Cattle feedlot labor pains getting worse

Labor pains are a good way to describe the work situation in production agriculture, but it’s not a shortage of jobs that are the problem. More and more sectors in production agriculture are having a hard time finding help and the problem runs from coast to coast. Reports abound of crops left rotting in the fields because of a shortage of available labor to get out and harvest. The labor shortages aren’t just limited to crops, either. Feedlots across the country are having a hard time finding people to work with their livestock. The labor pains have gotten progressively worse in feedlots during the past decade.

“It is a problem,” said Gary Ruskamp of Ruskamp Feed Yards in Dodge, Nebraska. “I finally just got my crew filled in again. They kind of come and go after a couple of years and then you must find new people. I’ve got all good guys now, but it’s tough.”

Labor pains cattle feedlots

Labor pains are growing in the cattle feedlot industry as qualified help is getting harder and harder to find. (photo from silverspurranches.com)

Ruskamp has a stack of applicants every time he has an open position. But the problem is almost none of the applicants are qualified to do the job. The labor shortage is real in feedlot country and there are some good reasons behind it.

“I have a son that’s a partner with me in the feed yard,” Ruskamp said, “but a lot of families have kids that don’t stay on the farm. Plus, there’s less number of kids born on the farm. If you hire someone that didn’t grow up on a farm, you have to train them. They often don’t have the ability to work with livestock and the equipment we work with.”

He added, “There’s nobody that grows up on a farm anymore. It’s changed. Fewer farms. Fewer children on farms. They go to the city to work. The kids don’t come back out here and work in feedlots. There are a few family feed yards where the son might come back and work with them, but not a lot of that is going on.”

Ruskamp tries to hire local folks for open positions but occasionally has had to cast his net far and wide for employees. However, there’s a challenge when hiring people who aren’t from the area.

“I try to stay local,” he said, “because when you hire someone from further off, they usually want to get back home at some point. They don’t usually stay as long as somebody local.”

The labor shortage is worse in some counties than others. In the northern part of Cuming county, there’s a lot more feedlots that are closer together. He said workers can skip from feedlot to feedlot, working at one for two or three years.

“If they get 50 cents an hour more,” Ruskamp said, “they’ll skip to another feed yard. Eventually, they’ll come back to the first feedlot they were at.”

The struggle for labor isn’t hitting every feedlot in the plains. Ron Coufal runs a feedlot 14 miles west of West Point, Nebraska. He has a lot of family working in the business with him so the labor situation is in good shape there. However, that’s the exception rather than the rule in most feedlots.

“Our operation consists of all family members,” Coufal said. “My sons, my brothers, and a couple nephews all work here. All told, there are nine families that make a living out of this operation. We farm quite a bit of ground and we also feed quite a few cattle.”

Coufal said it’s always a problem hiring people, specifically the right ones for the job. It can be hard to pay people what they’re worth in agriculture these days with low cattle prices. That makes it tough for would-be employers because Coufal said you need to be able to pay people in order to hire the right people for the job.

“The right kind of people are typically in business for themselves or working for corporations somewhere else,” he said. “You can always hire a body but it can be hard to find one with the brain that allows them to do the job.

“If you want to work in the livestock industry,” Coufal said, “you have to be there every day. If 8:00 in the morning is when we feed cattle, I want them fed right at 8:00 in the morning. If it’s 10:00 in the morning, then I want them fed at ten. I want them on a schedule.”

Coufal said they did hire outside help before his sons came back from college. It took a lot of work to find good people. He enjoyed the staff he worked with before it became a family operation again, but did note that good help is getting harder to find.

If you know someone that’s possibly interested in working on a livestock operation, this is what it entails. There are opportunities there for people willing to work hard and learn the trade:

 

 

Ag businesses working hard to find labor

The nation’s unemployment rate remained steady through January at 4.9 percent. The US Department of Labor said over a half million workers were discouraged, meaning they had quit looking for work because they believe no jobs are out there for them.

Businesses across the agricultural spectrum want those folks to know there are jobs out there. Ag is having an especially hard time finding skilled labor, and businesses in Nebraska and Kansas are taking some unusual steps to find the help they need. Those steps include tuition reimbursement for students as well as hiring their first corporate recruiters to build relationships with those students.

