They stink. Feedlots really stink.
And I suppose it’s not that no one’s saying feedlots stink. It’s probably not a big secret that confinement yards for beef cattle fed a diet of corn and other grains tend to be odiferous. It’s just that I feel the need today to remind everyone within my imaginary circle of influence that feedlots really stink.
I want you to know that I know.
The feedlot here at the PV is at its very worst this time of year. In the dead of winter, when the ground is frozen hard, when the calves’ breaths freeze in little clouds that hang in a haze over the pens, the smell isn’t too bad. But when that late-winter sun gains more daylight time in the sky… when the Canadian geese fly back overhead from southern destinations, calling Hello again! as they do… when the frost starts to go out of the ground and little rivulets of brown ooze trickle toward the low ground in every pen… that’s when the feedlot smell starts to permeate our entire existence. Our clothes and hair, even if we step out the front door of the house for just a minute. The interiors of all the vehicles, even the going-to-town ones.
I wish I could bottle the pungency of Early Spring Feedlot just to share it with you. In case you haven’t experienced it firsthand, let me attempt to define it. It’s thick and hot. It stings the insides of your nostrils. It fills your lungs like it’s something tangible. You can taste it in your mouth. It is precisely what gives birth to the zillions of flies that torment our summer months.
Adding to the whole raucous thawing-of-the-pens funk is the simultaneous thawing of the giant silage pit that is just up the road a quarter mile and just down the coulee from the dead pile, where the bones of animals that didn’t quite make it to March are also gaining ground in the smelly race. Now, I love the smell of fresh silage as much as the next farm gal, and I can even appreciate the yeasty brew-like wafts that arise as the chopped corn starts to ferment in its pile in the fall. But this time of year, look out. If you catch yourself downwind at just the right time of day, as our yard usually is, you’ll notice that springtime silage has a rank, dog-crap quality to it.
Much as I’d like to say it’s not here, it’s inside the house, too. On warm days when the sun shines down, on damp days when the air is thick with moisture, that feedlot smell permeates through our south-facing wall and infiltrates the kids’ bedroom first… then lets itself on in to the rest of the house. Yes, I can smell it. But, as a couple more honest friends have been careful to inform me in my lifetime, perhaps I can’t smell it the way other people can — because I live here and I’m used to it. I’ve heard it said that folks who live with dirty cats don’t realize that their houses smell because they have in fact gone nose-blind to that particular odor. Maybe that’s true. Maybe we don’t even realize how bad the inside of our house smells anymore because we are, in reality, mostly nose-blind to the essence of feedlot. After all, there are feedlot pens within a stone’s throw of our front door on both the east and south sides. We’re right in the middle of it here. I suppose we have no choice but to grow used to the smell. Our poor kids, indoctrinated from such a young age.
I should know. I grew up right here in this house, remember? My parents lived here for 35 years before my own little family moved in a few months ago. And the smell is probably not much worse now than it was back in the ’80s and ’90s, although more pens have been built and the number of calves we wean each fall has increased. So there are more cattle potentially adding to the smell here in the 21st Century… but I’m not sure if they can actually make things worse or if the law of diminishing returns applies here.
You know who likes feedlots? Wealthy men. Who don’t work here every day. Whose wives don’t live in the middle of it. Such men like to look at the numbers, the oodles and oodles of stats, that feedlots produce. They like to proudly tell everyone that feedlots smell like money. They like to know that the feedlot is out there, somewhere, a fantastical notion when one considers it from a remote laptop.
But a very stinky, dirty reality when one is here day in and day out:
(There’s Joe W. pushing heifers up the sloppy alley toward their Bangs vaccinations. As a side note, did you know that “towards” is not a real word? It should always be “toward.” People don’t believe me when I tell them that. But you should.)
The thing about the PV feedlot is that it came as an afterthought to the ranch proper. And it’s built like an afterthought, too, which means it runs less efficiently than it should. The ground here is less than ideal for drainage, the pens and alleys patched together like a house that’s endured several poorly-thought-out additions. The water system is an underground, antiquated, nonsensical, non-sequitor maze that not even my dad has ever attempted to map out. When my folks hired on nigh on 50 years ago, this feedlot was just a twinkle in an eye. Since then, it has literally grown up around the house and barn. These days the PV feedlot winters about 4,000 head. The ranch-grown calves come straight to this feedlot from their pastures on the days they’re weaned, and they stay until May, when they’re shipped to grass on our sister ranch, the Q in Wyoming.
