In a tough market, cattle producers hail DemKota packing plant

Victoria Lusk
Farm Forum

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Zeeland, N.D.

EDMUNDS COUNTY — A beef processing plant on the southwestern edge of Aberdeen is the destination for 80 to 90 percent of the cattle finished at a feedlot about 30 miles to the west.

And there are some area livestock producers who couldn’t be happier.

LDL Cattle Co. sells the vast majority of its cattle to DemKota Ranch Beef, owner Herman Schumacher said on June 28 at the feedlot near Ipswich. That’s when he invited some of the people whose cattle the business finishes to talk about the arrangement and how well it works.

Those folks weren’t as tentative to speak as DemKota officials have been since taking over the plant after its parent company, White Oak Global Advisors, bought it at bankruptcy auction in December 2013.

Schumacher said he can tell just by looking into each pen if the cattle are ready for DemKota. Ideally for steers that’s around 1,500 pounds.

“See that one wagging its tail?” he said. “It’s got about 80, 90 more days.”

His time in the industry shows. And those who trust him to finish their cattle know him well. So they couldn’t say no when he offered to host them for a day.

Most have been working their family cow-calf operations their whole lives and followed previous generations who did the same.

Despite that, most had never before seen their cattle finished locally.

“Finished” is a livestock industry term that means cattle are ready to be slaughtered.

The producers said they’ve also never really known where their beef ends up.

That’s changed now as DemKota Ranch Beef slaughters about 1,100 head per day, Schumacher said. To him, that’s a big benefit to local cattle producers.

“We talk farm to table. This is about as local as you can get,” said AJ Munger of Eagle Pass Ranch near Highmore. “And we’re not able to do that without a packing plant in this area. Before we were shipping all that value out, and now it can stay in our own backyards.”

The plant also helps push the value of livestock higher.

“That DemKota, that’s a good deal,” said Russell Braun, who raises cattle near Ipswich with his father, Gary.

“The closer you can get it to market the better. … When they load them here, they can have them down to Aberdeen in a half-hour. And they can probably kill within the next hour. You take them to Grand Island, Neb., or somewhere farther away, they got a whole day trucking,” he said.

With the shorter commute, the animals lose less weight because of stress and other factors in the trailer. And more pounds mean more money.

There’s a value in raising cattle the right way, said Pat Becker of Selfridge, N.D.

“Over the years, you find out you have to do things right,” he said. “Years ago, people didn’t pay attention as much. It was more quantity over quality. Now it’s not. You get paid for quality.”

Becker sold some cattle to Schumacher last fall, he said. Working with LDL has proven beneficial, especially when he wants to know how his cattle do after he’s sold them to the feedlot. That’s possible, he said, because LDL follows up with him.

Dwight Rossow and his son Wayne, who live near Herreid, don’t typically see their cattle after selling them. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in how they do, Dwight Rossow said. Seeing the finished animals helps him know he’s spending money on the right bulls, he said.

He sometimes hears words like “inhumane” on Twitter, referring to cattle treatment, and bristles a bit.

“But what people need to understand is this here is our livelihood so we’re taking as good of care of them as we can,” Rossow said. “If we start losing calves, that’ll cost us. Everyone is out here trying their hardest.”

Last year, the Rossow cattle operation supported the crops, but this year, “there’s nothing to support either one,” he said.

That was also a concern expressed by other producers on June 28. The depressed market has them worried, yet somehow hopeful.

“It’s not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure,” said Bill Meyer of Breien, N.D. “But it’s just like everything. Blind faith. You put it in and hope the market is going to be there.”

Keeping cattle local

DemKota is a good landing spot for quality cattle, Becker said.

“This is probably the closest my cattle have ever been. So yes, it’s been good. And it’s made a difference,” he said. “There’s a lot of cattle up in this part of South Dakota, a lot of good cattle.”

Showcasing beef raised in the state is another big advantage to having a nearby packing plant, Munger said.

Not only is it keeping more money in the local economy, but because DemKota is also exporting beef, it’s giving South Dakota producers a big playing field.

“What better way to showcase the quality of cattle we can raise in South Dakota?” Munger said. “Now we can really show it.”

Not all of DemKota’s beef is exported. It’s also sold locally at Ken’s SuperFair Foods and used at local restaurants such as Jerseys Sports Bar and Grill.

Plant officials were not available to comment for this story.

“Everyone around here knows that they’re getting something local. Obviously, DemKota’s not bringing in cattle from 1,000 miles away,” said Russ Schumacher, who operates a ranch with his brother Harry nearly Zeeland, N.D. “They have enough local (cattle) that they support their plant. I think it’s great that they are out and operating.”

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Deb and Ernie Weisbeck of Herreid could barely believe how big their cattle had grown since selling them to LDL Cattle Company at the end of February. American News photo by Victoria Lusk