Ag businesses working hard to find skilled labor

Landmark Implement of Nebraska and Kansas is taking unusual steps to overcome a serious shortage of skilled workers in the Ag labor force. (Photo from Twitter.com)

“My responsibilities are twofold,” said Deanna Karmazin, the new Corporate Recruiter at Landmark Implement, a John Deere dealer. “We have 17 dealerships across Nebraska and Kansas, and I’m trying to fill our open positions. Those positions include service techs, people at the parts counter, and people to work in wash bays, do the maintenance, and such.

“The second part of it will be to work with high school Ag programs and tech programs across Nebraska,” Karmazin said. “We have to cultivate a workforce. I’m trying to identify kids that would like to enter the field of diesel technology, or precision farming, get them under the Landmark umbrella, get them sent off to school and guarantee them employment.”

Deanna knew going into her job that labor would be hard to find. What she didn’t realize is that there just aren’t many young people that understand agriculture.

“You might have some that know how to work on engines,” she said, “but they really don’t understand what a tractor or combine is. They may not even understand the agricultural lingo.”

Stories abound regarding the “graying of production agriculture, i.e. farmers.” But even businesses that serve Agriculture are having a hard time replacing some of their older workers when they decide to step away.

“It’s been very tough for us to find skilled labor,” said Rick Kloke, the Corporate Service Tech Supervisor at Landmark. “In a lot of ways, it’s one of the biggest things that limits us in terms of being more productive. It’s not tooling or internal resources, it’s just the manpower to get jobs done.

Ag businesses working hard to attract skilled labor.

250 High school students exploring careers as John Deere technicians at SCC Milford, Nebraska. (contributed photo)

“In south-central Nebraska (Hastings dealership,), we tend to bring in people with strong agricultural backgrounds,” Kloke said. “We’ve lost a fair amount of guys who want to go home and see if they can make things work on the family farm.”

He added, “Some guys are successful, but some are back within a few years. Losing guys will create a big void for us. Even the guys that come back have fallen behind after a few years because the technology has changed so much.”

As a corporate recruiter, Karmazin has a lot of tools she uses to develop relationships with people and organizations that can help her grow their workforce. Internet options for advertising jobs include their own website as well as careerbuilder.com. She said the rest comes from word-of-mouth. She said people in small towns generally have the best ideas about top potential candidates.

Chambers of Commerce within cities in Nebraska and Kansas also makes good sources, especially when they host job fairs.

“As our workforce has aged out, Ag hasn’t done a good job of succession planning for the next generation of workers,” Karmazin said. “Also, things have changed so much with tractors and other equipment running on computers now. We’re looking for a different type of laborer than in the past.”

Once the recruiting process singles out good candidates, Karmazin said Landmark Implement is taking another step to cultivate their workforce.

Ag businesses working hard to find skilled labor

Jim Cope is a senior at Springfield Platteview high school in Nebraska. He is one of the students LandMark is sponsoring through the John Deere tech program. He will start college in October.  (Contributed photo)

“We will sponsor them through the John Deere Tech Program at the Southeast Community College campus in Milford, Nebraska,” Karmazin said, “or anywhere there’s a John Deere tech program. They become certified John Deere technicians. They’ll be working on all the older and newer equipment, and have all the diagnostics for John Deere.”

She added, “Once they’re in there, they’ll understand all of the equipment from start to finish.”

Landmark will offer students a paid shadow experience. They’ll pay the kids for between 60–90 days to do career exploration to see if it’s something they want to do before they get into any of the tech programs in Nebraska or Kansas.

Students also get on the job experience and a paycheck while they go to school to learn. When they graduate, they’re guaranteed a job at any of the locations, plus, the company will help pay their tuition.

“We take their tuition (minus housing) and prorate it every month,” Deanna said, “so every month they work for us, they take off a part of that debt. If they stay for 36 months, 100 percent of their tuition will be paid off completely in three years.”

The program has been going on for a few years, and it’s been very successful so far.

“We’ve gotten some very good people out of it,” said Rick Kloke, “and several of them are destined to be more than shop floor technicians. I see some future leaders in that group.”