70’s Feedlot Consulting in Other Areas
One of my favorite consulting areas was the Northwest, and more specifically, Idaho. Joe Albertson, who owned Albertson’s food chain stores, had a feedlot on an island in the Snake River near Nyssa, OR, named Gamble Island. His manager, Frank Hight, had a lease on the property. He had started feeding cattle before Joe bought it.
Joe was probably the nicest rich man I’ve ever known, but obviously he could be tough or he wouldn’t have been so successful. Frank was a local boy who had gone through the Merchant Marines. He always loved water and landed on the island when he came back.
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Frank kept adding to the feedlot size until he ended up with 8,000 to 10,000 head. Joe said that was enough, and he asked Frank to get the cattle off the island because he wanted to make it a hunting preserve. He told Frank he could do whatever he wanted working for him in the future. Frank confessed that he just wanted to feed cattle, and to appease Frank, Joe built a 25,000-head feedlot on a hill near Nyssa, OR.
Two major events got me started on the Northwest consulting circuit – they were urinary calculi (water belly) and wheat feeding. Most of the feedstuffs in the Northwest tend to be high in phosphorus and, of course, the grain is low in calcium. At that time, there were a lot of liquid supplements sold in the area, but they couldn’t suspend calcium in them. As a result, they had inverse calcium-phosphorus ratios and lots of water belly problems. I was able to solve the problem but not totally eliminate it.
There is a lot of wheat in the Northwest, and it tends to differ from wheat in other areas. Tom Hovedon, who was secretary of the Idaho Cattle Feeders Association, put on a great annual program. One year he had Ralph “Bull” Durham as main speaker. Ralph was promoting his all-concentrate feeding program. He made a round of several feedlots, and encouraged them to use an all-concentrate wheat-feeding program. The results were predictable and disastrous, and consequently, I started getting a lot of calls and new clients.
I also had some experience with potato feeding, which is big in the Northwest, especially with Simplot. My Idaho clients included Albertsons (Frank Hight), Rich Hormachea, Gary Chipman, Simplot (John Basabe), Richard Blinco and Ralph Harding. I learned that the Idaho folks not only knew how to feed cattle, they also knew how to play and party.
When in eastern Idaho, we often stayed at the Holiday Inn in Twin Falls. During that time, Evil Knievel was preparing for his motorcycle jump across the Snake River near Twin Falls. Knievel would sometimes join our party and, obviously, he was a daredevil, but in that group he was the quiet one.
You could write a book on any of these individuals because each was colorful in his own way. Joe Albertson finally announced to Frank that he was tired of feeding cattle and was going to sell the new feedlot. He would find another job for Frank doing whatever he wanted to do.
However, Frank still wanted to be involved in the cattle business, and he had enough Albertson stock to make himself comfortable. He fed cattle around Caldwell for a few years and began to concentrate on grazing yearlings in Nevada. Even when he quit feeding cattle, I still stayed with Frank and Doris when I was in that area—they were great people. Frank had some good grazing leases in the Ruby Valley area of Nevada, and over the years he made good money on yearlings.
At one time, Nevada did not have a speed limit. After they instituted one, Frank was legendary for his speeding tickets. I was talking to Frank one day, and he said, “I might be in trouble. I got a ticket for going a 110 mph near Elko, and I’ve got to appear in court.” I advised, “Frank, you need a cruise control for your car,” and he replied, “I’ve got one but it doesn’t work. I had it set on a 100 mph and damned if they didn’t ticket me for 110 mph.”
Albertson’s sold the Nyssa, OR, feed yard to Victoria Cattle Company and they brought a man in from California to manage it. They asked if I would stay as a nutrition consultant. The new manager had a lot of feedlot experience in California, but did not get along well in the Northwest. The feedyard was on a steep hill with very little winter protection and it occasionally would really get cold and windy.
In October, the manager and I were driving around the feedyard and I noted they brought in almost 10,000 head of Brahma cross and Mexican cattle. I said, “These cattle could really be a wreck if you have a bad winter.”
His reply was, “You balance the damn rations and I’ll take care of the #@$%^ &%$@* cattle.”
When I went back to the office, I gave him some ration changes and turned in my resignation.
“You don’t need to be so sensitive,” he told me. I said, “I’m not, but I’ve seen enough wrecks the past few years, and I don’t want to be here for this one.”
They shipped most of the cattle back to Bakersfield 4-5 months later because they were sore-footed, foundered, and the like. Not long after this time, Victoria filed bankruptcy.
John Basabe was a rough, tough Basque who worked and played hard and J.R. Simplot loved him. Simplot had several feedyards in Idaho, including his first one near Caldwell, which was run by Bill Richardson. Each of the feedyards fed a lot of potato waste.
Richardson and Tom Hovedon were big buddies and liked to party at the Saratoga in Caldwell. One night some hippie-looking kids from California came into the bar, and Bill asked them what the hell they were doing. They admitted that they had been duck hunting but had only shot a few teal. Bill said, “Come with me, I can get you more geese than that with my pickup.” He drove out to a pasture full of geese below the feedyard. He made a figure eight through them and I believe they gathered up 16 dead geese. Anyway, Bill sent the hunters home happy.
I learned that if you made a suggestion to Basabe that he liked, it would be implemented on a large scale immediately. He called me one night saying, “You’ve got to get up here, there’s something wrong with our potato pit.” When I arrived at their large feedyard below Grandview, there was indeed something strange in the potato pit. The potato plant had changed the process for peeling the potatoes from steam to a lye peel that raised the pH of the potato peel waste to an incredibly high level.
