Visionary, entrepreneur, cattleman, pioneer, businessman and philanthropist. All words that describe Earl Brookover, the man credited with launching the commercial cattle feeding industry in western Kansas in 1951. One profile about Brookover written more than 40 years ago suggests his career achievements “would have been enough for half a dozen men.”
Indeed, Brookover’s legacy encompasses many endeavors, but his life’s achievements can be traced back to a single interest, according to grandson Ty Brookover.
“Water. He had the foresight to understand water use on the High Plains was critical to the sustainability of agriculture,” Ty says.
Born in Scott County on a dryland wheat and cattle farm in 1906, Brookover’s interest in irrigation began in high school when he worked on a neighboring irrigated farm. During the next decade he learned about irrigation working on water projects in Texas and drilling wells in California and South America. He spent three and a half years drilling irrigation wells for W.R. Grace Co. sugar cane plantations in Peru.
Upon his return to the U.S., Brookover earned a degree in civil engineering from Kansas State University (K-State) in 1934. In a profile published in the K-Stater, Brookover said of that period in his life, “When I came back to the U.S. I had an awareness of the potential of irrigation on the High Plains. I enrolled at Kansas State and took civil engineering because it had a few groundwater courses. That was about as close as you could come to irrigation engineering at the time.”
After graduation, he developed several irrigation farms in western Kansas. One strategy led to another more sophisticated design and by 1946 he had drilled a gas well to power the irrigation pumps. Significant increases in milo production led to the realization that cattle feeding could be economically feasible in the area. In addition, Brookover reasoned the dry climate and milder winter weather provided natural advantages for cattle feeding.
Brookover visited feedyards in California and Arizona and adapted the same business model to western Kansas. In fall 1951, he and his partner drove 300 to 400 head of cattle on horseback from a Finney County pasture to feedlot pens he had built northwest of Garden City. Soon after, Brookover received cattle from his first customer, Bob Mayer from Denver. His first feedyard was built on 160 acres with capacity for 2,000 head of cattle.
Within months of opening his feedyard, Brookover was approached by other western Kansas producers to custom feed their cattle. From there, the original Brookover Feed Lot grew to a 40,000-head one-time capacity and spawned the cattle feeding industry in western Kansas, which soon had pen space for more than 1 million head. The migration of large beef packing companies from their urban origins to the High Plains also followed.
“He had a gift to evaluate a business or enterprise and make it profitable,” Ty says. “He was especially good at developing sustainable uses for land others considered marginal.”
In the book, “Riding Point,” a centennial history of the Kansas Livestock Association, author Jim Hoy described how Brookover sought new ways to use mechanization.
“He approached his new enterprise scientifically, hiring a livestock specialist from K-State, Bass Powell, to manage the yard,” Hoy wrote. “Powell instituted twice-a-day feeding from mechanical wagons, with silage wagons being filled by a custom loader invented especially for Brookover by Harry Oswalt.”
As a businessman, Brookover earned many accolades, but none more valuable than the respect and admiration of his many employees.
“I was proud to work for Earl Brookover,” says Keith Downer, who Brookover hired in 1962 and who retired as head cowboy at Brookover Feed Lot. “We always had good horses and good people.”
Downer describes his friend and employer as “a man of few words. He was quick to size up a situation, and when he spoke you could bet it would turn out the way he described. If you worked for him he trusted you to do the job and turned you loose to do that job.”
Brookover’s interests extended beyond his growing businesses. “He was a big supporter of the city, the county and the region, in addition to his employees,” Downer says.
One close personal friend described Brookover as “a pragmatic intellectual who was a doer. He was a voracious reader in history and ideas and a forward thinker who had a concern for the land and for future generations who would live on it.”
Brookover’s service to community and industry was far reaching. He was a substantial contributor to his alma mater, including a $125,000 pledge for meat animal research. He was a trustee of the K-State Endowment Association, a member of the Steer-A-Year Club, the K-State Agricultural Advisory Council and the Livestock and Meat Industry Council and an honorary member of the K-State Block and Bridle Club. Brookover served as president of the Kansas Livestock Association in 1967, regional vice president of the American National Cattlemen’s Association and a director on the Kansas State Chamber of Commerce.
In 1976, Brookover received K-State’s Distinguished Service Award and was honored as “Kansas Stockman of the Year” by the Livestock and Meat Industry Council. His portrait hangs in Weber Hall on K-State’s campus. Ten years after his death in 1985, Brookover was inducted into the Kansas Business Hall of Fame.
Brookover married Denelda in 1934, and they had four children, Sandra, Mary, Jane and E.C., Jr. Today Brookover Companies operate two feedyards, Brookover Feed Yard and Brookover Ranch Feed Yard, with a combined capacity of 80,000 head.