Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame: No limitations

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The motto on the Darr Feedlot website says “Cattle are our business, but our people make the difference.”

Everyone associated with cattle feeding recognizes the importance of a strong team effort, with managers, mill personnel, feed-truck drivers, maintenance crews, animal-health teams and others all critical in the effort to keep cattle well-fed, healthy and comfortable every day of the year. The feedyard cowboy represents a vital link in that chain, helping protect the health and performance of cattle and often filling in wherever needed. Success as a pen rider requires a unique mix of skills, including horsemanship, stockmanship and the ability to spot the subtle, early signs of cattle sickness or injury, allowing early intervention and treatment success.

Brad Thomas at Darr Feedlot, a 40,000-head operation near Cozad, Neb., has all those skills and more, with the dedication to take on any task and work until his job is done, day after day, through any weather conditions. His skills and work ethic prompted his managers to nominate him for the 2014 Arturo Armendariz Distinguished Service Award through the Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame, and his selection for the award by a panel of judges.

The feedyard’s cattle foreman and Thomas’s supervisor, Jay Chytka, says Thomas has excelled since the first day he joined the feedyard staff. Every day he saddles up, rides pens, pulls sick cattle, helps treat them as needed, drives cattle to and from processing or shipping and cares for the yard’s horses. When that work is done, he happily trades his horse for a scraper or loader and helps out cleaning pens or performing other tasks around the yard. His horsemanship and cattle-handling skills stand out, Chytka says, along with his eye for spotting sick or injured cattle.

But what really sets Thomas apart is his refusal to be limited or held back. As a five-year-old Nebraska farm kid, he lost both arms in a grain-auger accident. After a long recovery and multiple medical procedures, he initially tried using prosthetic arms but eventually felt they held him back, and by the age of 11 he stopped using the prostheses. Instead, he says, he just learned ways of doing things and over time those ways became natural to him.

As a young man, Thomas’ love of horses and riding attracted him to cattle feeding, and he rode for several companies before signing on with the Darr operation.  To this day, he says the chance to ride every day remains a great source of enjoyment and a favorite aspect of his life as a feedyard cowboy, although as mentioned earlier, he’s happy to help out with other tasks in between the cowboy work.

Now 38, Thomas has been riding for Darr for nine years, and he credits his fellow cowboys with helping him learn the finer points of identifying and pulling sick cattle. “I rode with some pretty good guys back in the day,” he says. “I paid attention, learned some things from each of them and put it all together.”  These days when the feedyard receives a pen of high-risk bawling calves, he usually is the one assigned to monitor them. Or, if another cowboy initially rides the pen, he sometimes checks it again in case any sick cattle managed to conceal their condition.

The arrival of high-risk, stressed calves that soon begin to break with disease can be a nightmare for feedyard crews, but Thomas enjoys the challenge. Normally, he says, the pen riders can go for weeks with very few cattle to pull. When those difficult loads arrive, the cowboys need to be on the top of their game. “It keeps a guy sharp,” he says.

That dedication has earned the admiration of his fellow workers and managers. In the nomination letter to the Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame, the feedyard’s general manager John Schroeder wrote “This nominee nurtures livestock in any kind of weather that Mother Nature puts in front of him. He has an ability to take care of cattle before they are sick and puts the welfare of animals ahead of himself. He has been a mentor to many young men, and by example he leads them into the ways of being a true cowboy.”


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