Eastern Washington cattle feeder Cody Easterday grew up in the Columbia Basin and has been farming and raising cattle his entire life, starting his own herd by age eighteen. Savvy to the great climate and availability of local feed, Cody began expanding his farm in the 1990s and has grown to be a leading beef producer in the northwest.
About the time Cody was growing his farm, Sam Cossio came to work for Cody with experience in cattle feeding. Together with the Easterday family and a team of dedicated employees, they’ve grown Easterday Ranches to include three farms with the capacity to feed about 65,000 head of cattle.
Cody and Sam will tell you the same thing: it takes a team. Over the years, the Easterdays have built a solid team of family and employees with a passion and pride for exceeding standards in raising beef. Not just beef quality standards – but what truly goes into raising quality beef, namely environmental stewardship and excellent animal health. Cody opens his farm gates to multiple tours each year. No question or area of his farm is off limits. This transparency and collaboration with everyone from meat buyers, to chefs, to food writers and PhD antibiotic resistance experts makes our food supply better. Despite being leaders in their own fields, all leave the tour having learned something they never knew about how beef is raised.
Ranchers (or cow/calf producers) typically market their calves to a backgrounder or
cattlefeeder when the calves are ready to be weaned from their mothers. If, and
when, a rancher decides to market their calves is completely up to them, based
on their available grazing and feed resources. Feedyards buy cattle directly
from ranchers or through auction yards. While Easterdays purchase all of
the cattle in their yards, in some cases, ranchers actually retain ownership of
their cattle and pay a feeder by the day, amount of feed, or pounds their
cattle gain before they are sent to slaughter. In either case, the rancher can
get data back from the feedyard related to the health and growth of their
cattle, and quality grade (USDA Select, Choice, or Prime) of the beef to get an
idea of the value their cattle have in the market.
Easterdays buy cattle
from roughly 150 different farmers and ranchers. Their feedyards receive cattle
from the same ranches and geographical areas year after year. Based on what is
known about the size of the cattle, the time of year they are entering the
yard, and the health history from cattle purchased in previous years, Easterday
managers create a health plan for cattle before they even arrive. Cattle
are hauled and unloaded at the feedyard according to Beef Quality Assurance transportation
standards by experienced livestock hauling drivers. The cattle stay in a pen
together with hay and fresh drinking water where staff observe their health and
behavior and look for any sign of stress or injury related to transportation. From there, cattle are worked through a chute system
by experienced handlers to follow the entry protocols such as receiving
vaccinations. The chute is designed to allow cattle to follow their natural
instincts and staff are trained to employ low-stress cattle handling
techniques. “The combination of chute design and handling method results in
more comfort for the cattle,” says Cody. “Not only is it the right way to work
with cattle, we’ve found a direct link between lower heart rates and greater
Cattle are naturally
social, herd animals. When cattle arrive at a yard together, they are typically
kept together as a group, and they will live in the same “home pen” until they
reach slaughter weight. Each pen is assigned a daily feed ration, which is the
mixture of feed designed to allow them to gain weight safely, to produce beef
that meets the demand for USDA Choice or higher (Prime) beef. Cattle enter the
yard at an average weight of 850 pounds, and gain up to a target weight of 1450
pounds over roughly 160 days. Contrary to perceptions, cattle feedyard pens
aren’t crowded. Pen population is set to provide each animal at least 250
square feet of free space. Cattle are free to drink water and eat at the feed
bunk when and where they choose.
Signs of healthy cattle are simple – eating, drinking and contentment. Experienced pen riders ride horses through the cattle in the pens every day to look for signs of individual or herd illness. An animal exhibiting abnormal behavior may be sorted out and is always observed in a “hospital pen” before getting an examination including taking their temperature and listening to the respiratory system. “Sometimes it’s as simple as an animal not socializing normally in the pen and being bullied away from feed or water," says Easterday Ranches General Manager Sam Cossio. “That animal doesn’t need a medical treatment, just time in a pen with it’s own water and feed to be comfortable and get it’s strength back.” Another key position on the feedyard team is the “feed boss” who reads the feed bunks cattle eat from three times a day. He establishes how much feed is needed for each pen and which ration is appropriate and can work with the cattle health team to flag potential problems. Cattle are habitual and will usually eat at the same spot at the bunk at every feeding. A decline in appetite can be a sign that an animal or pen needs further evaluation.
Based on the observations
of staff, and the medical examination of a sick animal, a course of correction
is determined and followed. Ranchers, feeders and dairy farmers do
whatever they can to prevent the need to use antibiotics. If antibiotics are
required to make the animal healthy, a veterinarian-prescribed, appropriate dose
is administered, and entered into a database that tracks cattle health records.
There are several reasons cattle feeders keep tight records of antibiotic
treatments. Cattle that have received an antibiotic must never be shipped to
slaughter before the designated withdrawal period. This ensures there is no
antibiotic residue in beef, and keeping exhaustive records prevents that from
happening. The records also provide data on herd health, potential issues or
negative trends to catch. Yard hospital staff can use the data to consult with
their veterinarian to understand the problem to potentially find solutions that
don’t involve antibiotics. Antibiotics are such a valuable tool in the animal
health toolkit, cattle feeders and all farmers have a stake in protecting their
efficacy and avoiding resistance issues that are detrimental to animal and
At the Feedyard, upcycling is everywhere. Finding ways to avoid waste and integrate byproducts
into beef production comes second nature to cattle feeders. While some feed is
grown specifically for cattle consumption (typically on farm ground that is not
suited for efficiently growing fruits and vegetables we enjoy), other
parts of the ration are byproducts of food and energy processing.
Without the opportunity to feed cattle, these byproducts would present a
serious waste challenge. Cattle convert these low value byproducts we can’t
consume into protein packed beef, naturally rich in many key nutrients people
need in a balanced diet. That’s just the beginning. When pens are cleaned after
cattle are shipped and before a new group comes in, the bedding and manure is
composted on-site, then used as a natural fertilizer on Easterday crop fields.
A 4-7% slope from the cattle pens down to zero-discharge lagoons keeps the pens
dry and catches any moisture, allowing for no water runoff from the yard. The
accumulated water is pumped onto the nearby fields to irrigate the feed crops.
There is a natural link between environmental stewardship and feedyards that is
often overlooked, but hard to miss on a trip to an Easterday Ranches feedyard.
Learn what a typical day looks like at a cattle feedyard with a virtual tour of Easterday Ranches in Pasco, Washington.
There's more to the story about how beef is raised in Washington. You're invited to meet more of your local farmers and ranchers.
Factory or Family?
By any measure, Easterday Ranches is a large farm. It's also a local, family-owned and operated one. Expand your understanding of how beef cattle are raised through a virtual tour of Cody's eastern Washington feedyard.