The arrival of new cattle can create one of the more fraught times at any feedyard. And for the incoming cattle, the experience will be one of the more critical occasions in their entire lives. Those cattle need to be taken care of right away; there's no waiting for better weather, for other work to get done or for extra staff to be located. That's one of the reasons that some feedyard operators are bringing in crews of custom processors to get the job done.
Lee Reeve is among them. The owner of Reeve Cattle Co., a private feedyard in Garden City, Kan., he decided to use a custom processing crew about seven years ago. "Our custom crew provides a high-quality service when we need it," he says.
That concept of "just in time" service is a large part of the appeal of his business, says Fred Armstrong, whose crew does Mr. Reeve's processing. Mr. Armstrong and his wife, Sherri, own Armstrong Custom Cattle Service in Lakin, Kan., which offers all kinds of cattle-handling services. He says hiring a custom crew is a money-saving proposition.
"Because of the long-term cost of having an employee, we can provide the same service at a lower cost," Mr. Armstrong says. "If you don't need us, we're not there. The feedyard saves money by keeping staff slim. Receiving cattle can be very seasonal; for the feedyard to keep enough staff to stay on top of that, they have to run their staff a little bit fat. We take that burden off their back. We also reduce the transition costs that come with recruiting, training and staffing by 80 or 90 percent."
He thinks feedyards of any size can benefit from hiring out the processing job. "A small customer may not be large enough to keep staff for processing," Mr. Armstrong explains. "But I can take two smaller clients and put them together and use the same staff between two clients. A large yard can benefit because when times come that they're receiving a lot of cattle, a custom crew can bring in a couple of extra people and then they leave when the rush is over."
At Imperial Beef Feedyard in southwest Nebraska, they process every day using a custom crew. "We like to get the cattle worked first thing in the morning," says Jack Lawless, feedyard manager. "It's not economical to have enough staff on hand to do that when we're also shipping and feeding and doing everything else first thing in the morning." His crew is composed of local people, mostly local farm wives, who are trained by the feedyard staff and the consulting veterinarian.
Mr. Lawless says it's a good arrangement for everyone; he sees no downsides. As far as the performance of his custom crew goes, Mr. Lawless says it's high higher than what could be expected from anyone else. "We expect them to do a better job than we do because it's all they do," he says. "If it were a feed-truck driver, we might say, ‘Oh well, he's a feed-truck driver." But these are professional processors." The consulting veterinarian comes twice a month to monitor them and keep their training current.
Practice makes perfect
That professionalism and experience is an advantage regularly cited in relation to custom crews. "One of the main advantages is that a custom crew only has to process," says Scott McGregor, a veterinarian and co-owner of Livestock Consulting Services in Jerome, Idaho. "Because feedyard staff have to wear so many hats, they can be in more of a hurry. A custom crew has and takes more time. It's not a secondary job or thought process. It's what they do every day."
Dr. McGregor says his own experiences with custom processing crews have been nothing but positive. He has used them to randomize and give treatments in large-scale vaccination studies. In implant checks, he's seen many of the crews performing at 96 percent correct; some, he says, are at 100 percent.
So, when feedyard operators are considering using a custom crew, this is a factor that needs to be figured into the economics column. "When it comes to cost, every feedyard owner can do the pencil pushing and figure it out," says Marilyn Corbin, a veterinarian with Midwest Veterinary Services in Oakland, Neb. "What they really have to look at is not only labor or flat-rate pay, but things like vaccine efficacy, cattle handling and implant retention. For example, if the custom crew does a better job of implanting, not only does it save the cost of implants hitting the ground, but also additional gain is recognized from those that are properly implanted."
It's only natural that a custom processing crew would have good results at those tasks. "Everybody gets better with practice, no matter what they're doing," Dr. Corbin says. "The custom crew is not hurrying to go ride pens or feed cattle. If they're not hurrying, quality-assurance issues take a step forward to where they should be."
