“Just Got Lucky” – Nevada Adventures & The Advent Of Feedlot Computers

A young Nebraska cowboy travels to the bright lights of Nevada looking for adventure and finds plenty. Part 1: 50-Year Look At His CareerPart 2: Texas A&M DaysPart 3: Independent ConsultingPart 4: Boom Times in Southern PlainsPart 5: 70's Feedlot ConsultingPart 6: Cattle Feeding & The Land of EnchantmentPart 7: Feeding Holsteins

August 5, 2014

18 Min Read
“Just Got Lucky” – Nevada Adventures & The Advent Of Feedlot Computers

“Started Small & Just Got Lucky” is an autobiographical and historical account of consulting nutritionist Kenneth Eng’s 50-year career. The book debuts in September. Eng is the benefactor of the Dr. Kenneth & Caroline McDonald Eng Foundation, which Eng established in memory and as a legacy to his late wife Caroline. The $2 million foundation funds research cow-calf efficiency research at the University of Nebraska, Oklahoma State University and Texas A&M University (TAMU).

Each year, research funded by the foundation is presented in a public symposium, which this year will be hosted by TAMU on Sept. 18-19 at Embassy Suites – San Antonio Riverwalk, in San Antonio, TX. Order a book or learn more about the symposium that will focus on improvements of beef cow efficiency and profitability by intensive and semi-confined production systems.

Chapter 13 – Nevada isn’t just bright lights

As a kid, I always had a fascination with Reno and Las Vegas, NV. Sometime in the mid- to late-’50s, I jumped on a bus and traveled to Reno just to see the sights. I didn’t tell anyone my plans, and ended up spending about a week in the Reno, Virginia City, Las Vegas area. It was a real eye opener.

I arrived at the Reno bus station about 6 a.m. A lady in a bright red dress and her girlfriend who had been on the bus introduced themselves asking, “Are you a cowboy?”

I answered, “Sometimes.”

The lady in red said, “Great, my friend is from Germany, and dying to meet a cowboy. Why don’t you spend some time with us.”

I said, “okay,” but thought they must have something devious in mind. I was green and suspicious.

The lady in red had a friend who drove up in a new purple Cadillac convertible and said “Get in. I’ll take you to my casino.”

We went to Virginia City where he owned a small casino called the Delta Saloon. We had a drink, and he gave me his car keys, telling me, “Take the ladies with you then pick me up around five.” We spent 3-4 days touring the various casinos and ghost towns. I had one of the best times of my life.

The casino owner and two ladies became my good friends. When we parted, we promised to stay in touch, but suspicious me had given them a false name and address and was ashamed to admit it. I went from Reno by bus to Las Vegas. My first stop was the Golden Nugget Casino. They had a live band playing in the cocktail lounge. It was the Billy Gray Band who sounded like Hank Thompson.

A lady sitting next to me said, “I love this band, but the band leader keeps hitting on me. If you don’t mind I’m going to tell him you’re my husband when he comes by.” Sure enough, he stops by the table and she introduced me as her husband. My new friend showed me several casinos, and by then I was worn out.

Then she inquired, “What are your plans?” I explained that I’ve planned to take a 6:30 a.m. bus the next morning. She said, “You’d better come with me because you’ll get in trouble by yourself.”

I thought, “Wow, what’s next?” What was next is she made me sleep on her couch and took me to the bus terminal at 5:30 the next morning. That ended my first week in Nevada.

Ironically, about 15 years later, one of my first clients was in Nevada. I received a call from a Hollywood business management firm who asked that I meet them in the Reno-Carson City area to look at a potential feedlot site for Tennessee Ernie Ford. We went to a beautiful ranch on the Carson River. Ford had bought it from the bankrupt estate of Charlie Steen.

Steen had made the first big uranium strike in the U.S. He was an old, hard-rock miner, and although he became a multimillionaire for a few years, he soon spent all his money and went bankrupt. The reason they thought it would be a good feedlot site is that it had four Harvest Queen Silos plus some feed bunks.

