That day in early June 1995 is seared into Stacy McCasland’s brain like a fiery brand. That’s the day he and his dad, Don, stood amidst the wreckage of what was once their family-owned feedyard after one of the strongest tornadoes in Texas Panhandle history passed through.
All the employees were safe. When all the cattle were accounted for, however, the feedyard west of Wheeler, TX, lost several hundred head, either killed outright or euthanized later because of serious injury. A major portion of the feedyard was left a mangled mess, including the feedmill.
The first thing the feedyard crew did after gathering the cattle was to start patching water lines and cobbling together enough of a system to keep fresh water in front of the remaining cattle. With the mill destroyed, McCasland says they’d have never gotten through the disaster without several neighboring feedyards running their mills overtime and hauling feed to the surviving cattle.
The tornado that hit Wheeler Feedyard was the sixth in a series of seven tornadoes spawned by a violent storm. In fact, says Todd Lindley, science and operations officer at the Amarillo office of the National Weather Service, it was the largest outbreak of tornadoes on record in the Texas Panhandle at the time and the last violent tornadoes to hit the area. Rated F4, the tornado that leveled Wheeler Feedyard cut a path 700 yards wide and 29 miles long.
The McCaslands rebuilt the feedyard to its present 32,000-head capacity and put in a new mill built specifically to better withstand a tornado. However, Stacy says, “I just don’t see how you prepare for that kind of disaster.”
The answer is you can’t, other than having underground tornado shelters – or “fraidy holes” as the locals call them – installed around the operation, and then continually reminding employees of their locations.
But that doesn’t mean Wheeler Feedyard isn’t prepared for other types of natural or manmade problems. Disaster planning and emergency management are a part of the ongoing beef quality assurance (BQA) training the feedyard provides for its employees. And the feedyard has sufficient generator capacity to keep both the mill running and the water flowing should they lose electricity for an extended period.
All of which makes perfect sense. Oddly enough, however, those efforts put Wheeler Feedyard in the minority when it comes to emergency preparedness and biosecurity planning.
Feedlot 2011 survey results
According to the Feedlot 2011 survey by the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS), a part of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, when looking at the basic elements of emergency preparedness, 46.3% of all feedlots had a written contingency plan for feeding and watering livestock in the event of a utility outage. Of that, 67% of the larger feedlots (8,000 head and up) had a backup plan for animal feed and water, while 37.8% of feedlots between 1,000 and 7,999 head had such a plan.
That’s not to say, however, that only a few feedlots have a contingency plan, says Dave Dargatz, a NAHMS veterinarian. “Some feedlots may have a plan, but just haven’t written it down.”
Critical in an emergency is a backup power source. Overall, 60% of feedlots surveyed had a power generation capacity of 15 or more days on average. Smaller feedlots were more likely to have 15 days or more of power generation capacity (67.3%) than feedlots with a capacity of 8,000 head or more (42.3%).
However, according to the survey, only 34% of all feedyards had a written emergency procedure plan. A higher percentage of feedlots with 8,000 head or more capacity (65.8%) had a plan compared with 21% of feedlots with a capacity between 1,000 and 7,999.
Closely linked with emergency preparedness is biosecurity and possible terrorist attacks. Overall during the previous three years, 48.2% of feedlots had someone from the operation attend an educational meeting regarding food security, terrorism threats or recognizing potential terrorist activities and actions. A higher percentage of larger feedlots (64.3%) had taken advantage of such training, compared with 41.5% of smaller feedlots.
However, 88.5% of all feedlots encouraged employees or others to report what they considered unusual circumstances or activities, and 48.4% had active working relationships with county or regional emergency management officials. Larger feedlots (70.3%) were more likely than smaller feedlots (39.3%) to have such relationships.
A Closer Look: Biosecurity Essential For Cattle Feeders
While emergency preparedness encompasses a multitude of possible events and scenarios, biosecurity focuses on the exclusion of disease agents, Dargatz says. And those agents aren’t limited to just viruses and bacteria; anything that could be harmful to the animals in your feedyard, such as toxins in the feed, should be considered.
One of the overriding challenges in feedyard animal health is that feedyards often receive cattle from many different sources. While that creates any number of health challenges for cattle that stay in the feedyard, it’s even more of a concern for cattle that go back out on pasture, because those cattle may bring some unintended and unwelcome hitchhikers with them.
Overall, 17.1% of feedlots had some animals leave the feedlot and return to a breeding or stocker operation. “For feedlot animals destined to return to breeding or grazing operations, biocontainment practices, primarily segregation, could be one way to mitigate the spread of certain pathogens,” the NAHMS report suggests.
Of the feedyards that housed cattle destined to leave the feedyard and go back to pasture, 49.6% provided a segregated area for breeding cattle. Meanwhile, 44.1% provided a segregated area for stocker cattle that prevented them from coming into direct contact with cattle on feed for slaughter.
Overall, 25.1% of feedyards displayed signage directing that visitors check in at the office. However, only 10.3% of feedlots with a capacity of 1,000-7,999 head displayed such signs, compared with 60.6% of feedyards with capacities greater than 8,000 head. Most feedyards did not provide protective outerwear to visitors, but 65.7% limited access to animal areas and 59.9% restricted vehicles from animal areas. Restricting visitor access to animal areas was more common on the 8,000-head-or-larger feedyards (88%) than on smaller feedlots (56.3%).
Just as with visitors, employees who have contact with animals outside the feedyard can bring hitchhikers of the nefarious kind with them when they come to work. However, employee contact with livestock outside the feedlot was not commonplace – overall, 53.2% of full-time employees who handled cattle had no contact with livestock on other operations and 59.7% of employees did not own any livestock.
Another control point in the spread of disease is the rolling stock. Using the same equipment to clean pens and move cattle feed can increase the risk of disease transmission. Of feedyards with capacities of greater than 8,000 head, 64.8% never used the same equipment to handle manure and feed. In contrast, 36.8% of the smaller feedlots used different loaders for the two tasks. For operations that used the same equipment, 81% washed with water or steam, and 6.3% washed and chemically disinfected the equipment between uses.
McCasland often thinks back to that terrible day in June 1995 and the hard rebuilding work that followed. “I don’t know that we’ve overcome it yet,” he says. “It feels like sometimes we have; other times, you wonder how far it really set us back. But I tell you what – it made us do a few things different.”
And that, he says, has been good. “Looking back, something that bad, now we see some good that’s come from it.”
Read more from the Feedlot 2011 survey.