Find, keep the best people

Farm Forum

Producing top quality calves and beef takes top quality people, and families can’t always get all the work done on their own. Just about every full-time cattle operation needs hired labor once in a while, but feedlots especially rely on their employees.

Managers of feedlots from Texas to Canada discussed hiring and keeping the best people at this summer’s Feeding Quality Forum panels in Amarillo, Texas, and Kearney, Neb.

Cozad, Neb., feeders John Schroeder and Anne Burkholder, of Darr Feedlot and Will Feed Inc., respectively, talked about the “human spirit” as a motivating factor.

“Our people make the difference,” Schroeder said, noting that motto before showing a video of a pen rider who grew up without arms, but now inspires all 45 employees so that nobody thinks about “disabilities.” On a broader scale, he says working managers inspire by doing, and older employees serve as mentors to young ones.

Burkholder, at a much smaller yard, put her psychology degree to work early on by working alongside her crew of four. “I started in 1997 at $6.85 an hour, so I have been in their shoes, I relate to them and give them a stake in the game,” she said. Anchored by official weekly meetings, communication is continuous and each teammate knows, “I trust them to make decisions and the buck stops with them.”

Giving them responsibility is as positive as praise, but it won’t sustain them without a regular pay raise, she added: “They’re people, not robots.”

Kevin Hazelwood, Cactus Feeders vice president of human resources, noted, “The temptation is to think of employees as commodities, but you have to care about them as individuals, and that starts with managers who care. People join good companies but they quit bad managers.”

Those are the ones who fail to set clear expectations, lack organization and don’t take care of their equipment or crew, he said.

As for finding new hires, most panelists agreed with Ben Fort, manager of Quien Sabe Feeders, Happy, Texas: “Good employees come from good employees.” Word of mouth helps build a “family” kind of chemistry in a crew, he and Schroeder said.

Fort incentivizes the strategy by paying bonuses to those who bring on new help, and further bonuses the longer those crew members stay.

Leighton Kolk, whose family feeds 17,000 cattle near Iron Springs, Alta., in Canada, said there are too few potential new hires in southern Alberta. Word of mouth might bring contact from a neighboring feedlot, but “that’s a revolving door.”

He operates a fee-based ag employment agency in addition to the farm business, now that good help is hard to find.

“Ten years ago the need was to sort out the good employee from the 20 that applied,” Kolk said. “The last five years it’s just trying to find someone. Feel their arm—do they have a pulse?” Oilfield jobs might pay double what feedlots are paying, so the search must find a motivating desire to work with cattle.

Part of hiring involves getting to know the person and their culture, especially with Hispanic team members. And those interviews point out generational differences, especially in the twenty-something set.

Fewer of the young ones have a direct connection to production agriculture.

“A generation is going away,” Hazelwood said. Those with a “rural upbringing,” who grew up doing farm chores are mostly over 30 now.

Schroeder noted, “Even when they did grow up on a farm, the law now won’t let them operate equipment so they learn from the family. We can’t let them drive a tractor till they’re 18, so it takes more training here to keep everybody safe.”

And yet, nobody knows technology better than those in their 20s; they actually teach older employees in many cases, and that helps them feel a sense of purpose, Hazelwood said: “They all want to know why they are doing this.”

Indeed, Fort said the new college graduates “want you to know what makes them tick. It’s not just a job they want; they want a voice, too. If you just tell them what’s expected of them, they’ll roll their eyes and walk on.”

Hazelwood said 75% of turnover in Cactus employees happens in the first six months, so the company focuses on those who have made it to their first raise, joined the healthcare program and start to appreciate those benefits in a job that still involves a lot of hours per week and weekends.

“The other thing we do is, we have to make sure the guy enjoys what he’s doing,” Hazelwood said. “Coming to work with people he likes, working with a manager who is well organized in the job and tools so he can go home safely at the end of the day.”

Schroeder uses a 10-point interview in the first year of employ to assess stayability.

“We want to give people a chance, so we explain expectations and we wrote down 10 of them that are very specific,” he said. Most involve the degree of self-initiative and ownership employees take in the feedyard – “you see it, you fix it.” But one is rather personal: “Don’t smell.”

Nobody wants to be on the crew with people who wear the same unwashed clothes every day and rarely take a shower, Schroeder said.

“I like to pull out 10 $1 bills and go over these points,” he said. “If they don’t get at least $5 the first time, we probably won’t keep them very long.”

Burkholder has a structured “recipe program” with 39 standard operating procedures, care guidelines and audits as part of official evaluation and feedback.

“They like to be audited,” she said. “My guys are proud of what they know and do. I have not had to hire anyone for a long time, so I guess it’s working. We pay them to keep up a standard of living; we want them to stay.”

Hazelwood went back to the contrast between commodity cattle and uniquely valuable people.

“How many feeders get upset about the late-term dead steer, but not the processor who quits, whether that’s six weeks or six years? We investigate aggressively to find out why they quit; it could be a manager issue,” he said.

“Well, he wasn’t really our kind of guy,” has been the excuse, Hazelwood said. “Really, after six years? That’s worse than saying that dead steer wasn’t our kind of cattle.”

The Feeding Quality Forum was sponsored by Purina, Feedlot magazine, Zoetis, Roto-Mix and Certified Angus Beef LLC; more information is available at