Colorado Beef Production: A Tale of Two Feedlots
Beef production on Colorado’s high plains. Few topics arouse as much debate in conversations around the current trends, sustainability, and alternatives in food systems as meat consumption, and especially feedlot beef consumption which requires relatively large amounts of water and energy to grow the feed necessary for cattle production using feedlots. This remarkable if somewhat older video presents in a matter-of-fact way the practices, infrastructure, and modification of nature involved in beef production at small and very large scales on the high plains of Colorado (Warning: this video shows brief scenes from a slaughterhouse, e.g. cutting of carcasses). Watch for details about the use of water in a dryland environment, how feed is acquired in both systems to fatten animals, the use of technology to maximize the weight gain of animals, and the details of transport to market.
Video: Colorado Beef Production 1990 (FWU) - English(14:53)
- Click for a transcript of the Colorado Beef Production video.
Narrator: An auction in Greeley, a small town north of Denver, and the cattle raising center of Colorado.
Narrator: The calves have been bred in the pastures of the surrounding ranches. Now they come to be fattened up in the feedlots. This is Jim Park, the owner of a small family farm near Greeley, who raises cattle. And Carl Montega, a buyer for Monfort, the biggest meat producer in the area. Monfort of Colorado, a beef producing company with its own feedlots, slaughterhouses, and car parks. 85,000 animals can be fattened at the same time, 200,000 per year in this feedlot alone. And Monfort operates another two facilities of the same size in this region. Located on a high plateau, the climate on the plains is ideal for the animals. It is dry in summer and cold and dry in winter. This makes the cattle resistant to germs and infection. Monfort buys calves from all over the United States and sends them to Greeley to be fattened. They will be fed here for about 110 days until they have reached a suitable weight for slaughter. The new arrivals are sorted by age and size and then vaccinated. They are given a sedative against the stress of this new unfamiliar environment. Each animal is given a computer number and a hormone capsule is implanted. The hormones cause the animals to gain weight more quickly. Then an antiseptic bath to kill off bacteria. Cattle owners fear nothing more than an outbreak of infection in feedlots. Nevertheless, 1% of the livestock, that's about 2,000 cattle a year, will die from dust and stress before they reach the slaughterhouse. Jim Park’s family farm is only about a five-minute drive from Montfort. Jim Park owns about 250 acres of irrigated land; on which he grows fodder for his beef stock. He fattens 1,100 animals per year in a feedlot. Only two men run the farm, Jim himself and another farmhand. The business is fully mechanized with its own feed mill and all necessary equipment. Jim Park sells his cattle to the highest bidder among the US meat producers, including Monfort of Colorado.
Jim Park: Oh, we've been in the business of feeding cattle probably about 20 years. Before that, we used to milk cows here. The old red barn behind us here, that's where we used to milk cows. But we've kind of got out of that business and basically just feedlot, feeding cattle right now. We raise most of our own alfalfa and corn, silage (the roughage part of it). I do have to buy some shelled corn, but the biggest majority of the feed we raise right here on the place and feed it to the cattle. I don't sell any corn or alfalfa off the place it all goes through the cattle.
Male voice (not visible): When Monfort is big business and is so close to you, is a family farm able to survive?
Jim Park: Well I think so. Big, of course, is maybe more efficient. But I think I think one of the disadvantages of being so big is everything is hired labor. At least here I own the cattle myself and I do have one man that's here year-round that works with me. And we just take more of a caring role, I think. If you're working for a big company, a lot of times you maybe don't care so much whether one sick or whether they're eating the way they should be or things like this. So I think we can probably compete just about as well.
Male voice (not visible): How did this farm start here?
Jim Park: Well my great granddad, fella by the name of Frederick Niemeyer, and Fritz was kind of his nickname. Fritz came to this country in the mid-1800s and he came from Germany over here to the United States and he homesteaded this place. It's been in the family since about 1888, so we've been here a little over 100 years.
Narrator: Like Fritz Niemeyer, many Germans settled in Colorado at that time. The land was well suited for growing sugar beets, something they were very good at. But the water shortage in Colorado meant hardship for the farmers. The drought of 1927-35, worse than any before, turned fertile land into desert. The farms were buried by sandstorms. The land could no longer feed the people and most of the farmers had to leave their homes. In 1935 the Colorado government started work on a gigantic irrigation project. The Rocky Mountains formal watershed, the farms and arable land on the Great Plains, seventy miles to the east, are only sparingly supplied with meltwater from the mountains. This is because most of the snow falls on the western side of the Rockies. Large water reservoirs were built west of the mountain range. From there a tunnel was drilled straight through the mountain and a pipeline was laid. When the rivers begin to dry up in summer, the stored water is pumped from west to east. It flows through pipelines down the slopes of the Rocky Mountains to the plains below, and can also be used to generate hydroelectric power. The water then flows through two canal systems north into the Cache la Poudre and south into the South Platte River. Many ditches carry it from the river to the fields and farms. In addition to wheat, corn, and alfalfa, corn for silage has become the main crop in Colorado. Under contract from Montfort, many farmers plant crops which are then harvested by Monfort using its own equipment and workforce. The corn is chopped right in the fields to form silage. It is then stored in silos in Monfort’s feedlot. Montfort buys corn wherever the price is right. In the feed mill, the grain is heated and ground in flakers, to form corn flakes. The fodder is mixed by compute. Cornflakes, silage, proteins, and vitamins are blended together for each group of cattle according to their age and weight. They are fed twice a day. The fodder is heated so that the animals waste no energy bringing it to body temperature. The aim - a weight gain of three pounds per day.
Woman’s voice (operator): Please feed pen 134 for 15 head, 604 for 20 head, and 542 for 1 head.
Narrator: Twenty farms are connected to this irrigation canal. The next-to-the-last is Jim's. A co-op, formed by the farmers, manages and supervises the just distribution of water. When water is short, some farmers even lock their gates to prevent water from being stolen. Some water rights date back to the previous century. These oldest rights are also the most valuable because they are the last to have their water restricted.
Male voice (not visible): What would your land be worth without the water right?
Jim Park: Oh a couple hundred dollars an acre and with the water probably two thousand. So it's about a tenfold increase by having the water and being able to raise the crops. Fifteen minutes away from the feedlot, on the outskirts of Greeley, lies Montfort’s slaughterhouse. 5,000 animals are killed here per day in two shifts. The Monfort slaughterhouse in Greeley is considered one of the most modern in the world. And Monfort operates five other slaughterhouses in the US, and itself is only a small part of the gigantic food corporation, Conagra. After being refrigerated for 24 hours the carcasses are halved and sorted according to cut. Except for the tip of the tail, every part of the animal is put to good use. 2,500 people work here. A major part of the meat is processed into ground beef and prepared as hamburgers right here in the slaughterhouse, for a large restaurant chain. Premium meat is then put in boxes for delivery. Boxed beef is a Monfort specialty. There are no butchers needed in supermarkets. In addition, the freezer trucks can carry four times as much box meat as carcasses. Montfort has thus become one of the three market leaders and supplies the entire United States, in particular, the big cities along the East Coast. It used to make no difference how large cattle grew to be. Nowadays, however, a uniform size is essential for modern meatpacking plants because, otherwise, the cattle won't fit into the box.