Durham native leads the pack using computers for cattle

What happens when cattle meet computers? That sounds like one of my kid?s riddles. Actually, it could be a way of describing a scientific process for evaluating and managing cattle that is being used by an innovative beef feedyard in rural northwest Kansas. It?s the subject of today?s Kansas Profile.

Warren Weibert is owner and general manager of Decatur County Feed Yard near Oberlin, Kan. He is the innovator who is utilizing this high-tech management system.

Oberlin is a town of 1,955 people. That?s rural ? but there?s more. Warren actually grew up near Durham, Kansas, population 114 people. Now, that?s rural.

After growing up at Durham, Warren went to K-State and then into a business management career. He married Carol who is originally from Oberlin.

In 1971, some 45 local investors around Oberlin went together to create a cattle feedlot known as Decatur County Feed Yard. In 1977, Carol Weibert?s father bought the feedyard and invited Warren and Carol to come back to Oberlin to manage it, which they did. Warren and Carol now make their home in Manhattan.

The feedyard expanded through the years and now has a capacity of 40,000 head. During the 1980s, Warren set out to work more closely with the ranchers who supplied cattle to be finished at the feedyard. He and the ranchers were seeking to get more data to add value to the cattle.

A key breakthrough came in1994, as new technology came on the scene which made it possible to gather in-depth, individualized information on each steer. First came electronic eartags to identify each animal, followed by a software system which could track and project the growth of each one.

This allowed the feedyard managers to evaluate, sort, manage and market each animal appropriately. In other words, rather than a pen of steers being lumped together in some sort of average, each animal receives the type of management customized individually for him. It?s a great concept but it wouldn?t have been possible on this scale without the computer.

How does this work in practice? When 600-pound steers are brought to the feedlot, they go through a processing shed where the high-tech system is located. This shed is sometimes referred to internally as the ?gee whiz? barn. It certainly seems like gee whiz stuff to me.

The cattle are moved through a series of stations to evaluate them. First is a sequencing station, which then automatically moves the cattle through a series of chutes to a second station where video imaging is done. The third station is an electronic scale, followed by an ultrasound station where the internal tissue characteristics are identified.

It sounds like an entry into a high-tech hospital, but it is actually a way of gathering individualized data on each animal. When the data is put together on size, shape, weight, and genetic potential, the manager can project the point at which each animal will be ready to go to market. The animals are then grouped according to their stage of development and sent into the feedyard. As they reach mature weight, each group will be marketed.

Even though these cattle will come from different owners, they can be grouped with those of like characteristics while still being identified individually. Then after the cattle do go to market, the data on each animal are reported back to the individual rancher from which they came. The final close-out report includes 25 columns with information on each animal.

Warren said, ?We?re providing more information back to the rancher than virtually anybody else in the industry.? These data tools help producers reach the goals of providing beef with lower costs, improved quality, greater convenience, and improved consistency while maintaining the highest standards of food safety.

For more information, go to www.decaturfeedyard.com.

So when cattle meet computers, innovative, individualized management can follow. We commend Warren and Carol Weibert and all those involved with Decatur County Feed Yard for making a difference with their forward-looking approach to beef cattle management. And what else happens when cattle meet computers? Well, in the feedyard, those hungry steers take a lot of giga-bites?

The mission of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development is to enhance rural development by helping rural people help themselves.

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