Mr. Reeve thinks there are additional benefits to the custom crew that might come under the heading of convenience or efficiency. "We always have the necessary number of people to process cattle," he says. "You don't have to use someone who doesn't understand how to process cattle properly when someone else is absent. We're not big enough to justify a full-time processing crew, but this service provides us a full crew when we need to process cattle."
The importance of training
Because every feedyard is different, a large part of the custom crew's work is to align itself with each feedyard, Mr. Armstrong says. "We sit down together and set goals: what they want to do, how they want to do it and when they want to do it."
Then he and his wife figure out the best way to get that done, and they put together the crew to do it. "Our forte is a system to recruit and train, and to know what people will work in what roles," Mr. Armstrong says. "My crews are a cross-section of the community in which we're doing business. There are lots of women, because they're better sometimes at cattle handling than men. I like having moms come and work for me because they can do two things at once. I can only do one thing at once," he adds, laughing. His crew training often involves bringing in industry leaders on product use and cattle handling.
Because of that close alignment with the way he works, Mr. Reeve says using a custom crew hasn't changed the operation of his yard at all. "Our operation is unique," Mr. Reeve says. "But, because of Armstrong's willingness to work with us and with our veterinarian, we have had a very successful working relationship."
The relationship with the consulting veterinarian is always critical; Dr. McGregor says he treats a custom crew just like a feedyard crew: he spends time with them and asks if they have any concerns. He integrates carefully with them, looks at things like shot placement and how large the needles are, and he visits with the foreman. "All react well," he says. "They're autonomous, but they're more than willing to listen."
With the availability of high-quality employees dwindling and the ability of the custom processor to use people more efficiently, Mr. Reeve believes that custom processing has a bright future. "When we look ahead and see the added complexity that is associated with managing individual ID systems, future crews will have to be more technically adept to work the chute," he says.
This challenge could be a disadvantage to using a custom crew, for instance, if their turnover is too high, if they send out people who are not well-trained or if they're not dependable. None of these have ever been a problem for Mr. Reeve. In fact, he says, "We generally see the same people. They are familiar with the way we think and our system. It's almost as if they work just for us."
Still, questions about turnover are one of the most frequently heard concerns from feedyard operators, Mr. Armstrong says. "I say whether it's me or your own department, processing is hard work: it's too hot or too cold; it's too muddy or too dusty. There is a lot of turnover in this sector because it's such hard work." But, Mr. Armstrong also points out that he has some people working for him who have been with him since day one.
That was 10 years ago, and he's seen some major shifts in the industry since then. At that time, BQA audits were coming out and beef consumption per capita was stagnant. "Producers were worried about getting more market share, but BQA was showing problems with the product and there were dollar figures tied to that. Economics was the driving factor for change. It created an opportunity for me to say that we understand where the industry is headed; we will specialize and do a better job."
Today, the whole industry is doing a better job on many of the problem areas revealed by BQA audits. Now, being a low-cost provider of cattle-handling services is more important to his operation than ever.
The other most frequently heard question from feedyard operators is: What makes you accountable? "My philosophy is that I want a long-term relationship so we can both be in business together," Mr. Armstrong says. "Some people think a custom processing crew is here today, gone tomorrow. But if I'm not accountable, I don't have a job."
He warns that his attitude is not that of every custom processing crew. "You need to research the crew you're going to hire, because they're different," he says. "Be careful about who you do business with."
Dr. Corbin echoes that thought, saying that depending on the particular crew, any potential advantages of using a custom crew could also end up being disadvantages. "But in my opinion, it isn't really about advantages or disadvantages. It's about the quality of processing and the quality of cattle handling and the crews" willingness to do it correctly," she says. "Custom processing offers another avenue to get it done correctly." And the end goal always remains the same: to produce a safe and wholesome product. "If we don't get the right end result, I don't care whose crew it is, we're going to fix it."