The fact that there was no grain produced in the area, no packing plants, and so forth wasn’t important. This was the era of 80-90% max tax brackets for the high earners who were consequently interested in the feedlot business as a tax shelter. Ford was also interested in marketing private label beef that he planned to name Tennessee Ernie’s Pea-Picking Beef. He played the Reno-Tahoe area casinos frequently, and had ranches in Oregon and Northern California. He liked cattle in general.

A couple of months later, the Ford group called me at the Veribest Feedyard in San Angelo and asked me to be at a San Francisco bank meeting first thing the next morning. They were putting together a feedlot loan. I flew all night, and when I hit the San Francisco airport, they’d lost my luggage. I was in blue jeans, a western shirt and boots. The only clothing I could find at the airport gift shop was a Hawaiian shirt. I went to the top floor of the Bank of America offices in San Francisco dressed in blue jeans, boots and a Hawaiian shirt. They all looked at me and said, “This is our feedlot expert?”

Ken Eng book

Read Part 1 of Started Small & Just Got Lucky NOW
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The bankers and the Tennessee Ernie Ford group argued all morning about the size of the loan, repayment, and other details. About 11:00 a.m., we adjourned to a club for a three-martini lunch. Subsequently, everyone was mellow; we put the deal together in a matter of minutes, and then went our separate ways.

I continued to tell them this was a bad spot for a feedyard, and that they’d under-estimated the cost to construct a feed mill. We did bring in the Williamson Built Mills people from California to give us a bid and after this they lost interest.

I had noticed the large silos had an added attraction of flashing lights on the top of each silo. An old Indian who had previously worked for Steen told me that Steen made a deal with the madam of a bordello next door. He put the spotlights on top of the silos as a landmark in exchange for free services at the bordello.

A final note to this story was the last time I went to the ranch I sat next to a fellow on a flight from Phoenix to Reno. He was the president of a silver mining company who had a mining claim near the Ford ranch. At the time, Howard Hughes was buying a lot of land in Nevada and everyone was convinced he knew about great new silver deposits.

The mine president told me their location saying, “You know it’s next to a bordello, and the lady who runs it is shooting at our men on the heavy equipment.”

When he reported it, the local sheriff said, “I know that old bag. Just shoot back.”

The president said, “I don’t want to do that, so I’m up here for negotiations with the lady. I believe a group of miners and a bordello should have some common interests.”

Shortly thereafter I had a call from the Howard Hughes organization and his ranch manager. They had a ranch northeast of Las Vegas with some unusual cattle problems. I asked him to describe the problems and the ranch. His reply was, “You won’t believe it until you see it.”

We drove northeast of Las Vegas towards a small town named Moapa near an Indian reservation. We went over a desert mountain, entered a valley that was all green grass and palm trees waving in the breeze. It was a spring-fed oasis in the middle of the desert—an incredible sight. I diagnosed the problem with the cattle as a probable trace mineral deficiency, and gave them a mineral formula. That’s the last I heard from them.

However, I discovered that the second week of December was the slow time in Vegas, and you could get almost anything you wanted at bargain prices. This was prior to the National Finals Rodeo, which solved that slow period problem. I had a combination early Christmas party and symposium for clients for a couple of years in Las Vegas.

Later, Jack Linkletter and I put together an international cattlemen’s expo there. It was moderately successful, and I became acquainted with several hotel and casino managers who could always get me the best tickets for shows and dinner.

My favorite hotel at that time was the old Sahara, which is now defunct. The Sahara manager’s father was the number-two man with the Howard Hughes organization in Las Vegas. We discussed their cattle deals plus other points of interest. What was fascinating is that even though he was the number-two man, he had never met Hughes, and only talked to him a few times on the telephone.

I’ve been told that Hughes’ number-one man, Bob Maheu, only met Hughes once. Hughes was making a big splash in Vegas because he was buying up so many casinos. Everyone thought he was eccentric but brilliant. That eventually proved to be only half true.

There was another thing that made Las Vegas interesting to me. When I was teaching the feedlot management course at Texas A&M University, Benny Binion, the legendary Texas gambler and owner of the Horseshoe Casino, called to ask if I could get his son-in-law into my class. Because it was a graduate-level class, I told him I didn’t think he would qualify academically, but he could audit the class and I’d make sure he got everything the regular class members received.

