Jim Jenkins had a problem. Right there underfoot.

Actually, it was under the feet of 4,000 yearlings that were tromping a lot of dried distillers grains (DDGs) into the ground as they jostled for position after the feed wagon went by.

Jenkins’ problem? “We needed some way to save our DDGs, get it into the animal yet be able to move it around” as they rotated pastures, he says. “In a conversation with my brother, we came upon the idea of trying to find some conveyor belt.”

The idea was to use the conveyor belt as a platform to keep the DDGs off the ground. “University of Nebraska research shows there’s probably 30-40% waste if you just dump the DDGs on the ground and let those cattle try to pick it up, especially the sandy ground up in the Sandhills,” Jenkins says.

Of course, there are always feed bunks. Jenkins leases two ranches in the Nebraska Sandhills and runs roughly 2,000 yearlings on each place. He rotates pastures frequently, moving the cattle between winter pasture and cornstalks. Feed bunks are costly, he says, not to mention the physical labor of moving the bulky, heavy bunks every time cattle change location.

How about used conveyor belts? They’re tough, he reasoned. Plus, they’re portable and cheaper than feed bunks.

But you can’t go to the local used conveyor belt store and buy it. “I had a hard time finding it,” he says. Eventually, he found some at a power plant, but the supply was limited and not what he was looking for.

Then his nutritionist saw an ad, and putting two and two together came up with a lot more than four.

Solution looking for a problem

Enter Damon Carson, owner and sparkplug at repurposedMATERIALS in Denver, CO. “I started the company with no grand vision in September 2010,” he says, after selling his traditional trash hauling business in Vail. The catalyst was a friend in the construction business who asked Carson if he could find some old billboard vinyls to use as drop cloths.

He found some, bought them and started putting out feelers on where else the old billboard vinyls could be used. He quickly found his biggest market was ranchers and farmers, who used the vinyls as tarps to cover hay.

Then, he found some conveyor belting and put it out to the same audience. Immediately, ag people found multiple uses.

“People use it to floor their stock trailers, make windbreaks, liners for squeeze chutes. Horse guys use it to line their round pens to keep the sand in,” he says. And the vision began to take shape.

“Farmers and ranchers are some of the smartest, most creative people when it comes to a problem and trying to figure out how to solve it,” Carson says. And that resourcefulness in finding repurposed uses for things has been around for generations.

“But farmers and ranchers and Exxon oil aren’t sitting at the same table,” Carson says. “All we’re doing is bringing more and more, new and different, byproducts from industry to this already resourceful mindset that farmers and ranchers have.”

But even Carson was surprised when Jenkins called, looking for conveyor belting. The idea of using it as a feedbunk was something Carson hadn’t thought of. But that, he says, is the beauty of what he does.

“We don’t always have to figure out what to do with it,” he says. “We just put it out there. Potential users find us and we listen to what their problem is.”

For example, Carson was talking to a guy in Missouri who was looking for something to keep the raccoons out of his silage pits. Carson had some used roofing membrane, a rubber material about 45 ml. thick. “So, in place of the tires, the farmer used that old roofing rubber and it served a twofold purpose.” It was ballast and it provided a second envelope to protect the silage. It also deterred coons.

“Within about two weeks of that, I had three or four guys call, asking about conveyor belting. I asked them what they wanted to do with it. They said they wanted to cover their silage pits to keep the deer and coons out. Son of a gun. One creative ag guy had an idea, and a byproduct like the roofing rubber from a flat roof can get a second life.”

Belting as bunks

In Jenkins’ case, that second life for conveyor belting is working out just fine. He bought around 8,000 ft. of 5-ft.-wide belting. He cuts it into 100-ft. strips and puts a 3- to 4-in. hole about a foot back from the edge and reinforces it with a strip of metal about a foot long, to keep the log chain from eventually tearing the hole out. Then, when he’s rotating pastures, he just hooks the chain to his pickup and drags it to the next pasture.

Jenkins feeds the DDGs with a live-bottom protein wagon. “We could do it with a caker or any kind of system, but basically we can run right over the top with this protein wagon and it conveys the distillers onto the middle of the conveyor belt,” he says.

Jenkins had been using the conveyor belt system for just a month or two when this was written, so he didn’t have any hard figures. “But it certainly seems we’ve cut our waste down considerably. It’s wide enough that it seems very little is getting off the edges.”

Jenkins figures he’ll spend between $125,000 and $175,000 for DDGs/ranch, depending on price and trucking costs. “Even if we save 10-15% of what we’re feeding, and I think it’s quite a bit more, we could easily save $25,000 for about an $8,000 investment,” he says.

Feedyard fix

Monty Wheeler was another producer with a problem. Right there underfoot.

Actually, it was under the feet of the cattle that clatter across the scales at Tejas Feeders, east of Pampa, TX. When things got wet, the cattle tended to slip.

Wheeler came across repurposedMATERIALS and found his solution – the treads from two-piece mining tires.

“We saw those and wondered if that would work in an alley or on the scales.” Wheeler thought he’d give them a try, figuring that if they didn’t work on the scales, he’d use them where they push cattle into the processing barn or other places in the alley where it gets slick.

At 45 in. wide, they fit perfectly when laid three across on his scales. “We’ve weighed a lot of cattle. You can see the difference. It’s quiet, it’s comfortable. The cattle get traction, they’re not slipping when they come off the scales.”

One potential problem will be when the feedyard has to certify its scales. “If there’s any adjustment that needs to be made, we’ll have to take it up so we can get into the manhole.” But that’s not a problem, he says. “They’re just laid there. They’re so heavy that they’re not going anyplace.” The feedyard used a Bobcat to lay the treads down and can easily pick them up the same way.

Wheeler still has five or six of the treads left, and plans to use them in his processing barn and in high-traffic areas in his alleys. However, Carson says when his supply is gone, it’s gone. “Unfortunately, this is not a recurring waste stream because Goodyear quit making them.”

But the remainder of the waste stream of America is in no danger of running dry. And Carson’s website at repurposed
materialsinc.com can attest to that. It’s an online flea market of old materials that might include billboard vinyls, wine barrels, climbing ropes, old fire hoses, highway snow fencing, cargo parachutes, whatever he’s collected at the time. Much of it doesn’t have an obvious use but Carson says he’ll keep listening to his customers for new ways to use old stuff.

And, as they have for generations, farmers and ranchers will lead the way in repurposing.