Calculated care: Feedlots in Central Montana


There’s a lot that happens between the day a cow chews its first grass and the evening it ends up on the grill. Feedlots are often an essential step in the process, and an important part of an industry whose sales, according to the most recent agricultural census, topped $1.7 billion.

If you follow Stanford’s main street across the railroad tracks, you’ll find John Gee and the Green Giant Feed Lot. His dad built the lot in 1968 and still owns the business. Gee is the manager.

If you spend any time talking with Gee, you might find he keeps his explanations simple, especially when describing the family business.

“We mainly finish cattle,” he said.

This, according to Gee, means feeding them to fatten them. Not, he adds, to over-fatten them. The feeding continues until an animal is “finished.”

Gee also considers his answers carefully. He pauses before defining the term: “Finished” is when an animal has gained weight and has good proportions of muscle and fat.

Cellulose is important. While muscle tissue puts the red in red meat, Gee said the fat puts the taste in steak.

“The fat is where the flavor comes from,” he said.

The process sounds simple, but managing the growth of cattle is calculated work. Feedlot pens give each animal plenty of space, but their smaller size, in comparison with open fields, cuts back on daily exercise. Less movement means less energy burned.

At the same time, Gee ups the amount of energy each animal takes in through diet. Food is not a simple subject in a feedlot: Rations are exact mixtures scientifically designed to increase weight and muscle. Gee is good at breaking down Green Giant’s approach.

“The cattle are on a barley or a barley-and-wheat mixture,” he said. “The barley helps them put on weight. You have to step them up onto the grains so you don’t make them sick, though.”

Gee explained most cattle come to the feedlot from rangelands, where they survive on grass. Switching diets too quickly upsets the animal’s stomach, so Gee phases grains and supplements into their diets while phasing out hay, or grasses.

Gee oversees the growth of cattle over 4-6 months, depending on the sex, age and starting conditions of the animals. So how does he tell when a herd is “finished?”

“Eyeballing, and learning from trial and error,” he said with a laugh.

Gee explained a goal weight is impractical: Different herds mean a range of starting weights so aiming for a single number doesn’t make sense. A set amount of time isn’t the answer, either: Some cattle finish faster than others.

Instead, Gee depends on experience and familiarity. Daily feedings mean he sees every animal every day, and occasional weigh-ins give a numerical way to track progress.

On top of the animals, Gee takes care of the feedlot itself. The feedlot may not smell like lilacs, but Gee keeps the pens clean and in shape to ensure healthy animals. It’s an ongoing process.

“There’s always fence to fix and pens to clean,” he said.

With a capacity near 5,000, just doing health checks can take the majority of Gee’s, and the cattle feed still has to be prepared by someone.

Allen Beard and Larry Kalina can relate.

Beard, like Gee, does a lot of managing: He’s the ranch foreman for Boyce Ranch. Kalina figures out the feeding for the ranch’s feedlot. Of course, the ranch also has its namesake, Owner Dee Boyce.

“This feed lot is unlike the ones the fatten cattle,” he said. “Nine out of 10 prepare them for slaughter. We don’t.”

Originally built to serve just Boyce Ranch, Boyce’s feedlot has grown.

“We’ve always developed our own heifers,” he said. “Then a few years ago, we developed our own operation and went into more custom bull and heifer development.”

Now the Boyce Feedlot can “develop” up to 1,000 animals at a time. So what is “developing,” and how is it different from finishing?

Beard, like Gee, kept it short and simple: developing is preparing an animal for breeding.

The ranch’s feedlot develops purebred cattle, and the process depends on the gender. With bulls, Beard increases muscle mass and weight to produce an animal in its physical prime. With heifers, he aims for healthy, hearty animal physically ready for artificial insemination.

Like finishing, developing relies on diet. Boyce Ranch rations are formulated offsite, but overseen by Kalina. He keeps an eye on the animals’ needs, and knows which feed produces which effects, including muscle development.

“Amino acid builds muscle instead of fat,” he said. “The food does more than their movements to develop muscle.”

Similar to the Green Giant’s menu, Boyce Ranch supplies cattle with a mix of grains, hay and supplements, according to Kalina.

“We have a truck with a mixer box that has a scale,” he said. “The feed is a percentage of each, and it’s mixed right there.”

Kalina knows diet isn’t everything, though. Keeping cattle happy also keeps them healthy. Pens are continually scrapped, water is always available and hay beds are put out in inclement weather. Sometimes there’s even a toy or two. Kalina and Beard throw giant blue barrels into the bull pens to instigate a round of soccer. Sort of.

“Sometimes we find the barrels outside of the fence,” Beard said with a grin.

Not stereotypical
Kalina and Beard can tell when Boyce Ranch animals are developed, but have a difficult time describing how they do so. There’s no set weight, but the two do look for a good build, one that’s “full, but not too fleshy.” Oh, and shiny hair can figure in, too.

Kalina adds he looks for licking with heifers. He reasons if they’re grooming themselves, the heifers feeling are feeling good about themselves.

Mostly, it seems, identifying a developed animal comes from experience. The two have enough experience with the livestock: Some cattle know them well enough to eat from their hands.

The feedlot experience doesn’t end at the fence, though, and it doesn’t stop with animals. Gee often finds himself explaining the business to people outside the ag industry. Sometimes, his job is met with negative stereotypes.

“It’s kind of hard when somebody accuses you of doing something you aren’t doing,” he said.

Despite difficulties, Gee works to keep his descriptions relatable and objective.

“I try to learn what I can, and pass it on when I can,” he said.

And he did, leaning on his truck to talk to the reporter in the truck bed. Now I hope I’ve passed it on to you.


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