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:

 

 

Checking out the Friendship Wagon Train in Rushford

Talk about getting some sun this weekend.

Friendship Wagon Train

One of the many wagon trains parked in Rushford on Sunday night during a stopover for the 28th annual Friendship Wagon Train which is touring southeast Minnesota to raise funds for Camp Winnebago. (photo by Chad Smith

After spending some time with the wife and one of my many sons at the Wabasha County Family Night on the Farm on Friday night, I hit the road for Fountain to take a few pictures of their Trail Days Festival for the Bluff Country Newspaper Group.  I’m really not sure which paper these pics go in, but that’s okay.  The company has six papers and their corresponding websites and plans to add more so that’s just more to keep track of.

I drove down to Rushford on Sunday night to check out the Friendship Wagon Train that was camping out in Rushford.  What a beautiful night it was!  In case you don’t know what it is, this Train and the folks that participate have a simple goal:  They want to raise money for a place called Camp Winnebago, which is just outside of Caledonia.

Friendship Wagon Train Rides again

After covering 15-20 miles a day on the Friendship Wagon Train, it was time to cool off the horses during a Sunday night stop in Rushford. The Wagon Train continues through the rest of this week

The camp does really great work with adults and children that have developmental disabilities.  They bring the folks down for a week at a time, so it’s a series of one-week camps for the adults and children to get outside and enjoy the outdoors, which may be something that the rest of us take a little for granted.

This wagon train has been raising around $30,000 a year for the last several years, and the money goes straight to the camp for what Wagon Master John Davis calls ‘camperships.’  They help to pay the way for someone who can’t afford it to come to camp.

Friendship Wagon Train

It takes a lot of people, vehicles, and livestock to put on a successful Friendship Wagon Train, seen here during a stop Sunday night in Rushford. They’re touring southeast Minnesota to raise funds for developmentally disabled adults and children. (photo by Chad Smith

Got to see John and the folks on a beautiful day in Rushford as they work to support a great cause.  I asked John what it’s like to travel for a week straight in a covered wagon?  He said, and I quote, “I can’t believe the divorce rate wasn’t higher!”  He was laughing as he said it.  You do spend a lot of time together with your spouse and the rest of the group, and the weather conditions may not always cooperate.  After all, “We don’t have any dang air conditioning in the wagon,” is how John described it.

Here’s a few of the pics I took Sunday night.  I’ll have the complete coverage of the event this week in bluffcountrynews.com and the Tri-County Record.

 

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Friendship Wagon Train

It’s time to get some shade and rest during an overnight stop in Rushford for the Friendship Wagon Train, which is on tour around southeast Minnesota to raise funds for scholarships to Camp Winnebago. (photo by Chad Smith)

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Friendship Wagon Train

The livestock gets a break on Sunday night from the Friendship Wagon Train during a layover in Rushford. (photo by Chad Smith)

 

RCTC program closures generate controversy

Earlier this year, Rochester Community and Technical College’s new President, Leslie McClellon, announced that two of the schools academic programs would be closing. The programs are equine science and occupational skills, with both scheduled to end by May 2016.

RCTC President Leslie McClellon (Photo from the RCTC Pinterest page at http://www.pinterest.com/myrctc/inside-rctc/

RCTC President Leslie McClellon (Photo from the RCTC Pinterest page at http://www.pinterest.com/myrctc/inside-rctc/)

The October decision to close the programs has generated some controversy on campus and in the Rochester community. The furor doesn’t just surround the programs themselves, but also the manner in which the decision was made. The decision came without warning, with little give and take between the administration and the people most affected by the decision.

One of the people most affected by the decision is Jonathon Holland, an Equine Science instructor. He said there was no warning when he was told the program would shut down and he wouldn’t have a job at the end of the year.

“I got a call on a Friday afternoon in October, and was asked to come to a meeting the following Monday with Michelle Pyfferon, Dean of Academic Affairs,” said Holland. “Then, on Monday morning, Pyfferoen called an hour before the meeting and said I should probably have union representation. I laughed at that, and said ‘first of all, I find it hard to believe you didn’t know I’d need representation on Friday when you called. An hour before the meeting, and there’s no chance I’m getting anyone to come that quickly.’”

