability. Profit potential from year to year depends on the market price of the cattle coming in, often highly volatile market prices of feed and even more variability in the price they get for the final product. That’s not to mention impacts of weather and health during the feeding process. However, in his 40 years of feeding cattle, Knight has hammered out helpful tactics to keep his feedlot profitable from year to year.
These tactics have kept him in the cattle feeding business while many other similarly sized feedlots have closed their gates permanently. Knight’s son, Mark, runs Knight Feedlot with his father and has adopted his strategies while adding a few of his own.
A profit strategy that connects them to the reputation cattle delivered from Wyoming ranches by Jim Wilson of the V Ranch, is that when you find quality cattle, go back for more. And the more times they buy from the same ranches, the more familiar with their performance they become.
“It’s a little scary when you haven’t dealt with a rancher or specific group of cattle before. That’s why if you find good cattle from a responsible ranch you’ll generally do better than buying cattle out of the sale barn. You get a lot of surprises with sale barn cattle.” Mark says. “The Wyoming cattle are easier to predict and project so there aren’t any surprises during feeding or on the rail. Their health is generally good and the carcass performance is always excellent.”
Besides getting great genetics that have proven themselves time and again, cattle from the Wyoming marketing group come with immunity and traceability. Knowing where the cattle were born and how they’ve been treated since day No. 1 is invaluable to profitability and producing a good product, says the Knights’ consulting vet of 15 years, Tom Edwards, Midwest Feedlot Services, Inc., Kearney, Neb.
“It gives us the opportunity to work back and organize our vaccination protocols to complement what the calves have been given at the ranch when they come to the feedlot,” he says. “Cattle with no history, on the other hand, really put us behind the 8 ball. It’s so much harder to build immunity with an unknown calf once they arrive at the feedlot.”
The Wyoming cattle purchased on contract arrive at the feedlot having already received carefully timed vaccinations for key health concerns. Kenny reports that of the 2,600 head brought in from Wyoming in October 2012, by December they had only lost 4 head. That’s 0.0015 percent death loss, as compared to the normal 2 percent death loss with unknown groups of cattle.
“We can build a higher level of immunity with those calves because they come to the feedlot with a head start,” Edwards says. “That takes a big weight of a feeder’s shoulders. By successfully limiting illness, we can grow those cattle to their greatest potential. Hopefully they gain better, convert feed better and have lower rates of morbidity and mortality.”
Maintain a stress-free workplace
Just like office workers perform better when stress is managed, so, too, do livestock, Kenny says. All of their employees are trained to practice low-stress cattle handling. Hotshots and horses, both which can agitate cattle, are strictly forbidden at the Knight Feedlot. And, animal behavior specialist Temple Grandin consulted on the design of their receiving and processing facility.
“Where the gates are located, how the tub is built and how the cattle lead into the processing facility are all designed to flow cattle through faster and more instinctively,” Kenny says. “The faster cattle are through the chute and out of the processing building, the better their performance in the long run.”
Edwards notes that limiting stress can have a significant positive impact on animal health.
“Stress decreases the immune response, making calves less able to fight off infections. Calmer cattle are healthier and cope better in the feedlot,” Edwards says.
Integrating ranch, backgrounding, feeding and trucking companies helps the Knights stay a step ahead of the competition. All of the feed produced on their 10,000 crop acres go to feed their backgrounding and feedlot cattle. Producing their own feed takes some of the sting out of volatile feed markets.
Flaking their wheat and corn on site is yet another way they stretch their resources.
“Flaking lays out more surface area for the acids in the rumen to react with and break down,” Mark explains. “We hardly ever see any corn in the stool like you do when you feed cracked corn. If we do, we look to see what’s wrong.”
The wheat pastures that get the cattle off to a strong start when they reach Kansas also take them to finish.
“We prefer to feed wheat when we can because it has way more energy than corn and the cattle do well on it,” Mark says. While corn typically makes up 54 percent of a ration, wheat make up only 46 percent of a ration for the same energy. “We’re a small enough feedlot that we can raise and store enough wheat to supply our needs and it’s cheaper than corn.”
Baled wheat straw from Knight farms also serves as windbreaks around the pens and is rolled out as a welcoming bedding for cattle just off the truck.
Progressive thinking also opens doors for the Knights. They are constantly searching for ways to make their product better and more desirable for the customer as well as more profitable for them.
They’ve created a group of like-sized feedlots into The Beef Marketing Group (BMG) and use their united numbers to leverage better commodity prices and negotiate their own grid marketing program with the beef packing facilities they market to.
Kenny, Mark and the other BMG members also have dedicated themselves to pre-harvest food safety, well ahead of the trend that is just now starting to be glimpsed in the industry. To facilitate pre-harvest food safety, as well as better operating standards, they’ve created a lengthy handbook outlining correct procedure for every function of the feeding process imaginable. From truck cleanouts to the temperatures of the refrigerators that house their vaccines, every base is covered.
“Tyson recently announced their own pre-harvest food program and they’ve accepted our third part-verified Progressive Beef food safety program for their program,” Kenny says. “Our goal has always been to better serve the end user and increase value from that end of the food chain. It’s difficult, but that’s why we’re doing things like the Progressive Beef program. We’re trying to separate ourselves from mainstream cattle feeding.”
“The Knights go above and beyond what is expected of a typical cattle feeder,” Edwards says. “They do a great job of making sure that consumers can be happy that the steak on their table was raised and handled in the best interest of the cattle, the managers and the end consumers.”