Now, there are a few cowboys in this world who prefer a feedlot over other types of ranch work. For real. God bless ’em. But my people are not among them. Here’s why I think my folks (Mom loathes the lot; Dad is, as he is on many topics, indifferent) have stuck it out here: I think they were in love with the ranch first of all. Then the ranch grew an ugly feedlot — much like a wife might develop a mole on her chin 10 years into the marriage, or a husband a terrible potbelly — and because they had vowed to stay ’til death, they have indeed endured. But that doesn’t mean the feedlot hasn’t been a bone in the craw of the Arvik family dinner table from my earliest memory.
What was hard for Mom was that as the feedlot grew, Dad’s job did too. An infinite company man, Dad’s never been inclined to express an opinion or argue with an employer. As a result, he has always just trudged through the daily feedlot chores, unmoved and unemotional, as a sort of addendum to what he has always considered his real job: foreman to the cowboys who look after the cows out in the hills. That’s already a full-time job; the time-sucking feedlot, on top of the foreman job, just meant that Dad had to ride pens before he could ever call an already-full workday done. (Thankfully we’ve always had dedicated feed-truck-drivers, siblings named Ben and Tawny, but until recently, no dedicated feedlot cowboys. Dad just got ‘er all done.)
A feedlot is never finished. There is always something more to do. So our whole family has always worked with Dad down in the pens, both in an effort to spend time with him and in order to help him finish his work.
But no one more than Mom. Here’s a photo of her in the processing shed, where we vaccinate the feedlot calves (we’ve been Bangs-vaccinating heifers the last couple weeks; the photos throughout this post were taken Tuesday):
(Mom’s preferred and necessary position on the catwalk consistently puts her right in the line of fire of blobs of manure kicked up by hooves on cement.)
Despite her eagerness to work alongside Dad, Mom has always made it quite clear that she does not like the feedlot. And I don’t think the smell has been Mom’s biggest problem. The bottom line is, as Mom will point out, that our lives would be much easier if there wasn’t a feedlot here. If we could just put these stinking calves on trucks on the days they were weaned and if those trucks just kept driving until they got to Kansas or Oklahoma or Mexico… doesn’t matter to where exactly, just to any old feedlot anywhere other than here. Sure would save us a whole lot of trouble. If we didn’t have a feedlot to contend with, we’d sleep in on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day! We could just brand on any given May day… not brand and ship yearlings. We could just wean on any given November day… not wean and doctor 30 sick calves back home at the feedlot. Because the thing is, there is no rest for a ranch that has a feedlot too. There are no down-times-of-year around here. It is truly a PV 365 situation.
So the smell, at the heart of it all, is not the biggest reason feedlots stink.
You know, there’ve been years we PV hands have threatened to turn ourselves into the EPA and PETA just for working here. Years when spring thaws were followed by spring rains and the mud in the feedlot was much worse than it is this year. (!) We joke that we’d really get the attention of our absentee employer if we were to turn the whole mess in. Nobody feels good about watching an animal slog through mud up to its navel.
(That’s my beloved working the controls on the hydraulic chute. He takes great pride in his almost-unblemished record for catching every single calf in the head-catch.)
I’ll admit, though, for all their confinement, that feedlot calves (if they’re healthy and successfully weaned, and in normal-moisture years) are some of the happiest critters around. Stick-your-tail-in-the-air-and-race-your-shadow-to-the-back-of-the-pen-over-and-over-again happy. And, you got me, I’d rather eat corn-fed beef than grass-fat beef any day.
So there’s nothing to be done about it. The house is here, and has been for over a hundred years. The feedlot came up around it. Rich men like feedlots. Our job is here, and a job is a job is a job… so we might as well stay. And truth be told, there are some really good things about working here. Those good things are easier to focus on if we look out our north windows, toward the hills where we brand and ride, rather than out the south windows at the feedlot.
Life is all about balance, isn’t it? Gotta keep your balance around here… or you fall on your butt in the slop… and the feedlot calves run over you.
To close, I’d like to comment on the reality that feedlots are probably a necessary evil to feed our growing population. You know, more beef finished faster, and in grocery store meat cases more consistently, thanks to efficiency-maximizing feedlot space. I would also like to share some statistics about the number of acres (both crop-producing and confining) and gallons of water it takes to finish one corn-fed beef versus number of acres and gallons of water it takes to finish one grass-fed beef.
But I’m too lazy to do any more research. I’ve been trying to publish this stinky blog for about a week now. I have been delayed by various factors, including cooking for the Bangsing crew and a virus that just keeps rounding through our family. But right now everyone else is asleep, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel… and so I’m just gonna go ahead and finish. If you have those numbers at your fingertips, could you please send ’em my way? I could always put together a follow-up blog using said statistics.
Oh, and do come visit, especially if you suppose I’m exaggerating the smell.
© Tami Blake