By: Carmen Fenton, Director of Communications
No two days are ever the same for Armondo De La Cruz. He has learned to expect the unexpected.
“If a truck breaks down, everything stops,” he says.
The feedyard depends on De La Cruz to keep machinery and vehicles operating. He has worked at the feedyard for 35 years doing a number of jobs from throwing hay, batching and loading, to calling feed. But he thrives in work that requires meticulous and steady hands.
“We run the shop department,” he says. “We do the maintenance on the trucks, brakes, water pumps, anything that we need to do. The feed trucks, the corn haulers and the vehicles here in the yard.”
His dad, a mechanic by trade, moved his family from Laredo to Hereford when De La Cruz was a young boy. It was his dad who gave De La Cruz his first lesson in mechanics. That is something he has passed on to both of his sons.
“My dad was a mechanic, and that’s where I learned,” Cruz says. “And I got my younger son here now, and he’s learning. And my older son, he also worked here with me.”
Hereford is home for De La Cruz and his family. He and his wife raised three children (two sons and a daughter) in the area. Now, they have grandkids, which De La Cruz says is “awesome” since you can sugar them up and send them back to their parents.
When asked what advice he would give to a young man or woman wanting to get into the mechanical field, he smiles and says, “Just love what you do, and the rest will take care of itself.”
It is clear that advice helped Cruz along the way.
“I mean it sounds corny,” he says. “But if you like it, that’s good. And then if you can crack a smile on your face every day, it’s probably better stuff.”
Suzy Hicks and Cindy Shipp can be best described as a dynamic duo. The pair has worked together for almost 20 years at Dawn Custom Cattle Feeders.
Hicks, office manager, began working at the feedyard when it opened its doors. She’s often the first person to greet customers when they walk through the front door. She also keeps track of every transaction made at the feedyard.
“Whatever they do today, I'll put in my computer tomorrow,” Hicks says. “Medicine, feed, anything pertaining to the cattle, I keep track of it.”
In an office three feet from Hick’s front desk, Shipp, controller, manages the feedyard’s financials. Everything from payroll to receivables. “No day is the same in a feedyard,” Shipp says. “It's all different. It’s a new world every day.”
Suzy and Cindy attribute their loyalty to the people they work with. “We've got a great crew who gets along really well,” Hicks says, “which makes it easy to come to work every day.”
Shipp says there is an understanding amongst the employees that everyone gets to work and does their job. “We all know our jobs here,” Shipp says. “You work hard, get it done, and people show you respect.”
When asked what they like most about their jobs, both are quick to acknowledge one another and their ability to work well together. “You know, I can tell when Cindy's got a lot on her plate,” Hicks says. “We both know when to let each other work, but we also know when to chat and have a cup of coffee.”
Both women exhibit gracious cooperation and hard work, two characteristics necessary for success at a feedyard.
For cattle on a feedyard, perhaps few things are as important as a steady mill operation.
It’s 5:30 a.m. when Manuel Joven arrives at the feedyard and makes his way to the feed mill. His crew is running rolls, prepping boilers and flaking corn for the day’s feed. For the more than 50,000 head of cattle that call the feedyard home, perhaps few things are as important as a steady mill operation.
A calm, laid-back morning is a sign the day is off to a good start, and as Joven puts it, “The mill should be very consistent. You want to predict what time you will make your first round of feed, second round, third round and special rations. You want to predict what time you will be done at the end of the day.”
For Joven, managing the feed mill is the culmination of years of learning. Born in Mexico, he moved to Texas when he was nine years old and worked summers in the feedyard while in high school. His dad, brother, uncle and cousin all work alongside him, and Joven credits each of them for teaching him the ropes.
“My dad operates the loader, so that’s how I got my background with the loader,” he says. “I’ve got an uncle that works in the mill with me, so I picked up a bunch on gear boxes, motors, belts, drags, chains — everything that goes on in the mill, I learned from him.”
Similarly, his brother drives a feed truck and his cousin is the head doctor.
