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: