The 2016 Feedlot Nutritionist Boot Camp was not a particularly large event: its attendees consisted of about thirty Masters and Ph.D students, all of whom fit in a small hotel conference room in Amarillo, Texas. Nonetheless, a host of influential speakers – experienced nutritionists, animal science legends, and cattle industry CEOs – had volunteered to speak before the attendees over the course of the five-day event. “Our goal,” said Dr. Michael Hubbert of New Mexico State University on the first day of the event, “is to put the best people in the industry in front of you and let you ask them questions.” He and Dr. Chris Reinhardt of Kansas State University first organized the Feedlot Nutritionist Boot Camp in 2012, with the hope of providing graduate students with knowledge about the feedlot industry that they wouldn’t be able to learn in an academic program. The speakers volunteer their time free of charge, but they still benefit: the students in this conference room might one day be their employees, and they want to prepare them as well as possible for the realities of the cattle industry.  The students, for their part, endure a five-day program every bit as intense as the graduate schools they came from in order to meet face to face with some of the best minds in their chosen field, and hear their advice on overcoming the challenges that formal education won’t prepare them for.

The students

The Feedlot Nutritionist Boot Camp hosted students from six countries and sixteen universities, and their interests and goals were just as diverse as their backgrounds. Blake MacDonald, from Missouri, is a recent college graduate who hasn’t yet finalized his career plans: “coming here is… a way of finding out what I want to do,” he said. Even if he goes back to his family’s cow/calf operation, he considers his time at Boot Camp worthwhile: “it would be great if I could find something to take home and apply,” he remarked.  Haley Larson hasn’t yet settled on a choice of career. “I like research, but I also like teaching,” she said. “So I might want to be a consultant. I want to answer questions, but I’m not done asking them just yet either.”

Elsie McCoy is interested in a career as a veterinarian, but came to Boot Camp because “I do a lot of animal health in relation to nutrition.”  She hopes that Boot Camp would give her a better perspective on cattle nutrition to inform her work as a vet.  “I’m more in tune with the animal health side, so I thought I’d learn more about nutrition.” Jessie Morrill is tentatively set on becoming a technical consultant, but she still values the opportunity to “get some insight into what careers are out there.”  “I don’t think we get to do that a whole lot,” she said.

Some of the attendees were already working as feedlot managers or aspiring nutritionists, but still valued the extra knowledge and opportunity for networking that Boot Camp offered.  Chris Muegge already has a number of backgrounding clients in Indiana and Kentucky, but he is always on the lookout for a chance to learn from experts in the business.   “Out there you’ve got nobody to follow”, he explained.  Kayla Chilcoat is more interested in grazing operations, but thinks that “everything you can learn is important.”  She hopes that her experience at Feedlot Boot Camp will make her skills more marketable.  “If I get a job on a feedlot with a backgrounding operation they won’t need an extra consultant,” she says. 

Life at boot camp

The Feedlot Nutritionist Boot Camp is well named, several of the students opined, given the intensive schedule and the highly technical content of the lessons.  A typical day consisted of nine or more hours of lectures, plus homework assignments – reading, reviewing, and formulating rations – every evening.  It was common to see attendees up at midnight or later, working on assignments in the hotel lobby. 

The Boot Camp’s location in Amarillo allowed students several opportunities to see different parts of the cattle industry firsthand.  On the first day of Boot Camp, the attendees left the conference room early to visit the headquarters of Micro Beef Technologies, which produces micronutrient machines and feedyard management software.  On the second day, the lectures ended at lunch and the attendees traveled several miles from town to see Cactus Feeders’ millwright facility and Wrangler Feedyard, which houses around 50,000 head of cattle and conducts numerous cattle finishing research projects each year. 