“They know how to do the work,” Joven says. “I learned that from them. Now I know how to do the work as well.”
Every morning, Joven climbs to the top of the mill and observes the yard. From there he can see if everything is running smoothly, take note of where the feed trucks are and where cattle are moving. It’s up top where Joven listens to the mill.
“A bearing could start making a different noise. An auger may be rubbing against a trough,” he says. “You may just go up there, enjoy the breeze and come back down and all is good. But you stop doing that, there’s going to be one day that you could’ve prevented something.”
Joven loves what he does and the industry he works in. He says the more time you spend paying attention to details, the quicker you respond to challenges before they become problems.
“Little things you start looking at, like inspection doors, the bearings, the motors, the gear boxes,” he says. “Just touch them. If they’re getting hot, it is probably because they’re not lubed correctly.”
Joven has had a steady mill crew for five years, a milestone he is proud of considering that long hours and manual labor can lead to high turnover. Keeping his crew around for the long haul keeps for calmer, more consistent days.
“It’s tough. It’s not easy. You just got to have a passion for it,” Joven says. “But keep the guys safe, keep the guys motivated and it turns out to be pretty good.”
Carmen Fenton is the communications director for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. She's also mom to Ella Jane (9), Hays (8) and Lane (2).
For Randy Shields, understanding his employees is the key to ensuring the utmost care for 50,000 head of cattle at Wrangler Feedyard. A general manager for almost 10 years, Shields emphasizes teamwork to create and execute feedyard operations each day.
“We all work together. We've got to get the cattle fed. They've all got to be watered. The pens need to be rode. It takes teamwork to make that happen,” Shields says. “Understanding people's strengths and weaknesses, even understanding your own is probably the biggest key to me. You have to make sure you're able to see that, place the right people in the right places, and then let them do their job.”
Shields’ passion for people and the industry stems from his upbringing at the family ranch, his college education and 21 years of experience. He began working for Cactus Feeders after graduating from West Texas A&M University. Since then he has worked as cattle foreman, feed foreman, mill manager and assistant manager. In his current role he oversees all aspects of the feedyard from the cattle and feed departments to the yard crew and office management, an ideal role for Shields given his diverse past work experience.
“You've got the mill producing the feed. You've got the feed delivery department delivering the feed. You've got the cattle department going out and doing the daily duties of riding pens, taking care of the cattle,” he says. “Of course, at the end of the day, all these things come together. We do what we do to take care of the cattle.”
Although Shields’ job revolves around managing employees and overseeing day-to-day operations, his passion for the industry extends outside the feedyard. Wrangler Feedyard hosts over 100 tours a year. Teaching groups from across the world about U.S. beef production is something Shields says is crucial.
“I think a challenge we have today is that only two percent of the population is involved in agriculture. Making sure folks are informed of what we do, why we do it, and how we do it is a very important thing,” he says. “That’s the reason we do tours. We have a story to tell. If we don't tell it, somebody else will tell it for us.”
Spend a morning with Shields and you’ll quickly learn the amount of enthusiasm and commitment he puts toward managing the people and cattle under his care. He’s the quintessential man in charge — diligent, positive and willing to work with others to achieve success.
“I enjoy working with people. I love knowing that the product we're producing is the highest-quality protein source on the market,” he says. “Call it cliché, but we’re helping feed the world. All of us working toward the same goal to create a wholesome product that we can send to the public is pretty amazing.”
Madeleine Bezner is the communications coordinator for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. She grew up in Dalhart, Texas where her family owns and operates a feedyard.
Samantha Bell did not grow up in agriculture. She grew up in town, only a short distance from the Texas Cattle Feeders Association office in Amarillo. That’s fitting, considering she’s held just about every job in the cattle feeding business.
She’s been an office manager, a feedyard manager and prides herself on being able to do every job on the yard — both in case she’s ever needed, and to make sure others know she understands the role they play and challenges they face.
But it wasn’t easy getting there. She recalls a time she didn’t know what she was doing.
