What do you do with a falling down feedyard?
“We had,” says Mike Thoren, president and CEO of JBS Five Rivers Ranch Cattle Feeding, “a wore-out feedyard. We had to do something in a significant sense.”
One option was to lock the gates and walk away. After all, land along the Front Range of Colorado doesn’t come cheap and the potential return on the real estate could be significant. Another was to slap a few Band-Aids on the worst wounds and continue limping along as they had been.
Both of those options had their 15 seconds of fame, then were quickly discarded. The JBS-Five Rivers commitment to the U.S. cattle industry runs deep, and there really was only one option worth discussing for their Kuner feedyard – tear it down and start over.
Three years and $18 million later, the JBS Five Rivers Ranch Cattle Feeding feedyard at Kersey, CO, is back on-line as perhaps the most state-of-the-industry feedyard in existence. It is, certainly, the newest.
The Kuner yard, a 100,000-head feedyard east of Greeley, was one of the original Monfort feedyards built in the early ’70s. The concrete in the bunks and aprons was disintegrating; the pens, made all of Lodgepole pine, were a maintenance headache of migraine proportion; and the flat gradient made drainage a challenge.
And that was just for starters.
“The first thing we updated was the feedmill,” Thoren says. “The Monfort family had been pioneers in flaking, so they started with good technology in 1970, but it really hadn’t been updated.”
While the old mill was a batch mill, the feed had to be mixed on the truck. The new mill both processes and mixes the feed internally, delivering a finished ration to the feed trucks. “That was just about cattle performance,” Thoren says.
And the new mill is a modular design, which Thoren says was more efficient to build and more efficient to operate and maintain. In fact, they were able to cut the number of rolls almost in half while still maintaining the same throughput.
“It’s basically built at the factory, so when you wear stuff out, you can go get another unit and snap it in instead of having millwrights on site with a crane. It really is a plug-and-play situation,” he says.
Then there were the pens. “When you’re faced with having to rebuild something, you can always go in and pour new bunks and pads,” Thoren says. “We decided to start over again, get really good drainage, and get our cattle comfortable.”
That they did, raising the elevation of some pens more than 10 ft. to obtain the desired slope and drainage. “The amount of manure we hauled was the biggest surprise,” Thoren says. “We knew we had a lot of manure accumulation, but getting that cleaned up was a big deal.”
Rebuilding the feedyard gave JBS-Five Rivers the opportunity to implement some state-of-the-art environmental management practices. The manure is currently stored on-site, waiting to be spread on neighboring farmland. In the future, however, a good portion of the manure will be processed in a gasification plant, which will be used to power the steam chests in the feedmill.
“This will be the location of the first commercial, large-scale gasifier” in a U.S. feedyard, says Tom McDonald, vice president-environmental affairs for JBS-Five Rivers. “We’ve got a pilot-scale unit built and we’ve operated it for a year and a half.” Their pilot plant looks promising and they will soon begin construction on a commercial-scale unit.
In addition, the deconstruction and dirt work allowed them to more than double the size of their retention ponds. That extra storage allows them to use the water more efficiently. “We can put it on when the crop needs it, not just when we’ve got a bunch of water and we need to pump it down real quick,” Thoren says.
And they rebuilt the retention ponds with an eye toward the future. “We’re pretty confident we’re going to get better wastewater treatment, be it mechanical or biological, coming down the road,” Thoren says. “The technologies aren’t there yet. But in everything we imagined, we would have to have a separate cell.” So they built a retention pond inside a retention pond, to allow them to install future technology when it comes on line.
“We also built a water trough overflow recycle system,” McDonald says. During the winter, constant-flow water troughs keep the tanks and lines from freezing. “That’s always been a challenge because that water went into the retention pond and took up capacity needed for our storm volume,” McDonald says.
So they put in a recycle system. “It’s run through sand filters to get the impurities out, then it’s run through an ultraviolet light to kill any pathogens in the water,” he says, before it’s returned to the freshwater system. That will save about 20 million gals./year.
Other new environmental management practices include flow dissipaters in the drainage ditches and big-gun sprinklers around the feedyard for dust control. Being close to a growing population center makes dust and odor control paramount, they say, as well as creating better working conditions for their employees. With the flow dissipaters, McDonald says, “The idea is when a big rainfall occurs and the runoff is carrying a lot of manure, it will settle out in the ditch and not overwhelm the settling basin or the retention pond.” The ditches can be easily cleaned and re-graded, and the functional life of the settling basin is increased.
“When we rebuilt this, we were really looking for cattle care and comfort,” Thoren says. That’s why they put heavy emphasis on dirt work to achieve proper drainage and built Temple Grandin-type cattle working facilities. “The other thing we’ve done, experimentally, we’ve got a section of the yard that’s got shades and windbreaks,” Thoren says. “In the wintertime, they go vertical for wind control; in the summertime, they tip up horizontally for shade. If we like them, we’ll expand those throughout the yard.”
While rebuilding the Kuner yard from the dirt up gave JBS-Five Rivers an opportunity to make it not just state of the art, but futuristic; the final result isn’t much different than the remodeling they’ve done in their other feedyards.
“We’re continuously upgrading our yards,” Thoren says. “We spend a lot of money on them all the time. We’ve renovated all of them to basically the same standard.”
Located less than an hour from the Denver airport and close by the JBS corporate office in Greeley, the Kuner feedyard will be the showpiece for JBS Five Rivers Ranch Cattle Feeding. And Thoren says it will keep that role for a long time. He says JBS is confident the Kuner feedyard will last 60 years or more.
That’s right in line with the JBS culture, Thoren says, and something he tries to instill in the Five Rivers employees.
“It’s doing things right long-term. That’s what we work on with our employees – to build a culture where people are informed and systemic thinkers. They know the consequences of their actions, they take longer-term views and make the right decisions,” he says.