Cattle business risky even with technological advances

By Baxter Black: Humor Columnist

This summer, within 30 days of each other, I was at the Idaho Old Timer’s Feedlot Reunion where the average age of attendees was close to 70, and the Adams County, Iowa, Cattle Feeders and Farm Bureau BBQ where the average age of attendees was under 40.

My generation is the one in between those two. I worked for the old timers when they were in their prime, and I am still able to serve as a somewhat slow but occasionally useful advisor to the younger set.

There are glaring differences between the old-time feeders and the new ones. Technology is the most obvious.

In the 1960s and early ’70s, most data collection was done by hand or with primitive punch card automation. Feed truck drivers carried clipboards with load weights, average daily gain was calculated at the end of 120 days when the heavy end of the pen sold, and cutbacks were lumped together to go into oblivion.

In the Midwest, feed was mixed like cement — five scoops of corn per bucket load of silage and a cup full of supplement sprinkled on top. Packing house buyers sorted fat cattle in the alley favoring blacks and black ballys simply because they matured quicker and assumed they would grade higher. Charlais were discriminated against and considered an exotic breed.

The old timers were the first to be forced to deal with the Environmental Protection Agency. It took many years for these individualist stubborn cattle feeders to acknowledge that the EPA was not going away.

Today the modern feedlot functions like many other 21st century businesses. It is a highly computerized business allowing commodity inventories to be monitored and costs to be projected. Safety and quality control are priority. Environmental protections are in place and officially approved.

Today the paperwork nightmare has been replaced by an efficient, readily available electronic database that serves as a management tool as well as a feeding history.

Yet there is one factor that has remained consistent from the old timers in Idaho down through the young lions in Iowa — the risk; that same gambler’s urge that has driven people who feed cattle to hang it all out, to bet their knowledge and experience and borrowed money on a fickle, explosive, unpredictable market. It’s the thrill of the chase.

Granted, you can hedge your cattle, you can feed ’em to gain, meet all the EPA’s requirements, use every product that promises production, but time has taught us that nothing is a sure-fire guarantee.

As one ol’ timer told me, no matter how much technology modern man can create — it’s hard to break even if ya don’t buy ‘em right!