Since Simplot produced phosphoric acid fertilizer, I figured out how much phosphorous acid to add to the peel waste to get the pH down to supply supplemental phosphorus. I meant this to be mixed at the potato plant in Caldwell, but John decided to add it directly into the pit at Grandview. He sent an employee into the pit on a tractor pulling a weed sprayer full of phosphorus acid. Predictably, the tractor sank in the middle of the pit.
We had a photograph taken by Baxter Black of the driver standing on top of the tractor hood just before it went out of sight. A rope was thrown to him, and he was pulled him of the pit. I don’t know what happened to the tractor and sprayer.
Baxter had just joined the Simplot staff as feedlot veterinarian, and he was doing his best to please John and get along with me as well. He and his first wife lived in a house up the hill from the feedyard so he could never get far from the job.
One Sunday afternoon John picked me up at the airstrip, and we went to the feedyard. “Oh, damn,” John said, “I was supposed to go see Baxter this morning and I forgot.” He called Baxter and apologized. Baxter answered, “That’s okay, because it got my wife to take down the Christmas tree.” This was in April.
Tom Hovedon, Secretary of Idaho Cattle Feeders for several years, was also a writer for Champ Gross at Calf News. He loved the feedlot industry. He was one of the best writers I’ve ever known, and he had a great sense of humor.
Tom who was originally from Nevada related a great Nevada story about three fellows who decided to go to Winnemucca to enjoy the entertainment. Later that weekend, they were fishing with a fourth man who was a physician, and one of the fellows mentioned he was getting some bad pains in his “private parts” area. The doctor asked if they had visited the red light district in Winnemucca, to which they confessed they had. The MD then advised them to come in for penicillin shots, saying, “Also, if you need to, bring your wives.” That was probably good advice, except for one thing: it turned out that the fellow with the groin pain had kidney stones.
At one point in the late ’70s, I believe I had approximately 30 clients in 18 states. If that isn’t the definition of insanity, at the very least it’s the game plan of a fool. Obviously, I wasn’t spending the time I should have with family and people who care.
As I said before, I’m going to spend more time in this book recounting humorous events because I truly believe that “laugh and the world laughs with you, but weep and you weep alone.” Perhaps my funniest conversation occurred near Great Bend, KS, at a feedlot owned and managed by Tom Taylor.
When I arrived one day he apprised me, “We’ve got a customer from northeast Iowa, and he’s got a couple of pens of fat cattle he won’t sell. I’m going to arrange for him to ride with us and we’ll stop in front of his fattest pen. You tell him why he needs to sell them.”
We stopped in front of a pen of his overfed Herefords, and I pointed out that feed prices were then at an all-time high and gain costs would be astronomical if these cattle weren’t marketed soon.
His reply was, “Young fellow, let me tell you something. Back in the early ’50s I sent a trainload of cattle to the Chicago stockyards, and they screwed me around. So, I took them home and fed them another year, and you know what – cattle don’t eat much that last year.”
Although he didn’t mean it to be, this was both a funny and an astute observation, because once cattle reach their physiological end point of finish, their consumption drops dramatically. I had a friend that fed a small group of Angus steers on a finish ration for four years. He said the consumption went down to a maintenance level after two years on feed and they didn’t gain or lose a pound the final year.
One of my favorite small and out of the way clients was Western Slope near Grand Junction, CO. Bill Larimore was the manager and part owner of the feedyard. The other owners were the Boice family from Arizona. Pancho Boice was the de facto head of the group, but he was killed in a plane crash on the way to the feedyard.
They grew and finished cattle at the feedyard, and once a year they would receive about 4,000 Arizona Hereford calves to finish (these were the old-style Herefords). At that time, there were so many packing plants that they could shop for a new buyer each year.
However, in ’74, the only way they could sell them was “in the beef” at the Excel plant in eastern Colorado. This is the first time we got to look at these cattle on the rail and the results weren’t pretty. The majority of the carcass quality grade was no roll or good, the cutability was 4s and 5s, and there were numerous docks for light carcass weights.
They bought a large amount of silage each fall from local producers, and one year they asked me to develop a percentage formula for premiums and discounts based on silage dry matter. I asked them what they wanted to use for an average dry matter and they said 30%. They were paying $14 per ton delivered to the pit.
I said a 1% percent variation in dry matter is approximately a 3% premium or discount. I suggested using no premium or discount for 29% to 31% dry matter silage, and then applying premium and discounts at the rate of 3% per dry matter percentage point variation. In other words a 35% dry matter product would have a five times three or 15% premium, and a 25% dry matter product would have a five times three or 15% discount.
They liked the idea and that’s the last I heard of it until 7 p.m. one evening when I got a call from their office and they said they were celebrating the final silage delivery. Bill informed me, “Your damn formula doesn’t work.”
“Why?” I asked. He said, “Because the last guy’s replanted silage was only 25% dry matter. With a $3 per percentage point deduction that’s $15 per ton. We’re only paying him $14 base price so he ends up owing us a $1 per ton for the silage he delivers.”
My heart sunk, but I dug out the file, looked at the formula and saw that it read “percent” not “dollars.” They had reprinted their own contract and substituted the dollars for percent. Fortunately, most of their silage had been very consistent, around 29% to 31% dry matter, so the premiums and discounts didn’t mean anything until the last field. Anyway, they went back to their bourbon and the fellow who thought he was going to own them a $1 per ton for delivering his silage was pacified.
Next week: Chapter 11 – Clayton and Union County, NM – Feedlots, grass, bankers and the James family
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