If you've been in business for more than 100 years, you're doing something right. A lot of that is anticipating changes and looking for ways to improve daily operations and the bottom line.
It's worked for owner William H. "Bill" Rhea and his predecessors at Rhea Cattle Co., near Arlington, NE. And, when it comes to environmental improvements, Rhea's found a mutually beneficial existence between the 6,000-head feedyard and the company's 4,000 acres of farmland.
"We've found that the environmental improvements have actually paid us back, rather than created costs for us," Rhea says. "More importantly, the work we've done has made us more conscious of the environment and its benefits."
That's not to say the benefits didn't come about without any effort. The company did have its environmental challenges. For one, a stream used to run through the middle of the feedyard. Drainage into the stream occasionally did occur.
"Twenty years ago, we had to divert that stream and stop all the feedyard drainage into it," Rhea says. "Then, we began to capture and use the water that drained from the yard."
This led to a basic reconfiguration of the feedyard. Rhea says it was really an advantage because the yard was so old, they needed to do something anyway.
"At that time, environmental issues in our industry weren't necessarily good things," he adds. "However, that's changed a lot. A lot of the credit for changing that goes to the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). From the first contact years ago up to now, the personnel have been great. They've helped us figure out the best methods for drainage and have helped in other ways as well."
Just as initial environmental regulations were developing in the early 1970s, Rhea and his crew developed a serpentine waterway to help with the drainage concerns. That waterway now works in conjunction with drainage systems that have been added as pens have been continually revamped since then.
Designed For Dryness Not unique to Rhea's feedyard, but effective at keeping pens dry is the "running W" that stretches through the yard, complete with large, but lower than normal pen mounds. The slope variation that runs from 3.4 to 5.6 degrees lets rainwater run quickly to the waterway and then to settling basins.
Those basins are designed for easy maintenance, too. To avoid tearing up too much soil, a backhoe, instead of a loader or blade, cleans them. Cleaning with a backhoe offers more opportunities for stationary removal and the entire process can be accomplished in a single day.
"We didn't want high mounds, so we opted for lower mounds that have a larger surface area," Rhea says. "We compacted the mounds so water doesn't soak in and create a mud problem."
Keeping mud down and soil degradation low is helped by 20 and 24-ft. bunk aprons, depending on the age of pens. Rhea says the wider aprons, combined with 400 sq. ft. of pen space per animal, contribute to easier cleaning as well.
Rhea can't claim that environmental regulations per se have made him money. However, he can claim the processes he's implemented have made for a better feedyard and farm.
First, cattle in the newer pens, which were built in 1990, gain an average of 0.13 lbs./day more than cattle in older pens. Rhea attributes this to the better design, drier conditions and larger aprons.
Secondly, phosphorous isn't a regular farm purchase anymore. In fact, it's not purchased at all. By using the compost generated by the yard and irrigating with runoff, Rhea is able to keep phosphorous levels in the normal range as well as increase the level of other soil nutrients.
"We took a negative - or what we thought was a negative - regulation and turned it into a positive," Rhea says.
Same Rules "Bill Rhea isn't operating under any new rules but under regulations that have been in place since 1971," says Troy Bredenkamp, vice president of technical services for the Nebraska Cattlemen's Association. "What's changed, however, is that until a couple years ago, compliance of DEQ regulations has been complaint driven. This means that an operation would not be inspected unless a complaint against it was filed.
"Now, any feeding operation with more than 300 head must request an inspection by DEQ, which is consistent with federal regulations," he adds. "If a feedyard isn't already up to standards, it can be expensive getting there and getting permitted."
Bredenkamp cites the challenges faced in Nebraska, which has 5,500 feeders. Of that, the majority will fall into the less than 1,000-head capacity. He says feeders in the 300 and 1,000-head range have the most catching up to do and the economics of getting permitted could strain operations.
Just getting permitted can easily run $1.25/head, let alone the cost of improvements that must be made.
"It was only three or four years ago when permit applications ran about three to five pages long," Bredenkamp says. "Now, those permits can hit 40 to 50 pages really quick."
Components of the permitting process include an odor management plan, sludge removal plan, operation and management and abandonment plan to name a few. Consultants specializing in feedyard environmental management generally complete the plans for feedyard owners.
"Once successfully permitted, records must be maintained, too," Bredenkamp says. "And, the more detailed the better. Some people videotape activities when a holding pond is cleaned. Others take before and after photographs. Either tactic is appropriate since manure management records must show where the manure is going, the rate at which it's applied and residual soil rates."
It doesn't end there. Required nutrient management plans expressly define where the yard manure is delivered. And, if the manure is being spread on land not owned by the feeding operation, the receiving party must sign an easement.
Rhea and Bredenkamp agree the process can be cumbersome, costly and at times frustrating. Yet they realize it's part of the way business is done today.
"If you look at land as a resource, we're doing a better job of capturing our nutrients," Rhea says. "Fertility is building throughout our farm; cattle are performing better and the yard is a better contributor to the entire operation. We wouldn't have looked at it this way 20 years ago."