“I told her ‘if I can’t have union representation there with me, maybe I shouldn’t come to the meeting,’” said Holland. “She said ‘well, it has nothing to do with you.’ If I needed representation, why wouldn’t it have anything to do with me?”

After finding out the meeting had nothing to do with his teaching or any of the students, he decided to attend. “As soon as I walked in, I was handed a set of papers, and told that as of May, I would be done teaching at the school, and the program would be closing.”

“There wasn’t much in the way of discussion. It was simply handed to me as a decision that was already made,” said Jonathon.

“I then learned that the President would be having a question-and-answer session with interested parties the following Monday,” he said. Over 150 people came to the October 27 meeting. Faculty, staff, current students, alumni of the program, even community members all showed up.

“Most of our advisory board was at the meeting,” said Holland. “As a background, all technical programs on campus must have an advisory board. They are not paid. It’s a volunteer position.” He said, “We ask community experts to sit on the advisory board and keep the program up to date with current trends, and as effective as possible for students.”

“Our advisory committee was shocked and dismayed,” said Jonathon. “The hostility with which they were treated, simply because they wanted their questions answered, was so disrespectful for these community members who give their time and effort to help this college.”

He said, “They were treated horribly. She (President McClellon) was very aggressive towards them. It’s almost as if she believed they didn’t have the right to question her,” said Holland.

Lita Hottel

Lita Hottel of Rochester is an internationally known horse judge, and a member of the Equine Science Advisory Board (photo from http://www.ranchhastar.se/september10.htm)

Lita Hottel of Rochester is a member of the advisory board, and an internationally known horse judge. She was shocked at the way she was treated simply by asking questions. Hottel started her part of the discussion by reading a statement from President McClellon in the schools newsletter. The statement said:

“I want to thank everyone, especially the faculty, who have taken significant steps over the past few years to do everything possible to avoid these program closures. I also want to thank Vice President Jim Gross and the academic deans for all of their time and commitment to carefully consider all aspects before coming to this decision.”
~Leslie R. McClellon, President

“I asked President McClellon to explain what ‘doing everything possible over the last few years’ looked like,” said Hottel. “The reason I’m asking is her very qualified staff didn’t seem to know about the possibility of the program closing until the day before it closed.” She added, “I am on the advisory board, and I would have loved to help find a solution, but I’m not really sure what the problem was.”

McClellon then passed off the question to Michelle Pyfferoen, Dean of Technical Programs. However, Hottel was not satisfied with what she heard.

“I said, ‘She didn’t answer the question,’” said Lita. “President McClellon just repeated something she had said before about state guidelines. It appeared she just didn’t want to answer the questions.”

“President McClellon then asked me for a solution to the problem on the spot, which was obviously after the fact,” said Hottel. I said, ‘If you want a solution, I would be happy to bring you one.’ She then became verbally aggressive and demanded a solution right then. I would have loved to bring RCTC’s program a solution, and told her so.” Lita said, “It was very demeaning to be put on the spot for a solution to a problem I was just learning about.”

Julie Christie is the program leader for Equine Science at the school, and she attended the meeting as well with a lot of questions to ask.

Julie Christie

Julie Christie is the Equine Science Program Director and instructor at RCTC (photo from thelandonline.com)

“We were asking why she never gave us a chance to turn this program around, or to meet new goals, or change things to make it more feasible for the college,” said Christie. “No one ever told us what we needed to do to keep this program going. We didn’t have a chance.”

“A member of the Advisory Council told the President ‘we have a lot of smart people on this board who run businesses and have great connections,’” said Christie. “’You never asked us what we could do to help this program stay afloat’. She basically said ‘what are you gonna do?’ It was very hostile.”