The hectic schedule left the students feeling informed, but exhausted.  “I’m going to need some time just to process this stuff,” Blake MacDonald said.  “Most of the stuff I took notes on I don’t remember anymore,” Pablo Campanelli, a student from Brazil, remarked over dinner on the third night.  Eben Oosthuysen, who attended the last Feedlot Nutritionist Boot Camp two years ago, came back this year in part to hear the lectures again.  “The second time around it kind of sticks better,” he said.  Nonetheless, the attendees are glad they came.  “I feel like it’s helped me get my mind around the way things are in industry,” Campanelli said.  “I understand a lot more about what it means to be a consultant now.”  Ashton Hubbard put it a bit more plainly: “If you want to be a consultant, this is a real eye-opener.” 

“Don’t believe anything”

The five days of Boot Camp saw lectures covering everything from the theory of ration formulation to the economics running a profitable feedyard.  However, almost all of the talks shared two common threads.  The first of these was laid down in Dr. Hubbert’s opening speech: “Don’t believe anything.”  Over the course of the week, students learned to critically evaluate the unreliable preconceptions they developed in the classroom, as well as often-dubious technical information provided in corporate sales pitches.  As the week went on, students took Dr. Hubbert’s admonition to heart, and would often discuss and evaluate the evidence behind the lecturers’ claims.   

The experienced nutritionists, in particular, challenged the attendees’ understanding of their field at every turn, starting with the data they relied on to formulate rations.  “You can look at the NRC, but can you rely on it?” asked Dr. Pablo Guiroy of Cargill Animal Nutrition.  “You need to know that those values are calculated based on assumptions.”  “Those numbers are all pretend,” Dr. Robbi Pritchard of South Dakota State University agreed, showing the students a table of all the different energy values the NRC has provided for steam-flaked corn over the past forty years.  “There is no ‘this is the number’.  They haven’t ever come to an agreement on that.”  Dr. Pritchard’s first talk, an informal lecture around the dinner table, led to an assignment to read the well-known papers on energy values by Lofgreen and Garrett; his second, more formal talk went into more detail about the different ways of measuring the net energy of ingredients in the field.  Many of the nutritionists also focused on the importance of intake, gain, and other variables over feed conversion ratio, even though the latter has traditionally been regarded as the most important aspect of ration formulation.  “Challenge the concept that feed conversion is the only variable that will give you more money,” Dr. Guiroy told the students, pointing out that a cheaper, lower-energy feed with a greater intake would result in the same average daily gain – an important piece of information in an age when ethanol has drastically increased the price of corn.  “The only time feed conversion is [the main] driver is when you have the same out-weight,” Dr. Spencer Swingle agreed.  “If you take conversion and give up out-weight, you will lose.” 

The speakers also challenged the students’ views on research.  Many of the studies the students had read about might not be reliable, they warned.  In particular, they cautioned the attendees to be wary of studies with small sample sizes, especially when used as part of a sales pitch.  “If you want to show that my product is as good as that other product, it’s really easy to do,” said Dr. Mike Galyean of Texas Tech University.  “Just build an underpowered study.”  “Type-II error [incorrectly accepting that there is no difference between treatments] is rampant in animal science,” Dr. Tony Bryant of JBS’ Five Rivers research agreed.  Many of the speakers warned that companies may use underpowered studies to make unfounded claims about their products.  On the last day, Dr. Hubbert drove the point home during a lecture on intake management, pointing out that “you can feed anything at ten percent” – including spoiled flour, tapioca pellets, and even animal feces – “and never see a [statistical] difference… a good consultant [conducts] power tests.” 

The students left the event with a new appreciation for how much more they had yet to learn – and the confidence to question the methods they’d accepted before.  “[Dr. Pritchard] always makes you question the methods of what you’re doing,” said Zachary Smith, who’d never realized that “how many animals you have in a pen and how many times a day you feed have such an effect on variation” in an experiment.  He’s already planning on making some changes in his research project after the conference.  “We’ve been feeding from the truck just because we were told to,” he explained, but he wants to start weighing out feed more carefully when he gets back.  “We just assumed people who came before were smarter.”  Lauren Ovinge also found the experience eye-opening.  “I learned to question what other people say,” she said.  “The more you learn, the less you know.” 

