Time may be money. But when it comes to processing cattle at the feedlot, haste can make more economic waste than profit potential can withstand.

"When you look at every animal that is implanted improperly costing you $15 to $20, how many of those animals can you afford not to get implanted right?" asks Barry Copeland of Greeley, CO, who manages two custom processing crews for Straw Hat Processing.

Indeed. Dan Webster, president of Webster Feedlot at Greeley, started using Copeland and his crew eight years ago. Since then, he's seen implant retention in his 20,000-head yard increase about 10%.

Multiply that times 2.5 turns of cattle through the lot each year and the $17/head a recent Kansas State University study pins on improper implanting. The $85,000 potential annual return more than offsets the 55-85 cents/head Webster pays for the custom help.

Plus, increased implant retention is just one economic reason some custom feedlots hire out their processing.

"My cowboys can concentrate on the other necessities like riding pens and doctoring cattle," says Webster. "I would have to have two other full-time people on the cowboy side and streamline the pen checking so pen riding could continue while cattle are being processed." As it is, Webster's 20 employees can concentrate on the jobs they were hired to do.

Savings In Worker's Comp In addition to salary savings, Webster explains, "Our worker's compensation costs have declined." Rather than worry about his own employees getting tromped on or jabbed with a needle he can leave that liability to someone else.

"With all of the people involved, it has saved the company around $1,000 per month in worker's compensation," says Webster.

Really, the human bumps and bruises that go with processing cattle can have as much to do with experience as racing the clock. Copeland points out, "The people a manager has to pull away from other jobs to process cattle may not have the experience implanting or vaccinating cattle. It can be taught, but like anything, it takes lots of hands-on."

And, if they're hurrying through other work to get to the processing barn, both quality and safety can take lumps. Besides, just finding help is getting tougher.

"One of the big reasons we use a custom crew is that the labor force is getting hard to come up with. We can't take our cowboys away from riding pens all day to go process cattle," says veterinarian Dave Sjeklocha. He is the cattle manager at Farr Feeders near Greeley, a 36,000-head-capacity yard.

If Farr went back to using its own employees, Sjeklocha estimates they would have to add two more pen riders and two more feed truck drivers to their lean, full-time workforce of 19.

Speed Vs. Quality Of course, there are tradeoffs. "I don't think the issue is custom or not custom. It's how processors are getting paid. We need to be rewarding people for the quality of their work, not just for how many cattle they can cram through the chute," says Temple Grandin. She's an assistant professor of animal science at Colorado State University and one of the world's foremost experts in cattle handling and the design of handling facilities.

"The feedyards getting along the best with custom crews are the ones telling them exactly how they want it done; not just telling them, but monitoring them," she says.

With that in mind, Copeland pays his crews by the head, so no one is riding the clock. His contracts also include performance benchmarks.

"Between implant checks and the consulting veterinarians looking over our shoulders, we have to do things right, and managers can be more particular about the work that is getting done," says Copeland. "If they want a certain technique used or a specific vaccination location, they just have to communicate that to us. If they will provide us with a set of guidelines to follow, we will follow them," he says.

But Grandin would like to see the industry go a step further: "I think we have to start scoring handling the same way we track rate of gain. It's measurable."

For instance, rather than wonder whether the hydraulic chute is squeezing too tight, she believes folks should monitor handling stress during processing. They can do this by measuring such things as vocalization in the chute, how many walk in without being prodded, and how much straining cattle do once they're there.

She feels this type of scoring would help ensure processors are earning their success, while looking out for the handling welfare of the stock. Grandin explains, "Packing plants are already doing this kind of auditing, and one reason is that McDonalds' Corp. buys product only from plants that meet certain handling specifications."

Custom or in-house, Sjeklocha explains, "One of our consulting veterinarians, Del Miles, says, 'People don't do what's expected, they do what's inspected.' If you're there to watch frequently your way will become habit over time ... I think the main thing is finding people cognizant of Beef Quality Assurance and people who want to do a good job for you."