Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame: W.D. Farr

The Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame is a new program, launched this year to celebrate the rich traditions of the cattle-feeding industry and recognize individ-uals who have devoted their careers to pre-serving its mission and improving production practices. Early this spring, a committee nominated a handful of deserving individuals, and cattle feeders from around the country voted for their top two.

Intervet/Schering-Plough Animal Health sponsors the program and plans to hold a reception in June to formally announce the hall's first two inductees: Paul Engler of Cactus Feeders Inc., Amarillo, Texas, and the late W.D. Farr of Greeley, Colo.

Drovers is proud to present profiles of the inductees, offering a glimpse at the business strategies that contributed to their long-term success.


Young cowboy goes far

Imagine it's 1926. A 16-year-old high school student from a Greeley farm signs on for a summer job tending bred heifers in the high-mountain rangeland of western Colorado. He and another young man spend the summer under the open sky, calving 250 heifers, moving the herd to fresh grass and fending for themselves. After another year of school, he returned to do it again the following summer.

The young man was W.D. Farr, and those summers in the saddle were the beginning of an adventure that spanned the rest of the century, leaving a permanent stamp on the business of cattle feeding.

Farr, who passed away in August 2007 at the age of 97, is widely known as a pioneer in Colorado agriculture, with his career ranging across farming, ranching, cattle feeding, water development, banking and government. A modest effort to research his life uncovers enough prestigious awards and leadership positions to fill the space allotted for this article. So instead of listing them, we'll focus on his work in cattle feeding, which led to his induction to the Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame.

"Those summers in the mountains were a great learning experience for dad," says his son Dick Farr, of Greeley. "That's when he developed his love for cattle and interest in the cattle business." W.D. wasn't new to the livestock business. His father and grandfather operated a well-established sheep operation, with capacity for feeding up to 120,000 lambs in the Greeley area.

Following high school, W.D. briefly attended the University of Wisconsin before illness and the Great Depression brought him back to Colorado to work on the farm.

"In 1928," Dick Farr says, "dad convinced his grandfather to add a few pens for finishing cattle." Sensing an opportunity in cattle feeding, the family steadily added more cattle pens in the ensuing years, gradually shifting the business to cattle.

Production innovation

As he became more involved, W.D. continuously experimented, looking for ways to improve and develop the business of cattle feeding. During the 1940s, he and a few other cattle feeders formed an informal group called the Greeley T-Bone Club. The men would meet regularly for discussion over a steak dinner, brainstorming ideas for making cattle feeding more efficient and profitable.

Dick Farr says one of his father's first innovations was to install fenceline feedbunks. Prior to that, workers would haul feed wagons into each pen to manually shovel feed into a bunk. "They spent half their time opening and closing gates," he says. The ability to feed from outside the pens greatly improved efficiency and reduced feed waste.

Around the same time, W.D. befriended another pioneering Greeley cattle feeder, Warren Monfort. Dick Farr says the two of them were interested in automation and, with the help of their mechanics, modified trucks to deliver feed, eliminating the need to shovel rations into the bunks. They also developed ways to use tractor PTO drives to operate feed wagons with augers and adapt tractor-mounted loaders to fill the wagons.

A knack for numbers

As much as he loved the "hands-on" aspects of cattle feeding, Dick Farr says his father also had a great interest in records and accounting. He had become involved in banking and served on local bank boards for many years. When computers became available in the 1960s, banks were the first businesses to begin using the technology. Dick Farr says his father quickly recognized the value computing could bring to cattle feeding. He contracted with the bank to computerize his feed records, using the old punch-card system. Each morning he had printed feed sheets on his desk showing records from the previous day, including individual ingredients and prices, and total pounds mixed and delivered to each pen.

The system streamlined feedyard accounting and feed billing, and the records improved access to credit. The bank eventually formed a separate company offering computing services to other cattle feeders.

Eye on the environment

By the late 1960s, the Farr feedyard had grown to about 25,000 head and filled its available space. At the same time, Greeley's expansion was filling the buffer between the feedyard and town. The family decided to move the operation and selected a site on the plains east of town. "We spent two years designing the new facility," Dick Farr says. The engineering plan accounted for feed-truck traffic flow, easy access to pens, cattle movement and, particularly, drainage.

W.D. took an early interest in environmental issues and wanted to minimize the operation's impact. All the pens, Dick Farr says, were designed with enough slope to allow water to drain easily but without enough velocity to erode or scour manure solids from the surface. "The cheapest place to handle manure is in the pens," he says, rather than in the lagoons.

Once the new feedyard was up and running, Dick Farr says his father was gratified to see that the design worked, offering state-of-the-art production efficiency and environmental protection. And it still works today under different ownership.

As feedyards grew bigger and more concentrated, animal health became an important issue. Dick Farr notes that, prior to the 1970s, producers had little in the way of vaccines or treatments for cattle. Recognizing that need, W.D. worked closely with researchers and students from the veterinary college at nearby Colorado State University and tested products for animal-health companies.

Learning the market

W.D. also was ahead of most of the industry in recognizing the importance of producing beef to satisfy consumers. He and the small group who pioneered cattle feeding on the High Plains began with a business model that was new to the industry. Prior to that time, most cattle feeding took place in the Corn Belt region, largely as a sideline for corn growers needing an option for marketing their excess grain. W.D. and these western feeders envisioned cattle feeding as a stand-alone business, targeting specific markets and cattle endpoints in terms of weights, dressing percentage and marbling.

Back in the family's lamb-feeding days, Dick Farr says his father routinely accompanied trains carrying loads of finished lambs to the Chicago stockyards for marketing. He sorted the lambs into pens, and packer buyers would cherry-pick their purchases over several days. W.D. often would spend the whole week at the stockyards before catching a train back to Greeley. He spent much of his spare time in the cattle yards talking with cattle buyers and learning about fat-cattle marketing.

He also developed relationships that carried through his career. Many of those cattle buyers, Dick Farr says, went on to become top executives with the big packing companies, and W.D. maintained his friendships with them. "There's sometimes an adversarial relationship between buyers and sellers," Dick Farr says. "But dad thought of the packers as his partners and friends. To him, anyone in the cattle business was his partner."

He was interested in making that relationship better and took an early interest in beef quality and grading. He pushed for a uniform grading system and served on the grading committee at the National Cattlemen's Association. Much of the industry resisted grading, Dick Farr recalls, but a standardized system of USDA quality and yield grades allowed retailers to refine their beef purchasing and marketing, resulting in dramatic expansion of the beef case and the supermarket business. "He was usually about 25 years ahead of everyone else in his thinking," Dick Farr says of his father.

Take a drive around Greeley today and you'll find Farr Park and Farr Library, the town's newest. Drive west over the mountains and you can see the Farr Pumping Plant near Lake Granby, recognizing W.D."s lifelong dedication to water projects benefiting agriculture in Colorado. He was a driving force behind the Colorado–Big Thompson Project, which created a tunnel through the Continental Divide to bring water to Front Range farms and communities.

As the Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame grows in the future, the inaugural induction of W.D. Farr creates a great foundation.