“I remember early on, when I first realized I wanted this to be a career and not just a paycheck, I was weighing trucks, commodity clerking and doing feed cards,” Bell says. “The cattle clerk came out and showed me a closeout, and it was probably the first time I'd ever seen one done. I pretended I knew exactly what was happening, but I really had no idea what any of it meant.”
Bell asked if she could make a copy of the closeout, took it back to her desk and proceeded to break it down line by line. That’s when she realized how much she loved the numbers side of the business.
Today, Samantha serves as the Controller of Double D Feedyard in Dimmitt where she oversees every aspect of the company’s finances including payroll and accounting.
A woman’s work at a feedyard isn’t limited to just office jobs, Bell says. The fact that more women are serving in various roles within the industry makes her proud.
“When I first started, there were hardly any women outside of office manager or administrative-type jobs,” she says. “Those roles are important, but today there are women riding pens, managing feedyards, doing just about every job on the payroll.”
She says the cattle feeding industry is a great place to work, and she would absolutely recommend it to other women, with the following advice:
“Know what you know and own it. Do not be afraid to voice it, but also don’t be afraid to admit a mistake,” she says. “Just be real, and work hard. The industry may not be the right fit for every woman, but it’s a great fit for some.”
“If my daughter came up to me today and said, ‘Mom, show me the ropes,’ I would say, ‘Let's go!’” she adds. “Because it is kind of fun as a woman to say, ‘I can do that.’”
By: Katrina Huffstutler
Raised by parents who worked in information technology and education, Alyssa Word didn’t grow up with a strong connection to agriculture. That changed when she joined a friend at a 4-H steer show and became fascinated.
Fast forward a few years, and she was a biomedical science major at Texas A&M University. She always wanted to be a scientist, so it was a logical choice. The only problem?
“It was not a very fun major,” Word says with a laugh. “I hated it.”
Two years in, she transferred her scientific basics to an animal science degree and started taking production classes. She was hooked — and even more so after completing a research internship with Cactus Feeders.
“The cattle industry has the greatest people,” Word says. “That is a part of what drove me to want to work in this business. They are the kindest people and so willing to teach someone. I loved that from day one. I didn't grow up understanding how feedyards work, and so coming in and sitting down with a feedyard general manager and asking hard questions — even though it’s intimidating, seeing their kindness and their willingness to help as long as I’m willing to learn, has been remarkable.”
And learn she did. Today, Word serves as the research scientist for Cactus Feeders, the very place where she started her career. Word spends two days a week at Wrangler Feedyard, the research arm of Cactus Feeders. She manages the day-to-day processes that include data quality control, process execution and data analysis. She works alongside Ben Holland, director of research, on protocol development that helps the organization work more efficiently.
“Our mission at Cactus is to produce more food using fewer resources so that safe, quality beef is available to anyone who wants to consume it,” Word said. “Research helps us make informed decisions to best execute that mission.”
Her advice to others in her position? Be pointed with your questions (because cattle feeders are busy), but also be willing to sit down and ask questions.
“Because,” Word says, “I think the more that the men in the industry get to see the women interested and excited about this industry, and that they want to learn and see proficiency in those areas, the more it becomes an everybody is working together thing instead of a here’s a woman in a male-dominated field thing.”
By: Katrina Huffstutler
Jayme Fankhouser doesn’t remember a time in her life before she was horseback. But unlike most little girls who learn to ride, she made a career out of it.
While no two days are the same for the pen rider, they always start early (she gets to work at 3:30 a.m. every Monday to prepare to ship cattle, closer to daylight the remaining days). By daylight, she’s riding the high-risk cattle, a responsibility she does not take lightly.
“After the cattle leave my section, they will have been straightened out and ready for their new home,” she says.
It’s an honor to look after the most fragile cattle in the yard, and even more impressive considering she’s one of very few females filling the role as pen rider. But she’s worked hard her whole career to be taken seriously, and never forgotten that the cattle come first.
