In the second episode of our Faces of Farming series, we talk to Dr. Tera Barnhardt, coordinator of animal health and welfare for Cattle Empire, about the care and technology that goes into the beef you feed your family.
What's It Like to Run a Cattle Feed Yard?
Nutrition Diva: Tell us a little bit about Cattle Empire. How many cows are there and what's happening while they're with you?
Tera Barnhardt: Cattle Empire is one of the larger family-owned cattle feeding operations in the United States. It’s very exciting to be a part of a family that feeds other families. The Brown family owns Cattle Empire. They're a part of the management team here and are here every day. They employ a lot of people who have always been involved in agriculture. The cattle are brought off of the grass or some sort of pasture setting and brought to a cattle feed yard, and then they're brought into our feed yard, where they are put on a feed that includes hay, corn, and vitamins and minerals that are essential to raise healthy beef. We actually just finish the cattle out. They’re with us for a very short period of their lives.
ND: So, they're not born there. They come there towards the end of their life.
TB: That's a really good point to make. Cattle are not born at the feed yard. They're born out at pasture at multiple ranches. We bring cattle into our feed yard from across the United States. Cattle are born out on the ranches, they're raised up by the cows—the moms—and then when they're weaned, they are usually put into a different pasture setting and kept on grass until they gain a little bit more weight, get their immune systems set up for success, and then eventually head to the feed yard. So we have cattle with us for about four months on average and that is the only time period that they are at this feed yard.
ND: Before we recorded today's podcast, you were actually out in the feedlot. Draw us a little picture, what were you looking at?
TB: We got in some new cattle and they came to us from Arkansas, so they traveled quite a ways to get up here. I like to think of what I was doing as a welcoming committee. They're coming to stay with us for a while. We unload them off the truck and I lead them to a pen that allows them to get hay and water. It has cornstalk bales on the floor of the pen, so they're able to lay down on something comfortable because from Arkansas to Kansas is a long way to travel on a truck.
Immediately, I want to get them comfortable, get them used to their surroundings, and while I'm on foot out there, I can lead them to the things they need, which are very similar to what humans need—comfort and food and water right away. They will be resting this afternoon and I'll check on them again later, just to make sure that everything's going well. I might get them up to exercise because we want cattle, not unlike humans, to get up and stretch after a long period of activity followed by rest. The thought process is just good animal husbandry. That’s a big part of my job: working with the employees to make sure they provide these things for the cattle, because it really sets up their immune systems for success.
My goal as a veterinarian at a feedlot is to make sure the cattles’ immune systems can handle any challenges, and that's a majority of my day—making sure that the animals are taken care of. And a big part of that starts when they first arrive at the feed yard.
ND: You've been in this business for a while now, but you also grew up watching this happen on your family ranch. What has changed about this process over the last, say, 20 years, or as far back as you can remember? Are we still doing it the way we've always done it, or have there been some changes in how we think about and manage this process?
TB: Growing up in the beef industry, I've seen a lot of big things not change. Agriculturalists are dedicated to taking good care of their animals. We're good stewards of the land, we're good stewards of the animals that are trusted in our care. And that's very much driven by our consumers. We have a huge responsibility to produce a safe and nutritious product. And we're very proud of the beef that we put on your table, but we want you to know, at the end of the day, we're putting it on our tables, too.
There are some major concepts that won't ever change. They will never go out of style. Taking good care of the animals that are trusted in your care doesn't change or become a new, groundbreaking idea or innovation. There are some really neat things that we've been able to do over the years as people have studied animal behavior. You may have heard of Temple Grandin or Bud Williams—people who have dedicated their lives to studying how animals interact with humans and how we can continually get better. That being said, we can't always do things the way our grandfather taught us how to do, right? Any sustainable business with success in its future can't continue to do things the way we've always done it. So there are things that have helped us get more efficient and there are things that have helped us be better stewards of our resources, and that just helps us continue to carry these businesses on and carry them on to the next generation, either in our families or in other agricultural families.