June 3, 2010

My Day At the Feedlot. ~ Ryan Andrews

My day at the feedlot got off to a rough start.

Maybe it’s because I wore this shirt.  Bad move on my part.

Actually, to be honest, my day at the feedlot got off to a great start in Hudson, Colorado.

We met at the Pepper Pod, then up to Wiggins.

An animal science instructor and student from Colorado State University offered to escort me to Magnum Feedyard in Wiggins, CO.  Magnum is one of 14,000 beef cattle operations in Colorado.  Yeah – I know, 14,000.

We arrived at Magnum.

When I arrived, yes, it smelled.  Would you expect anything else?  I was in the midst of 20,000+ steers and heifers.  Welcome to farming.

In the U.S. there are 2.2 million farms.  98% of them meet the USDA definition of a “family farm.”  The USDA considers a “family farm” any farm where the majority of the business is owned by the operator and his/her relatives.  Steve Gabel, president of the Colorado Livestock Association owns Magnum, and runs it with his family.

So, Magnum fits this criterion.

This is me and Steve Gabel, owner of Magnum.

So what’s a “factory farm”?  The term “factory farm” was termed by skeptics, as it is not verbage used in the agricultural community.  Large animal feeding units are often termed “CAFOs.”  CAFO = Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.  A CAFO has more than 1,000 animal units, and 1 beef cow = 1 animal unit.  75% of beef animals in the U.S. come from CAFOs.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, CAFOs “congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area.  Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland.”

So, Magnum fits the criterion of a CAFO.

Wait a minute, so how do we classify Magnum?  I don’t really know.  They were started and are run by a family.  But they also congregate more than 1,000 beef cattle.  So, take your pick.

Magnum houses 22,000 cattle.

Magnum had 4500 cattle when it started in 1993.  Now they have 22,000.  Operations are managed with 8-13 employees (depending on the time of year).

When animals arrive at Magnum, they are usually 7 – 9 months of age, and receive four days of 100% grass feed to help maintain rumen health.  Cattle are normally kept on the feedlot until around 12 to 15 months of age (180-200 days on feed), during this time they gain 500 to 600 pounds.

Feedlot cattle feed

Don’t all feedlot cattle get 100% corn – with maybe a sprinkling of soy mixed in?


There are five different rations used at Magnum, comprised of seven ingredients, including corn, soy, alfalfa, straw, and wet grain distillers (by-products of the ethanol industry).

A wet distiller, corn based.

One of the rations is corn based.

Another ration is grass based.

Feed is delivered by a truck three times each day.  Corn doesn’t comprise more than 50% of a feed ration.  There’s no such thing as an “all grain” cattle diet at Magnum.

This is the feed truck that makes its rounds three times per day.

This is where all the feed ingredients are mixed in the back of the truck.

The goal at Magnum is to feed cattle efficiently.  They want the biggest weight gain for the fewest pounds of feed, in the most economical way.  Per day at Magnum, the cost per head of cattle is $2.10.  Grab you pen and paper folks, multiply $2.10 by 22,000 cattle.  Lots of money, every day.

The Holiday Inn
Have you ever been to a Holiday Inn?  That’s kind of like Magnum.  They are a hotel for cattle.  Profit increases as occupancy increases.

But there’s a slight difference.  Upon checkout from the Holiday Inn you get a free newspaper, a mint, and a shuttle to the airport.  When you checkout from Magnum, you get a one way shuttle to the slaughterhouse.

The sign you see when leaving Magnum.

Nearly every week, a truck picks up cattle and transports them to a meat packing plant.  This is where cattle are harvested and the carcasses fabricated.  It’s important for the cattle to be transported quickly and calmly.  The more stressed the animal, the lower quality the meat.

95% of the steers and heifers from Magnum are sold to two packers, both in Colorado, JBS Swift in Greeley and Cargill Meat Solutions in Fort Morgan.  The meat from these cows makes its way nationwide.

Waste at Magnum
Magnum recently started composting manure and mortalities.  It’s gotten more expensive to send deceased cattle to processing plants that manufacture pet foods, so this was the next best option, plus it’s more sustainable.

Too much grain in a cow’s diet may result in rumen acidosis.  That is why the animals diets are formulated by nutritionists bi-weekly to maintain the correct feed for a given pen of animals; and at Magnum are never given more that 50% corn.  Escherichia coli O157:H7 is a natural occurring pathogen in the digestive tract of cattle, but can be minimized through production practices, i.e. clean living conditions.  And while O157:H7 has been considered an adulterant in food since 1994 by the USDA, non-O157 strains, which can be just as problematic, are not.  Non-O157 strains of E. coli aren’t regulated.

