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.
What does it take to do a great job raising that many 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 their tour having learned something they never knew about how beef is raised.
Have you ever met a cattle feeder or visited a large feedyard? Consider this a virtual tour of Cody’s farm, where you too can get a behind the scenes look at how beef is raised.
Six Things You Probably Didn't Know About Feedyards
1. One feedyard supports hundreds of ranches
Ranchers (or “cow-calf producers”) typically market their calves to a backgrounder or cattle feeder 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.
2. Cattle enter the feedyard with a health plan
Easterdays buy cattle from roughly 150 different farmers and ranchers. The yards can 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.
"Our goal is that every time we move cattle, from their first day here, we make it a good experience.."
- Sam Cossio, Easterday Ranches General Manager
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 vaccine efficacy.”
Cody (pictured with his son Cutter) explains how the receiving facility is designed to get cattle off to a good start at the yard. Ranches use similar set ups to handle their cattle. The modern chute design keeps noise from the mechanisms quiet, and recycled tire flooring keep cattle calm and comfortable for the quick check-in process. This prevents stress or injury.
3. Cattle stay with their herdmates for the duration
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.
4. Cattle tell their caretakers what they need
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.
5. Antibiotic protocols and recording practices are followed strictly
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 human health.
6. Cattle feeders are recycling rock stars, turning waste into renewable resources
At the feedyard, recycling 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.
"The Easterday Family philosophy is simple: raise crops and animals with care and respect and tend gently to the soil that sustains it all...It’s what we have been doing for four generations here, and a great source of pride."
In three generations farming the Columbia Basin, Easterday Farms has grown to 18,000 acres of onions, potatoes, corn and wheat. Onions and potatoes are grown, harvested, packed and marketed by the family. The grains are fed at Easterday Ranches feedyards. You can even find Easterday grown beef and produce at family run restaurants in the Tri-Cities (3 Eyed Fish Wine Bar and Lu Lu Craft Kitchen + Bar).