Benny never forgot a favor. Consequently, whenever I came to Las Vegas I would stop to say “hello.” Although I didn’t meet him often, I was always impressed because he would recognize me instantly. Benny was a colorful fellow whom Amarillo Slim once described as “either the gentlest bad man or the baddest gentleman you will ever meet.”

At that time, Andy Michaels was married to Benny’s daughter, Brenda. He ended up managing a feedlot for one of my clients in the Panhandle. Brenda, who lives in Amarillo, had a sly but great sense of humor. I called her one day from the Amarillo Airport to ask if she had time for a drink at the airport bar. She said she thought she should steer clear of the airport. Recently she had accidentally forgotten a pistol in her purse, and it was taken away from her by airport security. She said, “I don’t know what the big deal was because it was just a little pistol.” But the pistol was one of her favorites.

The atmosphere in Las Vegas has changed in recent years, as it has in Reno. I don’t travel there much anymore, but fond memories of bygone days linger.

Caroline and I often went to the National Finals Rodeo. When she was young, she competed in barrel racing and was a rodeo queen. She tells a funny story about Elvis playing at one of their rodeos in the mid-’50s. After the rodeo, Elvis asked her for a date; however, her mother and father were along, and she not only had to stay in their room, but she had to sleep between them.

Going to Las Vegas with Caroline at rodeo time was an adventure because someone was always asking for her autograph. They would say, “We don’t know who you are, but we know you’re famous and please sign this.” Our standard joke each morning was, who are you going to be today? Caroline’s granddaughter, Casi, is active in barrel racing. Caroline always hoped she would make the National Finals, but that hasn’t happened yet.

A footnote to Benny Binion: he had the same type of sly humor as his daughter Brenda. One time he, John Scott and I were having lunch in Billings, MT. John said, “Benny, I hired a fellow who said he once worked for you. I want you to know he came to me, and I didn’t try to steal your help.”

Benny asked who it was, and when John told him, Benny’s reply was, “That’s okay, he’s just a ‘monkey wrench thief.’” I asked what that meant, and Benny said, “He doesn’t have the balls to steal anything big, but he will steal your tools.”

Benny also said the Depression wasn’t too bad because chili was 10¢/bowl and he liked it. After Benny died, I called Brenda and expressed condolences. I mentioned I’d read interviews with him in the Houston newspaper where he got very explicit about his personal life. Brenda said that the family knew he was sort of losing it. The last year he spent much of his time in his chartered bus travelling with Casey Tibbs who was dying of cancer. The newspaper interview really made her mother mad because Benny claimed her chain smoking killed their favorite pet poodle. The fact that he had also discussed a couple of gunfights and killings wasn’t near as important to her as the poodle incident.

Chapter 16 - Computers and computer systems

I was never very good with math or hardware, but when I saw the first electronic portable calculator in 1968, I had to have it. It was about the size of a portable typewriter, was made by Olympia, and cost $795. The major attraction for me was that it couldn’t be jammed which was a constant problem I had with older machines.

I bought it from the local office supply store in Casa Grande, AZ, and told them I was worried about upcoming changes that might make it out of date. They suggested I put it on a three-year payout plan, and if something better came along, I could apply the payments to the cost of the new unit.

About a year later, someone next to me on an airplane pulled out a Sanyo calculator which was about 4 in. by 6 in., and 2 in. thick. It could do everything my Olympia did, and it only cost $250. When I traded my Olympia for the Sanyo at the Arizona office supply store, they owed me $200 for the trade. My old Sanyo still works. Of course, now you can buy a pocket-sized calculator that will do as much or more and probably cost $3 to $5.

In early 1969, Harry Konen, who was a poultry consultant from Houston, had bought a new least cost formula computer unit called Scidata. It was a remote unit operating online to a central computer Honeywell 2200 in Atlanta. It was a fascinating little unit, and at that time had many new bells and whistles.

