By Martha Mintz
Before the sun even seriously considers rising and shining each morning-at 4:30 a.m. to be exact-Tom Williams can be found perched on the hill at Chappell Feedlot in Chappell, Nebraska. Like a hawk situated atop a tree, Williams’ eyes studiously assess the line of pens connecting like ribs to the bunk-lined spine of the feedlot, marching down the ridge of the gently sloping hill and terminating in the feedlot offices and towering feed mill.
He notes his son, Travis, is out reading the bunks to calculate the rations to be deposited in the bunk in just an hour and generally notes the state of the feedlot. Satisfied there’s water in every pen and nothing major amiss, Williams enjoys a fleeting moment of silence before the cellphone in his pocket starts its daily marathon session of ringing, buzzing and beeping, connecting Williams to his customers, partners, feedlot crew and industry contacts.
Williams is a co-owner of Chappell Feedlot, a 7,500-head custom feedlot in the rolling hills of the Nebraska Panhandle just north of I-80. While his trusted crew does most of the cattle handling, Williams does the bulk of the people handling. His job includes customer relations, risk management, marketing, arranging shipping schedules and working with the packers. And in his business, “customer relations“ is code for making better beef from start to finish.
“Our customers are primarily ranchers. We get to know every one of them and we’ve probably been to their ranch,“ he explains. “A large part of my job is working with customers on their data and helping them make genetic decisions.“ Genetic decisions that can move whole herds toward improved performance in the feedlot, at the packing house and on the dinner table.
Data gathered by Williams from the feedlot and the packer, such as daily gain, feed efficiency, health, carcass traits and quality grade, are all taken back to their rancher customers to help them produce a better product-and get paid for those adjustments.
Ranchers, such as Rod and Christine Lewis back in Lawrence County, Missouri, have used this data to essentially wave a big flag in front of potential buyers reading, “Proven Money Makers!“
Their most recent round of calves they fed at Chappell feedlot performed exceptionally well with no death loss and 80 percent of the calves grading choice. They wielded that information like the tool it is, sharing it with the marketing team at Joplin Regional Stockyards. The data undoubtedly played a part in the exceptional price the Lewises’ calves brought in spring 2015.
And they’re setting themselves up for even greater future successes. Data passed to them by Williams from the packer also clued them in that their ribeye area was one place they could tweak a little for an ever-more perfect and consistent product.
Scale and function
Though plenty of exceptional beef passes through Chappell Feedlot-in 2008 they received the Gold Award from Certified Angus Beef for harvesting 2,000 head of cattle qualifying for a premium program-they’re definitely not moving at the same clip as larger feedlots. This allows them to use some extra technologies, such as ultrasound, that may not be as cost effective in a larger setting.
Cattle need to be harvested at the exact point they’re ready. Feeding them a week too long or not long enough can both result in losses of quality grade at harvest. While experienced feedlot crews have a great eye for sorting cattle into groups that will finish together, Williams adds in ultrasound technology to take their accuracy to the next level.
When cattle are processed for their last implant before harvest, Chappell Feedlot crews use ultrasound to get an up close look at back fat, marbling, ribeye shape and a few other measurements to see how the cattle are progressing. Ear tags are then notched according to expected finish date and the cattle are pulled in those groups for harvest. This accuracy helps Williams hit many home runs when marketing his customers’ cattle on a grid.
“Quality equals dollars. Because we market cattle on a grid, the better the quality, the more return we get on those cattle,“ Williams says. “With ultrasound, we can identify and sort cattle and sell them on the appropriate grid. Our customers who have paid a lot of attention to carcass quality and quality grade over the years can achieve 70 to 80 percent Certified Angus Beef and 10 percent prime. You start hitting those numbers and you’re really enhancing value.“
Williams notes demand for not just quality beef, but very high quality beef, is going up, up, up.
“I was in a little small-town butcher shop in Wyoming and they said they were getting enough demand for prime beef that they were going to add it to their offering,“ Williams says. If there’s demand in small Wyoming towns, there’s probably demand for prime in a lot of other places, too. Fortunately, the beef industry is on the right path to serve this need.
“I’ve seen quality grade and marbling increase dramatically in the last decade in the industry,“ Williams says. And with the help of Chappell Feedlot shuttling data back and forth between packer and rancher, there should be even more quality steaks coming down the production line.
Back to the source
A big part of hitting those top quality grades is having a hale and healthy animal coming in and maintaining health status throughout their stay at Chappell. “A calf you have to treat two or three times, his grade won’t be very good. That’s pretty well documented,“ Williams says.
From the moment the cattle roll past the giant blazing red, spur-sporting boot marking the entrance to Chappell Feedlot, to the time they are loaded and headed to the packer, their health is carefully monitored and stewarded. Pen riders look at every calf daily, watching for dropped ears or a lack of appetite indicating illness. Calves are treated and immediately put back with their group.
“We don’t do sick pens unless an animal is lame,“ Williams says. He explains cattle, much like people, want to be home and comfortable when they feel under the weather. Their pen and their group is home. They’ll recover more quickly there. Single-dose antibiotics have helped them adopt this practice.
A stressed animal is more likely to get sick, so Chappell Feedlot dedicates a significant portion of time and infrastructure improvement to facilitate low-stress handling. Pens, alleys and working chutes are designed for natural flow of livestock, and pen riders spend time training new groups of cattle when they enter the yard.
“Cattle handling starts the day cattle get here. We settle the calves by moving them around a bit, teaching them we’re not a predator and how to work,“ Williams says. “This is important for their health and their well being. When we need to treat them, we can do so without stressing them more. Nothing is more stressful on a calf than having to rope and drag them out of a pen to treat them, we can avoid that with by laying some groundwork.“
Sometimes, despite all the right technique, groups of cattle will have health issues in the feedyard. This is a great opportunity for Williams to help his customers add more value to their future cattle.
“If we have a problem we can go back to the producer and help them look at their vaccine protocols and mineral programs. We’ll help them test their grass and soils for mineral deficiencies and help resolve the problem,“ Williams says. Without proper minerals, Williams notes cattle may not develop a good immune response to vaccines, making them more vulnerable to illness. Making minerals available is sometimes all the cattle need to have improved health and, as a result, perform better in the feedlot.
Working with rancher customers over the years has resulted in a lot of high quality cattle passing through Chappell Feedlot. And just like the Lewises and Joplin Regional Stockyards in the first two articles of this series, Chappell Feedlot has developed a reputation.
“Our reputation for quality cattle is well known among all the packers. Our target is to bring in high quality cattle, feed them to their genetic potential and get information back to our customers to take them to the next level. Quality cattle is what makes our operation stand out,“ Williams says.
A ranch manager before he purchased the feedlot in 1992 with his wife, Cindy, and partner, Billy Hall, Williams takes great joy in the task of advising his cattle producing customers.
“I’m a rancher at heart and I like genetics. This way I get to be involved in a lot of people’s herds and influence a lot of genetics. It’s really kind of a cool job.“
At the end of a long day, Williams can be found right back where he started.
“My favorite thing to do, my relaxation, is to load up my dog in the evening and take a drive through the feed lot and just look at the cattle. That’s kind of the reward of doing all this,“ he says.