Isaias Delgado walks into the processing barn at Garden City Feedyard and smiles. He's in his element, and he's among friends.
The processing crew looks up from their work to see what the interruption is all about. They smile too, glad to see their teacher, mentor and friend has returned to spend more time helping them achieve their goal of being the best processing crew to ever close a headgate at the 90,000-head operation just outside Garden City, KS.
But feedyard veterinarian John Peirce has the biggest grin of all. His smile practically lights up the dark corners of the processing barn, because he's closing the loop on a training conundrum that's nipped at his heels and bedeviled the feedyard for too long.
You see, Peirce doesn't speak much Spanish. The crew doesn't speak much English — in fact, only one or two crewmembers speak any English at all. To that situation, add this tidbit — only two of the seven-man processing crew had any experience with cattle before coming to work at the feedyard.
For a man as intense and driven to do the basics of animal health correctly as John Peirce, that presented a problem. A big problem. In a feedyard, if the processing crew doesn't do its job right, nobody else has a chance. You can't manage your way out of a health wreck partly caused by a bad processing crew and poorly processed calves.
But if you can't communicate closely with your crew to not only show them how to do the job correctly, but explain why, all you're doing is overseeing a wreck in the making. The dollar-and-cents impact of that is huge, Peirce says, and nearly impossible to calculate. But it is very, very real.
“If you're not doing high-end, quality processing, you're enabling a higher incidence of sickness. First, of course, are sheer treatment costs, which are not inconsequential; then performance losses, measured in rate of gain, cost of gain and conversion factors. Each of those, if you just look at a tenth of a pound a day, are substantial over the course of the feeding period.”
Peirce says to think of it in terms of lost RPMs. “Imagine a feeder calf starting out and he's got his RPMs going as a feeder-performer. If anything disrupts that normal progression of increasing RPMs, you will never, ever get back to that same progressive performance level again. If they lose their RPMs or momentum a lot, you get back a very crippled version of what they could have been.”
Training is key
“Regardless of background or culture, I think we as individuals all do our job better, the better we understand our job,” Peirce says. “We want to be proactive, not reactive, in our animal health program. We want to solve some issues, not just salvage them.”
And that takes training.
“Unfortunately,” says Delgado, a Pfizer vet originally from Mexico, “the language barrier oftentimes hinders not only good training, but essential communication between the crew and the bosses. The cultural barrier is an issue in every feedlot.”
A big problem with the cultural and language barriers is employees are reluctant to ask questions about nearly anything, including how they're supposed to do their job and why they're doing it. Another, Delgado says, is a reluctance to tell the bosses about problems that hamper job performance.
“You can give them the best automatic syringe and they can use it,” Delgado says. “You can give them the worst and they'll use it and never say (a word).”
But give employees someone they can trust, someone they feel comfortable talking to, and that barrier crumbles. That's where Delgado and Peirce have teamed up to train the processing crew and meld them into an effective, efficient unit.
Delgado combines chuteside instruction with classroom training. He first meets with the feedyard manager and vet and learns about the feedyard's needs and desires for the crew. He then works with the crew in a classroom setting to cover the basics of good processing with an emphasis on the items the manager and vet want stressed.
Following that, Delgado returns to the feedyard later to watch and work side-by-side with the crew as they are processing cattle — coaxing, cajoling, joking, but always teaching the basics of doing their jobs. “During the training, I perceive the needs of the workers and I ask them what they need to be better. And they start to talk,” he says.
According to Peirce, simply that Delgado is from Mexico and is a vet helps establish a level of respect from the crew. Plus, he says, Delgado has manure-on-his boots, snow-down-his-neck feedyard experience. He's worked on a processing crew and risen to be head processor. He's ridden pens and rose to become head doctor. The crew respects that, too.
“The first thing a crew needs to know is just the basics,” Delgado says. “How to handle the vaccines. How to handle the cattle. How to manage the cattle with low stress.”
And it works. The crew at Garden City Feedyard works quietly, with efficiency, yet deliberately. No shouting, no ramming and jamming, just handling the cattle well as the steers walk in and out of the chute. Doing the basics and doing them well.
“This is not a speed event,” Peirce says of the processing procedure. “It's a job- quality event. Does doing the basics perfectly slow us down? A little, but it's still our mandated protocol. We focus on doing every calf properly.”
Delgado is pleased with what he sees as the crew handles the calves through the chute. He sometimes jumps in to point out an aspect of the procedure he wants the crew to focus on, or simply to take a minute for an impromptu animal health lecture. An encouraging word, a pat on the back and the hydraulics fire up again.
“Good facilities aren't the most important,” Delgado observes. “Good people are the most important. People with the knowledge, people with the commitment, people with the pride. The people make the business, not the facilities.”
And training makes good people.
Catching 'em early
John Peirce, veterinarian with AzTx Cattle Company headquartered in Hereford, TX, is diligent about catching immune-compromised calves early.
“Historically, we've waited until individuals with compromised immune systems were either dead or marginally salvageable before we did anything with them,” he says. But he simply couldn't allow himself to be part of a system that mismanaged cattle to that extent. So he developed a protocol for Garden City Feedyard near Garden City, KS, to find and salvage these cattle quickly.
“If removed before being devastated by disease organisms, they may very well decently perform in a low-exposure environment,” he observes. While it's a judgment call on how early such calves can be identified and removed, “The upside is that if we err on the side of being too aggressive, it only costs us, comparatively speaking, a small profit. The other extreme, culling too late, costs us enormously. If we allow these weak performers to stay at the feedyard, they'll take the profit out of two or three other individuals in that pen.”
Peirce calculates that at Garden City Feedyard, this protocol of catching compromised cattle early and removing them to a low-exposure environment saves the feedyard from $200,000 to $300,000 a year.