I went to the home office in Atlanta to learn more about it. I met a small group of fascinating people, and got involved with their least cost programs. I was asked to build a feedlot computer performance projection program.

The president and brains of the group was a large fellow who was brilliant. Also helping on their least cost program was a well-known poultry consultant from the Delmarva area named Perry Twining. Their main salesman was a fellow named Bill Benge from Texas. The least cost ration format Twining and I put together is still similar to many current programs.

The feedlot performance projection program is very similar to many currently used. I designed it based on the California net energy system developed by Lofgreen and Garrett. For my money, the California net energy system was the most useful tool developed for the feedlot industry in the ’60s.

Garrett and Lofgreen were great scientists. Glen Lofgreen became a personal friend when he moved to the Clayton (NM) Research Station. I still consider him to be one of the best university research nutritionists I’ve ever known. I stopped to visit Lofgreen the day he officially retired from New Mexico State University. He was sad and mad as hell because New Mexico State was forcing him into retirement because of an age limit. It was a loss to the whole industry because he was still doing great work.

My feedlot performance projection model is still the basis for many feedlot printouts today. I designed it from scratch, but I thought there might be a similar one floating around somewhere. When I checked in with people whom I thought might have had one prior to me, they told me “no,” they had copied mine. Unfortunately, I neglected to copyright the printout format. Considering the number of these printouts generated every day that cost me some big bucks over the years.

In addition to hard work, we had a lot of fun in Atlanta. The first computer units sold to feedlots covered about half a wall each and cost between $125,000 and $150,000. They were successful, but Scidata had some internal problems in Atlanta. Among other things, the President of the company had narcolepsy. I’m told he fell asleep at an early stockholders meeting. Needless to say, the stock price crashed. As part of my payment, they gave me stock. I sold some of it for $1,000/share prior to the narcolepsy event. I wish I had sold it all.

I stayed at the Peachtree Plaza, a fancy new downtown hotel in Atlanta where there was lots of excitement and entertainment. One morning while I waited to be picked up, a fellow in a uniform drove up in an old station wagon, got out and yelled, “Airport transportation.” A bunch of businessmen waiting to go to the airport started to pile in when he said wait until I get your luggage and then we’ll match the people to the luggage. He proceeded to fill the back of the station wagon with luggage and drove off leaving everyone dazed and yelling for the police.

Perry, Bill and I were always coming up with weird ideas. One of us mentioned that there were a lot of Naugahyde® couches and chairs, but no one was growing naugas. We decided this would be a good business so we formed the Society of International Nauga Scientists or SINS Inc. We put together a brochure and even ran a few small ads offering stock. Unfortunately, we started getting investor calls so we decided we’d better terminate the project before we got in trouble. I guess the moral of the story is you can sell anything if you have a good story and a catchy name to go with it.

One of the last times I saw Glover was in the 1970s in Las Vegas where we met because he loved to gamble. He was a good card counter at blackjack, especially back when they were using only single or double decks. He knocked on my door about 4 a.m. one morning and said he had to leave for the airport right away. I asked him why he couldn’t wait and have breakfast. He said, “You don’t understand. They caught me counting cards and hotel security is escorting me to the airport, pronto.”

Their Scidata computer system also worked well, and we still have one in Dale Furr’s old office in Hereford, TX. It’s orange and takes up about half the wall and I think Bob Beville goes in and uses it once in a while. I bought it from Foster Farms in California in the early 1970s when they were going to replace it with a new system. They gave me a good price – about $15,000 – for the equipment.

When their new system didn’t work, they had to lease it back from me for almost a year. The lease payments were greater than what I paid them for the computer so it was obviously a good deal for me. I gave half-interest in the computer to Dale Furr when he started his consulting business, and we shared it for many years thereafter between gin and domino games.

I overdosed on computer work early. Computers now hold little interest for me. Obviously, this puts me at a current disadvantage. My major problem with computer technology is it has dumbed-down oral communications. I’m still big on personal or phone conversations when doing business. As he put it in his book, “Duane’s Depressed,” author Larry McMurtry said, “Business is not complicated; just return your phone calls.”

Next week: Tax shelter feeding


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