E. coli serogroups O26, O111, O145, and others have become a public health problem, accounting for 37,000 illnesses and 30 deaths in the U.S. alone.

Studies reveal no difference in E. coli O157:H7 prevalence or numbers between cattle fed grain vs. grass.  There are no studies that show superiority for one system vs. the other.

Cattle care
Magnum wants the cattle to be comfortable.

I know, I know, I can see my animal welfare comrades shaking their heads — but think about it.  From a profit standpoint, if animals aren’t comfortable, they aren’t going to eat.  If they don’t eat, they don’t grow.  If they don’t grow, they won’t be much use to the dude wanting to buy a big steak.

And don’t forget, farming is hard work.  Technology is improving to make things a bit easier.  Many cattle are tagged with identification and tracked.  Magnum even has guys riding on horses around pens called, well, “pen riders,” who check cattle for problems.  An animal nutritionist even comes on site every couple weeks to check how the cattle are feeding.  If anything looks out of the ordinary, a session with the vet is likely. Sick animals are taken to a “hospital” pen and given care.

The two most common health problems at feedlots are, 1) “nutrition related” and 2) pneumonia.

Newsflash:  Let’s face it, most people in North America haven’t been to a doctor since their mom took them before high school graduation.  Further, most humans acquire “feed” from the Cocoa Puff and Pop-Tart aisle.  Yes, what I’m trying to say is that Magnum feedyard cattle receive better health care than many North Americans.  They get regular vet appointments and a simple diet that is nutrient dense.  I think we can all agree the living conditions are debatable.  But before you rag on feedlot health care, how do your habits compare?

Males born on dairy farms are of little value (think mammary glands).  So, many go to feedlots.  If you want to know what feedlot cattle were males born on dairy farms, look for Holsteins.  The black and white spotted ones.

Lots of feedlot cattle were males born on dairy farms.

For those concerned with branding.  Branding is used as a permanent form of identification, but tags are used more in daily operations.

Check out the branding on the rear quarters.

Growth-promoting hormones are used in feedlot cattle as it increases efficiency.  These are naturally occurring hormones that are regularly metabolized by the body.  Most cattle don’t get antibiotics.  And if they do, they need it.  Further, they won’t be sent to slaughter until 21 days after antibiotic administration, since it takes that long for the antibiotic to clear the system.

Organic feed
According to Magnum, organic feed doesn’t seem to increase meat quality or safety.  But it does allow consumers another option and organic farming practices may have some benefits for the planet.

Less than 1% of American cropland is certified organic.  If a lot more was, it would require a lot more composted animal manure.  Fortunately, Magnum is on the right track (with composting) if this pattern were to take hold.

At the end of the day, Magnum is competing for the protein food dollar.  Mainstream America is currently buying conventionally fed meat from cattle, so, feedlots keep producing it.

If we continue to eat 200+ pounds of meat per person per year in the U.S., grass-fed isn’t really an option.  But it would be an option for meat eaters if we reduced overall meat consumption.  Is that something our nation is willing to do?

I was tired of talking about, reading about, and hearing about feedlots.  So I wanted to check one out for myself.

Here were the thoughts I had while driving home from Magnum:

For the amount we procreate in the U.S. (there’s a birth every 8 seconds and a death every 12 seconds);

And the amount of meat we eat (222 pounds per person, per year – not including marine life);

And the small amount of money we’re willing to spend on food (we spend 9.6% of our disposable income on food, the lowest in the world.  India spends 53%, Venezuela 34%, Italy 26%, Japan 19%, France 16%);

Feedlots have it right on.  The system is dialed in.

Now, to be clear, we don’t require meat in our diet.  And I don’t think we should be using cows for food, doesn’t matter if the cattle are kept on a feedlot or chilling in a waterbed listening to John Tesh.  But that’s my own value system and I’m well aware that 97% of people in the U.S. eat meat on a regular basis.

So, meat eaters, hopefully this article adds to your knowledge base and allows you to make a better informed decision.  You have a vote to make.  Make it each time you shop for food.

Thanks to Travis Hoffman, Steve Gabel, Julie Moore, and Morgan Gaither.  Many people in the nutrition world are never allowed to view a feedlot.  Travis, Steve, Julie, and Morgan were all very accommodating, and I was treated with the utmost respect.

Ryan trained and worked at Johns Hopkins, one of the most recognized and awarded research institutions in the world.  Throughout his time in university, Ryan was trained in Exercise Physiology, Nutrition, and Dietetics. He is a dietitian, strength/conditioning specialist, and works with various non-profit organizations.  He has done numerous presentations and written hundreds of articles about nutrition, exercise and health. He currently serves as Director of Education for Precision Nutrition.

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