Christie had a private meeting with the President the Friday before the college-wide meeting took place. “I had asked to talk with her to discuss alternatives to closing the program. As we were talking, she made a surprising statement, saying ‘Well, you know, this program was started because of rich doctors’ wives that wanted to learn how to ride.’”

“It was just so shocking, I didn’t know what to say,” said Christie.

“President McClellon then added, ‘You know that rich horse owners keep their horses in California, and fly out on weekends to ride them.’ How do you make a blanket statement like that?” asked Christie.

“That [first] comment was an insult to the women of Rochester and everyone who works at Mayo Clinic,” said Dr. Pam Whitfield. Dr. Whitfield designed the original curriculum in 2003, and taught the first class offered the next year.

Audrey Lidke was a counselor and transfer specialist at RCTC for 30 years. “More than 500 horses can be found within ten minutes of campus. I talked to ropers, trainers, nutritionists, barn builders, and even truck sales people before I decided to start the program,” said Lidke. She added, “Dr. Pam Whitfield created all the curriculum for free, which was a $30,00 in kind gift to get the program going.”

“We started this program after talking with literally dozens of people to determine there was a need for this kind of offering at RCTC,” said Lidke.

“Every college in the MnSCU system is supposed to have a program review process in place,” said Whitfield. “Doing a thorough program review is a prerequisite for closing a program. The Equine Program was not given this opportunity.”

Dr. Pam Whitifeld

Dr. Pam Whitfield on the back of her horse, Casper (Photo from blogs.mprnews.org) http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2011/10/pam_whitfield/

“She did not do her homework,” said Dr. Whitfield. “You know, college presidents do not close programs. The MnSCU Chancellor closes programs and he bases his decision on paperwork filed with his office. The application (for closure) must show the proper process was followed.”

Whitfield has served on the equine advisory board since its inception. She said, “The faculty was blindsided. The advisory board was blindsided. There was no due process.”

The RCTC Faculty Academic Affairs and Standards Council weighed in on the discussion with an email to President McClellon that called her attention to the MnSCU Policies and Procedures Manual. Chapter Three deals with Education Policies that cover program closure.

The manual states, “The Chancellor must approve closure of an academic program.” Approval of the closure will only come if certain conditions are met. Chapter Three further states that the application for closure must come with documented information, with a list of nine topics that have to be covered. You can find the complete list here.

The email does point out that McClellon is new to MnSCU and RCTC, so the President may not know that she has not followed protocol. The Council mentioned they have received no paperwork showing that the nine sub-points have been met that would allow the application for closure to even be sent to the Chancellors Office.

The email goes on to say: “The college works best when faculty and administration work together and when both the contract as well as the procedures developed to observe the letter and spirit of the contract are followed.  Your decision to act without faculty consultation is detrimental to a collaborative working environment and reveals your disrespect for faculty and contempt for the faculty contract.”

Not only is Jonathon Holland left in limbo, but also there are students in the program who don’t know what their future holds. “We have about 30 students in the program currently,” said Julie Christie. “They’re all planning on finishing. They’re good students who are self-starters who know what they’re doing.”

A great many of the programs graduates go on to start their own businesses, and Christie said, “It’s too bad, because the Minnesota economy is going to lose out on a lot of businesses that would have been started.” Records show that more than 25 alumni have gone on to start a business, and Christie asked, “Isn’t that what Minnesota would like to promote in its own state?”

Technical programs (like veterinary technology, horticulture, EMT, dental hygiene, etc.) are admittedly more expensive than other programs, but they require a lot of hands on learning. Christie said, “Hands-on learning means more facility cost, smaller class sizes, more inventory, and et cetera. Many of these students come to a Community and Technical College (as opposed to a four-year school) because this is where they learn the skills they need for a successful career.”

“Why would you take technical programs away from a Technical College like RCTC?” Christie said, “It appears as if the administration is trying to get rid of these programs, and if they do, wouldn’t that be the death of our college?”

It may not end here. President McClellon met with the Equine Science students to inform them of the decision. Holland’s students returned and told him that the President said they might be looking at up to 9 other programs for potential suspension or closure.