Even when it was scary starting out, she refused to give up on her dream.
“My father told me a long time ago, ‘You work in a male world, you’re going to have to work twice as hard to be noticed,’” Fankhouser says. “So I’ve gone those extra miles and I guess maybe I’ve established myself to the point where others take me seriously.”
She says intuition, coupled with a natural nurturing side, make women a great choice as cattle caretakers. But the work is not easy.
“You have to have thick skin, and you can’t be afraid of hard work or the elements,” Fankhouser says.
Despite the challenges, she’s the first to encourage other women to go for their dreams, no matter how unconventional.
“Women aren’t limited in the industry. We can be as successful as we want,” says Fankhouser, whose daughter also rides pens. “Whatever you set your mind to, if that's what you want to do, you can go do it.”
Getting from There to Here
For Paul Defoor, the 2020 TCFA Chairman, the cattle business is a life-long passion.
“I never seriously considered doing much else outside of working with cattle and horses,” he says.
That resolve for the cattle industry goes back to his childhood. Growing up in southeast Texas, he spent his days either working with horses and cattle or alongside his dad and grandad at the sale barn.
“I would watch calves being loaded onto trucks at the sale barns when I was a kid and wonder where they would end up,” he says. “Probably somewhere up on the High Plains where everything, it seemed to me, was bigger and better.”
Defoor’s upbringing instilled in him a love for taking care of cattle. He is quick to credit both his dad and grandad for making sure he had the skills and experience to follow that passion.
Upon graduating high school, Defoor took some basic college courses at Sam Houston State University. He spent that year roping and shoeing horses, but it wasn’t long before he made the trip out West.
“The following year I loaded up my head horse, moved to Lubbock, and began studying animal science at Texas Tech University.”
While at Tech, Defoor worked at area feedyards, took care of wheat pasture cattle and continued to shoe horses.
“It made more money in the shortest period of time working than anything else a college kid with my background could do,” he says.
While at Tech, Defoor became acquainted with a couple of feedyard nutritionists. “Their work fascinated me and really encompassed many of the things I loved,” he says.
Defoor went on to graduate first in his class at Tech, and then on to West Texas A&M where he earned a master’s degree in ruminant nutrition and later, an MBA. He returned to Tech to complete a Ph.D. in ruminant nutrition working under Dr. Mike Galyean.
“Dr. Galyean, who is now the Provost at Texas Tech, was a great mentor and is a great friend. He really shaped the way I think and the way I approach data,” Defoor says.
Much of Defoor’s graduate work involved studying the interchangeability of roughage sources in feedyard rations — a topic that would play a major role in how feedyards would adapt to the most severe drought on record in the High Plains over a decade later.
“The cattle I used in my doctoral studies were provided by Cactus Feeders,” he recalls. “That allowed me to get to know Cactus a little better — a connection I relished, and one from which I would later benefit immensely.”
The Cactus Call
The years that followed Defoor’s doctoral studies were filled with opportunities. He spent time as a professor, a technical services manager for a pharmaceutical company, and a nutritionist for several great feedyards on the High Plains.
The opportunity with Cactus came in 2005 when he was doing some business analytics work for them on a project with beta agonists — a topic that framed his early years at Cactus as they hired him full time.
“It didn’t take much thought to drop everything and go to Cactus full time,” he says. “They were, and still are, the epitome of the High Plains cattle feeding culture, and the Engler family offered something that had remained elusive to me — ownership in a feedyard.”
“Not just one in this case but 10 yards feeding over a million head per year and the brand and culture that went along with it,” Defoor says. “This was where I wanted to be.”
In 2000, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association named Cactus the “Cattle Business of the Century.” Additionally, the organization was complete with the largest beef cattle research operation in the world.
“Cactus Research is the industry leader in beef production science and has influenced many of our business decisions over the years,” he says.
“I had several great mentors in my early years at Cactus. Paul Engler and Jack Rhoades were major influencers, and I still draw on many of their lessons,” he recalls. “They represented one side of my passion and romance for this business, while Dr. Mike Engler and Dr. Spencer Swingle, both scientists of the highest caliber, represented the other.”