“People matter”

The second major lesson of the week was delivered by Dr. Liz Domby, a recent Ph.D graduate and former Feedlot Nutritionist Boot Camp attendee, in the first speech after Dr. Hubbert’s introduction.  “People matter,” she said.  According to Dr. Domby, “Consulting is only about 15% nutrition,” and the rest is working with people.  Since knowledge is the currency of consulting, teaching is a major part of the job.  “As a consultant, I teach every day,” Domby told her audience.  “My students are just different… I learn from my students, too.”  John Rakestraw, CEO of Midwest PMS, agrees that teaching is the most important part of a consultant’s job.  The best nutritionists, he told his audience, are “just natural teachers.”  To that end, he exhorted the attendees to understand how adults learn, citing several books and online courses that served as good references for him.  “Do you realize that the best idea you ever had is probably going to be executed by someone who hasn’t finished high school?” he asked the attendees.  “There is no leadership in the absence of teaching.” 

The speakers also stressed the importance of knowing your coworkers, starting with the people in the room right now.  “Look around the room,” Dr. Domby said during her speech.  “These people will be your colleagues.  I still work with some of my former Boot Camp classmates.”  In the cattle industry, she warned, there are only “three degrees of separation” between any two people, and “your reputation is all you have, so be careful.”  Dr. Lee Bob Harper of Zoetis expanded on this point in a quick interview skills lecture, saying that “every single interaction you have in this industry, starting right now, is an interview.”  John Rakestraw also drove home the close-knit nature of the cattle industry, telling his audience to “treat people like you plan to be with them for 15 years instead of 15 minutes – because you will be.” 

The importance of the human factor wasn’t just present in the daily lectures – it extended to meals and break time, when the Boot Camp attendees had an opportunity to network with each other and with the speakers.  “Make sure people have seen you,” Dr. Domby told the students on the first day.  Most of the speakers stayed after their lectures were over, providing attendees an opportunity to talk with them one-on-one.  Chris Muegge was enthusiastic about the opportunity, remarking that “they were in the same shoes we were 20 years ago.”  “It’s not like a big conference where they’re here to just present their data and get out,” Kayla Chilcoat said.  “They’re here to teach you.”  Some of the students felt like these opportunities were difficult to fit into an already-hectic schedule, however.  “The industry professionals are kind of in-and-out,” one student remarked.  Still, she found some definite upsides to what little time she had with them.  “It’s nice to be able to put names to faces so that I can talk to them at other conferences,” she said.  She also thought the opportunity to network with her fellow attendees was valuable.  “It’s nice to meet the people I’ll be working with for the next forty years.” 

Transitioning to industry

The Feedlot Nutritionist Boot Camp’s closing speech was delivered by Dr. Mike Engler, the CEO of Cactus Feeders, who reminded his listeners of the importance of agriculture.  Thanks to advancements in technology and nutrition, he said, livestock operators could produce almost twice as much beef from the same size herd as they could in 1955 – but, in order to feed the world’s growing population, “we have to do it again.”  As the link between researchers and producers, nutritional consultants are at the forefront of technological improvement in the cattle industry – an important calling, Engler said, since “to raise food is to raise the standard of living.” 

Whatever the attendees at the 2016 Feedlot Nutritionist Boot Camp plan to do with their careers, they left Amarillo with a wealth of advice from industry experts on nutrition, business, and the day-to-day operation of a feedyard.  Within a few years, they’ll have to make their own way into an industry run by many of the people they learned from, and the knowledge they gained here could give them a head start in that industry if they apply it well.  “That’s the purpose of us putting this together,” Dr. Hubbert told them on the last day of Boot Camp.  “We get the best people out here to tell you what they want, tell you what they’re doing.  So don’t just go back to your office and do it like you’ve always done.”

The Feedlot Nutritionist Boot Camp was sponsored by Merck Animal Health, Zoetis, Huvepharma, Zinpro, MWI Animal Health, Cargill Animal Nutrition, Servitech Laboratories, and DSM.