I'm a Drover: 40 years of innovationThe list of game-changing technologies influencing cattle feeding over the past 40 years includes such transformative ideas as steam-flaked corn, computerized batch mixing, growth implants and more effective animal-health products. But if you ask Warren Weibert about the most significant changes over his career in cattle feeding, he’ll talk about the power of information.

Weibert, who with his wife Carol owns Decatur County Feed Yard, Oberlin, Kan., recently celebrated the feedyard’s 40th anniversary of operation on the plains of northwestern Kansas. While he reminisces about the early days and transitions over the years, he’s especially enthused about the current and future potential for the application of data that will improve efficiency and the profitability of cattle throughout the production chain.

Back in 1971, a group of investors in the Oberlin area broke ground on the feedyard just north of town, generating considerable news as the operation would bring jobs to the small farming community and a new market for the area’s corn growers. It has done that and more.

Five years later, Carol Weibert’s parents purchased the operation and Warren came on as general manager. Warren had grown up around cattle feeding, helping his father run a small Kansas feedlot. Weibert says when he arrived at the operation, it was feeding mostly “plain, put-together” cattle. But around 1980, he began weaning groups of higher-quality calves from Wyoming. “We started thinking about producing a higher-quality product for the packer and getting paid for it,” he says, “and that’s been our focus ever since.”

He also has focused on retained ownership and developed a network of ranchers who feed their calves year after year. The feedyard had capacity for about 18,000 cattle when Weibert took over. Since that time, several expansions have brought current capacity to over 40,000.

Decatur County was one of the earliest feedyards to employ ultrasound scanning to measure backfat and ribeye size in cattle in 1987. But until the Strategic Alliances Pilot Project in 1992, in which Decatur County Feedyard participated, there was not much incentive to improve carcass traits. The pilot project, coordinated by the National Cattlemen’s Association, precursor to today’s NCBA, demonstrated that communication and information transfer between packers, cattle feeders and cow-calf producers could result in quality improvements and higher value for finished cattle that hit the grid target.

Then in 1993, Weibert recalls, Allflex introduced the first commercially available electronic identification tag, which he says allowed value discovery to become more focused. The following year, Decatur County installed Micro Beef Technologies’ Accu-Trac sorting system, which uses individual EID at the core of its process for measuring, tracking and managing each animal’s rate of gain, weight, backfat, ribeye size and hip height. The system optimizes sorting cattle as they near finished weights to market groups at their optimum, most profitable endpoints while minimizing outliers such as heavy, light or poor-yielding carcasses.

With the system in place, Weibert negotiated a value-based grid with Cargill, providing grade and yield targets and premiums for cattle that brought the most value to the packer. Around the same time, he introduced the Decatur Beef Alliance, which provides a cooperative relationship between ranchers, feedyard and packers, facilitates information flow and offers economic incentives for producing high-quality beef. Individual animal per-
formance and carcass data began helping participating ranchers make value-adding selection and management decisions back at the ranch. Today, Weibert says, the alliance involves more than 140 ranchers from 30 states from Hawaii to Florida, with herd sizes ranging from 100 to 14,000 cows.

In 1998, Decatur moved to the next phase of electronic cattle management with the construction of its state-of-the-art processing facility. A large, spacious building contains twin alleys leading to a series of stations preceding side-by-side Silencer squeeze chutes. The system allows automated sorting based on objective measurements identifying the most profitable marketing window for each animal.

As each animal — automatically identified by its radio-frequency ID tag — moves through the ECM system, a camera records its hip height, an ultrasound technician measures its backfat and ribeye size, scales under the chute record its weight and the computer software calculates its rate and cost of gain. Based on this information, the system identifies ideal ship dates for each animal, and as the animal leaves the chute, a series of automated gates directs it into one of six holding pens, sorted by marketing group.

The goal, Weibert says, is to feed each animal as long as improvements in carcass value exceed cost of gain, while avoiding feeding animals to heavyweight or yield grade endpoints that trigger discounts. Each animal walks through the low-stress system at least twice during the feeding period, potentially allowing multiple sorts. Since its installation, feedyard crews have moved more than 1 million cattle through the ECM system.

The system also has enhanced the collection and analysis of large volumes of individual performance and carcass data. But Weibert and his team never have been content to just supply customers with data and continue to refine their ability to help producers apply the information back at the ranch and make their cattle more profitable.

Two years ago, Weibert says, the feedyard teamed up with seedstock producer Leachman Cattle of Colorado to offer in-depth herd evaluations with ranchers who feed at Decatur County, helping them apply data toward genetic-selection strategies focused on overall profitability.

Using Decatur’s vast database on 2,400 sets of cattle — 185,000 head — fed through the ECM system over the past five years, the group developed a system for standardizing the numbers for individual profitability. The analysis cancelled out differences in market prices, feed costs and seasonal variability in performance, allowing evaluation of the effects of genetics alone on the profitability of an individual ranch’s cattle, as they are all managed the same and fed to the same targets through the ECM system. It places each ranch’s cattle within the bell-shaped curve reflecting the least- to most-profitable herds. Based on these standardized figures for feedyard performance and carcass values, the analysis found the actual value of 650-pound steers entering the feedyard range from a low of $550 to a high of $1,175 per head.

The goal of this analysis is to help ranchers understand where their cattle rank in feed efficiency, cost of production, carcass value and overall profitability, then help them use targeted genetic strategies to shift their herds toward the most profitable side of the curve.

Working with Leachman, the group set out to demonstrate its theories on how whole-herd genetic evaluation and targeted selection could improve gains, feed efficiency, carcass quality and overall profitability. In one demonstration project, for example, Leachman sent 800 straws of semen to a ranch in South Dakota for a comparison of AI sires on the feed efficiency and performance of their calves. The ranch shipped 450 Angus steers from the trial group to Decatur County Feed Yard. Following a 70-day warm-up period, the feedyard weighed and sorted them into sire groups. After 84 days, the feedyard weighed the calves again and calculated gain, dry-matter intake and feed to gain. Results of the trial showed that feed-per-gain EPDs accurately predicted actual feedyard performance within sire groups and, most significantly, found a difference in feed cost for calves from the least- to most-efficient sire groups averaging $164 per head.

But while he values the power of data, technology and automation, Weibert also stresses the importance of people to the success of the operation. During the 40th anniversary celebration, Decatur County recognized several employees for long and dedicated service. These included staff from across the operation who have contributed to the feedyard’s success for 10, 20 or even over 30 years. The operation’s consulting nutritionist, Wally Koers, PhD, has served the operation since Weibert started, 35 years ago. The first 40 years were exciting, Weibert says, and he looks forward to seeing what the next 40 bring.