Salaries and wages for Nebraska feedyard employees rose considerably between 2004 and 2010, according to surveys by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL).

The surveys, conducted by Darrell Mark, Extension livestock marketing economist, and Ross Jensen, a UNL ag economics student, found nearly all categories of employees at Nebraska feedyards saw at least an 18% increase in wages or salaries over the six years. Four categories – mill operator, general labor, office manager and office personnel – experienced salary increases of more than 30% since 2004.

Two job categories – manager and mill foreman – saw slight decreases in 2010 salaries and benefits compared with 2004. While there could be several reasons for that, Mark says because they’re comparing 2010 data with 2004 data, there could be some reporting bias, given that different feedyards participated in the 2010 survey than the 2004 survey.

Mark and his colleagues have been conducting feedyard salary surveys since 1990 in cooperation with Nebraska Cattlemen, the state’s cattle organization. Comparing 2004 data with a survey conducted in July 2010 found that hourly employees saw a slightly larger wage increase than employees who receive a monthly salary. And, generally, larger feedyards (12,000 head or more) tended to pay higher salaries and wages than medium and small operations. Typically, Mark and Jensen say, the maximum total compensation within a category is paid to an employee in a larger feedyard, although in some job categories, the small feedyards (under 4,000 head) reported higher average wages.

While only 20% of feedyard employees in this survey had written job descriptions, about half had an annual performance review with managers. Nearly two-thirds of feedyard managers reported that they review salaries and wages annually, with the majority basing changes on merit and job performance. However, length of service and cost-of-living expenses factor into annual salary adjustments for more than half the feedyard managers.

Benefits count

Regardless of size, however, many feedyards provide benefits to their employees, with health insurance being the principal benefit. While 42% of feedyards provided health insurance to general laborers, more than 75% provided health insurance to other employee categories.

Life insurance benefits were generally provided by more feedyards to management-level employees. However, about a third of the feedyards surveyed provided life insurance to feed truck drivers, head cowboys and cowboys. Generally, about half offered retirement programs for employees.

Overall though, benefits increased substantially in 2010 relative to 2004, likely as a function of rising health insurance costs. On average, the value of benefits in 2010 increased 15.3% relative to 2004 or about 2.5%/year.

Five positions, however, experienced decreases in the value of benefits – assistant managers (-3.4%); cowboys (-15.6%); maintenance foreman (-28%); general labor (-9.4%); and office personnel (-16.1%). Mark says it’s likely that reporting bias entered into the equation here also – not all the feedyards that participated in the 2004 survey were represented in the 2010 data.

Nebraska feedyard managers reported that 72% of their employees received safety training. About that many were Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) certified and 88% of feedyard employees received training in animal handling and welfare.

Comparative salaries

It appears feedyard wages are competitive across the cattle-feeding belt. In a Colorado Feedlot Wage Survey conducted in 2009 by Gregorio Billikopf with University of California Cooperative Extension, feedyard managers were asked to select one cowboy and answer the survey questions with that person in mind, based on wages paid and work done in April 2009.

Average hourly wages for the month were $12.63/hour. For cowboys who received a salary, the average was $2,569 for the month or $30,828 on an annualized basis. In addition to their regular pay, 70% were eligible to earn a bonus or incentive, which averaged $128/month or $1,536 annually.

Of the Colorado feedyards responding, 77% provided some sort of health insurance for the cowboys, who worked an average of 9.6 hours/day, six days/week. Most of the feedyards (68%) paid their cowboys hourly, with the rest paying a salary. Retirement benefits were provided by 59% of the feedyards. Among the cowboys who received vacation in the Colorado survey, the average was 15 days/year. And 18% of the feedyards provided housing, either directly or as a monthly housing allowance.

The 2010 Nebraska survey yielded similar findings. Average hourly wages for all yards reporting was $11.71, with 48% of the feedyards paying cowboys by the hour. For the 52% that paid salaries, the yearly average was $33,636. Average work week in the Nebraska survey was 54.5 hours.

A strong majority (83%) provided health insurance for their cowboys and 52% offered a retirement plan. Half of the feedyards paid bonuses to their cowboys, which averaged $1,458/year. The Nebraska survey showed 10.6 days of vacation/year and 19% of the feedyards provided housing.

Feedyards continually struggle to find and keep good employees. However, based on the Nebraska and Colorado survey results, it appears feedyards are very competitive compared with neighboring dairies. According to a 2009 Dairy Wage Survey that Billikopf conducted, average hourly wages for a milker was $9.95 nationally, with the highest wages paid in the West ($10.16) and the Midwest ($9.76).

Forty-seven percent of the dairies offered some type of incentive or bonus pay, averaging $142 for the month surveyed. A fourth of the dairies offered health insurance for their milkers and 18% offered a retirement plan.

Incidentally, about a third of the feedyards participating in the survey indicated they had replaced feed trucks more often since they began feeding ethanol co-products. Additionally, about 10% reported purchasing an additional feed truck and hiring an additional driver since they began feeding co-products.

For complete information, go to http://marksmarketing.net/pub_livestock.htmlfor the Nebraska feedyard survey data. The Colorado feedyard wage survey is at http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/7research/7res07.htm and the dairy results are at http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/7research/7res08.htm.