Early in his career, Defoor led the organization’s efforts to integrate research and business analytics for several years before being promoted to Chief Operating Officer, and later to Co-CEO and a member of its board of directors.
In these roles, Defoor has had the privilege of hiring, placing, or helping develop some of the best cattle talent in the industry.
“Cactus employees are cattle and customer focused both on and off the feedyard,” he says.
Having customer-focused employees is key to Cactus’ success.
“Our cattle feeding customers are the core of our business,” Defoor says. “Our identity is wrapped up in them and always has been. Our roots are in custom cattle feeding, and our future is there as well.”
A saying around Cactus is “The Cattle Come First” meaning caring for cattle comes before our comfort and rest. Another saying is, “It takes more than concrete and steel to build a feedyard,” meaning the operation only works when you have the right people, Defoor explains.
“These things (Customer Focus, Cattle Care, Right People) are the foundations of our culture, and that has not changed,” he says.
What has changed is the amount of time and energy the organization spends in self-evaluation of various aspects of their business.
Cactus Research plays a major role in that process on topics such as antibiotic resistance, greenhouse gas production, animal wellbeing and several others. This research routinely influences many organization and industry positions.
“The confidence I have from our research efforts allows me to state strongly to anyone that U.S. beef producers can be proud of this business and the beef they produce,” he says. “We are part of the solution for the environment and a growing world population.
“However, we can’t be content to sustain. We must advance and continue to improve. That’s what got us here,” he says.
Defoor first became involved with TCFA after he received a scholarship from the group’s education foundation. In later years he served on the TCFA Research Committee, and as he moved up in leadership at Cactus, he began serving on the TCFA board of directors and then the executive committee.
When I ask what the biggest challenges are for the cattle feeding industry, he answers boldly.
“We are blessed in this country with the highest standards of living that have ever been experienced by any society. We must be students of how we achieved that if we are to keep it and keep improving it.”
Defoor points out that the industry must continue to make strong, simple and direct rebuttals to myths about beef production.
“Take for example, the concerns about greenhouse gas emissions,” he says. “The simple truth is that cattle merely return carbon to the atmosphere where it originated literally only months prior. There is no ‘net new’ carbon emitted by cattle into the atmosphere. Cattle, plants, and carbon are in a healthy, steady-state, long-term relationship with one another, and we humans are the beneficiaries. It is just that simple.”
“Industry associations such as TCFA are critical in dispelling misconceptions and bringing to bear the full collective resolve of its members around these basic truths,” he says. “We must ensure that the political process and its outcomes reflect those realities.”
While the industry must continue to advocate about current issues including atmospheric carbon, alternative proteins, trade, and technologies that affect efficiency, Defoor says, we must also focus on the viability of the Texas cattle feeding region over the long haul and provide leadership in critical areas that will contribute to that future.
“Farming choices and water use will be among the most critical of factors,” he says. “There is tremendous untapped potential to further integrate farming and grazing in the region to create greater returns per acre for landowners while drawing more cattle to the region to graze.”
“We can do this while also allowing for a material recharge of the groundwater that is so critical to our future.”
Undoubtedly, his analytical skills and passion for the industry and the region will serve Defoor well as he embarks on his position as TCFA Chairman.
“To say Paul Defoor loves what he does would be a vast understatement,” says Ross Wilson, TCFA president & CEO. “He is a big picture thinker, who can also distill complex, scientific issues and communicate them in a way that people, not only understand, but also relate to.”
At the highest level, Defoor’s life’s work is centered on improving standards of living through advancements in food production. He has dedicated years to the science of cattle nutrition and producing food for a growing population. There is no questioning his commitment to the industry and region he loves.
However, spend time with him, and you’ll see that the scientist is also a husband, father and true cowboy who has a deep connection and relentless focus on the cattle, the success of his customers, and making beef accessible to families all over the world.