No job too big, or too small

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In 1971, the year Mike McMillan first walked onto the Monfort’s North Lot outside Greeley, Colo., to work as a cattle checker, Apollo 14 landed on the moon. With the war in Vietnam raging, President Nixon declared the U.S. War on Drugs. Boxer Joe Frazier defeated Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden, and Archie Bunker was testing the patience of his wife Edith on TV’s "All in the Family".

Over the next 42 years, McMillan mastered just about every skill and task in the cattle-feeding business, rose through the ranks and adapted to change within the organization that shifted from Monfort to ConAgra to Conti Beef and, most recently, to JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding. He’s weathered those ownership changes and seen managers come and go, and throughout it all maintained a focus on the animals and feedyard operations.

During the 1970s, McMillan put himself through school while working full-time at the feedyard, completing an associate of applied science degree from Aims Community College and a bachelor’s degree in managerial science from the University of Northern Colorado.

Craig Turner, safety and training manager at the company’s Kersey, Colo., lot, recalls McMillan’s work ethic during those days. “We worked the night shift together in the ‘70s when Mikey and I were going to college,” he says. “We took turns studying, did our hourly checks, cleaned the office, unloaded corn and cattle trucks, fed new cattle, moved up fats, etc. Mike would get in the grader on his own, and by morning the main alley, parking lots and feed alleys would be smoother than the Bonneville Salt Flats.”

McMillan worked at several of the Monfort lots and served multiple roles over the years. He checked cattle, practiced welding, painting and carpentry, scraped pens, filled and packed bunker silos, read feedbunks, repaired equipment and trained employees in all aspects of feedyard operations. He served as assistant yard supervisor at the company’s Yuma, Colo., yard in 1990 before returning to the flagship Kuner yard near Greeley in 1991 to serve in a similar capacity. JBS Five Rivers managers credit him with helping guide a recent remodeling project that transformed the Kuner lot into one of the most efficient, environmentally sound and cattle-friendly feedyards in the country.

All the while, McMillan gained the respect and admiration of his coworkers across the organization. They describe him as a tough Marine Corps veteran who served combat tours in Vietnam, who also had a big heart and compassion toward his coworkers. Several of today’s top managers and executives within the JBS Five Rivers organization credit him as a mentor.

Nolan Stone, who now serves as general manager of the Kuner lot, says he trained under McMillan during his early days with the company. As Stone moved up in the management ranks, McMillan began reporting to him, but he continued to express his frank opinions, with the interest of the business in mind. “My admiration for him grew even stronger,” Stone says. “I could always get an honest opinion from him, no matter how uncomfortable it might have been for either one of us.”

Brett Ulrich, assistant general manager at the Kuner yard, partnered with McMillan at different times over the years, including serving as co-assistant managers of the feed and equipment crews, doing everything from calling feed, managing crews, receiving cattle, creating processing and move sheets, and building or repairing much of the Kuner facility’s environmental infrastructure.  “He’s a quiet kind of guy,” Ulrich says. “He just worked hard every day until the job was done and didn’t care who knew it. I’ve told him he was a partner I could always count on. I never had to worry when he was on the job.”

Between changes in ownership and moving between company feedyards, McMillan worked under at least six different general managers. Each of them, Ulrich says, saw the kind of employee he was and just let him go to work. He stayed out of the corporate politics that come with a big company and ownership changes, and focused on the cattle, the crew and the company.

Not everything came easy to him, Ulrich says. When the yard’s bunk-reading system went from pencils and paper to computers to real-time wireless data in the feed trucks, McMillan sometimes expressed his frustration with some “heavy-handed” treatment of computer keyboards. But he buckled down and learned anyway. On the other hand, he could create anything in the welding shop. He’d visualize a useful item, draw it out on paper and build it.

If there was a power outage or some other problem, McMillan stayed on until it was resolved. For him, “quitting time” wasn’t quitting time, Ulrich says. He quit when his work was finished. He never sought credit for his accomplishments and, in fact, was uncomfortable with winning this award and declined to be interviewed for this article. He insists he was just doing his job. But as Ulrich sees it, “Him ‘just doing his job’ has made a huge difference to the success of his employer and those who worked around him.”

McMillan always had a keen interest in water conservation, and Ulrich says he would not retire until the team had finished rebuilding the feedyard’s last water-tank overflow filtration system. He retired in June 2013, and now spends his time with family in the Greeley area.

McMillan didn’t set out to win awards from the Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame or from anywhere else. He put in 40 years of hard work and loyal service because he’s a cattleman, and that’s what the best cattlemen and cattlewomen do. They care for the animals. They help their neighbors and coworkers. They ride for the brand.

Read about all the Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame honors 2013 inductees
Louis Dinklage
Harry Knobbe

Leo Timmerman


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