A feedlot wage survey conducted by Gregorio Billikopf with the University of California with assistance from the Colorado Livestock Association reveals some interesting data.

The cowboys in the survey had worked from 1-23 years at the feedlot (average was a bit over six years). Length of employment is normally important in making wage comparisons, as employees who have worked longer tend to climb higher up the rate range within their pay grade.

There was no relationship, however, between length of employment in this sample and wages. Some of the highest paying feedlots were paying $15-$17/hour to their entry level cowboys while long-term employees of 10 and even 20 years were earning about $10/hour in other feedlots. The average pay was $12.63/hour; and 32% (n = 7) of the feedlots had differential pay for more difficult shifts.

For the month of April 2009, cowboy earnings ranged from $1,600 to $3,500 (average was $2,569). In addition to their regular pay, 70% (n = 16) of the cowboys were eligible to earn a bonus or incentive. The bonuses or incentives actually earned in April ranged from $0 to $266 (average was $128). When we count only those who earned some incentive, the average was $158.

Vacation ranged from 0 to 27 days/year. Among those who received some vacation, the average was 15 days/year. Two cowboys received approximately half their vacation as actual time off, and the other half as paid time in lieu of additional time off. Generally speaking, feedlot employers who were very generous with their vacation plan did not offer health insurance.

Of the feedlots 77% (n = 17) provided some sort of health insurance for the cowboys (e.g., health, dental, eye). This insurance cost the feedlot from $50 to $1,200/month (average was $445/month). Cowboys worked an average of 9.7 hours/day, and 6 days/week. Cowboys were generally paid on an hourly basis (68%, n = 15), while the rest were paid a salary. Retirement benefits were provided by 59% (n = 13) of the feedlot operations.

Housing was a benefit obtained by 18% (n = 4) of the cowboys, either directly or in the form of a monthly housing allowance.

The feedlot operations averaged 6,800 head checked per day per cowboy. For most (64%, n = 14), this number had changed little from three years ago, while the remaining feedlots were about evenly divided between those who were checking more or fewer head. The one-time capacity was an average of 45,750 head/feedlot. Pen checking time averaged 4.6 hours/cowboy (ranged from half an hour to 8 hours).

Horses were used by 86% (n = 19) of the feedlots. Of those using horses, 58% (n = 11) require cowboys to provide their own mount, with the rest (42%, n = 8) flexible on this matter. Some cowboys were limited to two horses (42%, n = 8). Others had some limits, but could bring at least three mounts (47%, n = 9). Finally, a couple of feedlots had no limits (11%, n = 2).

Quite a few cowboys (42%, n = 8), even those who provided their own horses, were tested or evaluated in terms of their riding abilities. This is an excellent practice in order to avoid future injury to riders, Billikopf says. “I recommend a multifaceted test including riding ability, working with cattle, handling horses, loading horses into trailers, and ability to groom and saddle.” Most (68%, n = 13) cowboys were expected to provide their own saddle.

In terms of labor supply, 9% (n =2) found it much more difficult to find cowboys than three years ago; 36% (n = 8) more difficult; 18% (n = 4) the same; and 18% (n = 4) easier. An additional 18% (n = 4) had no need to hire new cowboys. Of those who found changes in their ability to hire cowboys, 93% (n = 13) felt these changes were externally caused; while one feedlot (7%) felt they had made changes in their operation that made it easier to recruit.

“This is a critical point in labor management,” Billikopf says. “Some operators have found a combination of management practices that help them attract and retain good employees even while there are labor shortages. These include giving job sample (i.e., practical) tests to applicants to make sure the very best are hired, establishing a wage structure within which excellent employees can climb, creating effective incentive pay opportunities that benefit employee and farm operation, and supplying plenty of opportunities for open two-way communication, to name a few.”

General labor related issues of concern, besides ability to find people, were: finding quality employees; managing compensation; safety; employee retention; housing; insurance; and agricultural working schedules.

For additional info on employee management, go to www.cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/.
-- Gregorio Billikopf, University of California