BEEF EMPIRE DAYS: Contest goes behind the scenes with cattle crews

5/29/2014

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Marvin Hammond, the organizer of the Beef Empire Days Cattle Working Contest.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Marvin Hammond, the organizer of the Beef Empire Days Cattle Working Contest.

By RENÉE JEAN

rjean@gctelegram.com

Getting beef to the table has come a long way over the years, and the Beef Empire Days Cattle Working Contest is where all that becomes readily apparent.

The contest was added to Beef Empire Days in 1985 to recognize the hands-on work behind the scenes of area feedyard crews and teams. It began on the Finney County Fairgrounds after the live show and featured either three-person teams or teams with two people and one dog.

The show has been coordinated the past three years by Marvin Hammond, a chute-side consultant with ELANCO, an acronym for Eli Lilley and Company's Animal Health Division.

Hammond remembers getting a call from Beef Empire Days Executive Director Deann Gillen-Lehman asking what could be done to increase participation in the event.

"They had had just seven participants, and she asked what could we do to grow it," Hammond said.

He had a few ideas to offer, which prompted her to ask if he would become its chairman.

Hammond made several immediate changes, which have boosted participation dramatically. Last year, the contest had 44 participants. Hammond hopes it will grow enough to eventually require two days to complete the event, which this year is set for noon June 5 at Finney County Feedyard.

Among the most important of the changes Hammond made was in the judging. Rightly or wrongly, perception had grown among participants that the playing field wasn't really level.

"Before, we basically had vets and managers of feed yards judging it," Hammond said. "I took that away because a consulting vet, he consults for this or that yard and he may work with three of the 25 crews."

Hammond decided to let product representatives judge the handling of their individual products. That spread the judging around and helped decrease the likelihood crews would perceive a bias. In addition, the product representatives have a vested interest in promoting proper techniques, which goes along with the strong educational component of the event, which promotes safe, humane handling of all the cattle.

Another popular aspect of the contest, Hammond said, is the crews often get to try out some new products they haven't used before, in addition to showing off their level of skill in working with and properly caring for cattle.

Each year, Hammond brings in a luncheon speaker on a topic of interest to the crews. Last year, a veterinarian talked about how to handle conversations in which they're being accused publicly of not handling their cattle humanely.

This year, the event features a trade show, which will let the teams ask questions about a wide variety of industry products and services.

"We push a lot of animal safety and handling," Hammond said. "Every feedyard has a code to treat the animals well. If the cattle are not healthy and performing, a feedyard won't make money. We want them to be proficient animals. We don't want them to go out and die. We want them to survive and thrive."

Another change Hammond made was to move the contest from the fairgrounds to an actual feedyard, boosting the realism of working conditions for the contest. The teams have to show they can actually go out and get the cattle and get them to the work area.

"If they aren't pros, they won't even be able to get them out of the pen," Hammond said. "We decided we wanted it at a feedyard to provide a true facility at which cattle are worked, rather than trucking them to the fairgrounds and working them in an outdoor facility that doesn't have working facilities."

The contest has been at Finney County Feedyard the past three years, which contributes all the cattle used for the contest.

"You take a set of cattle worth $300,000, and we're going to use them for a contest with 200 different people working them — Finney County Feedyard is very generous in letting us do this," Hammond said. "We appreciate them very much."

While the contest is not totally open to spectators — audience numbers must be kept low so the cattle don't become stressed — Hammond has allowed some members of the public in to watch so they can become informed about what really goes into the handling and care of cattle in the beef industry. Anyone interested in that can contact him through Beef Empire Days at 275-6807.

"Last year, we had a girl from the East Coast come in with some girls she knew at college who grew up in the area," Hammond said. "She'd never been around cattle and decided to come and see for herself. She'd heard all kinds of things on the Internet. She caught me afterwards and said, 'Now I understand how much care it takes to get beef to the table.'"

Hammond hopes he can help others make that connection.

"If can we make that connection with just one person, then the whole thing is worth it," he said.

Wade Patterson, one of the volunteer judges Hammond brought on board for the contest, agrees the contest really brings to light the truth about what goes on in the beef industry.

"I want people to understand that a lot of the things we see and hear in social media is not how things happen out in the real world," Patterson said. "Our lives and everyone in the beef industry, our lives depend on these cattle. We don't torture them or try to hurt them. We try to treat them like we would our own children. We're going to be as easy and as calm as we can be in trying to work with them."

Patterson said watching the teams work, it is evident how far the industry has come.

"It was really interesting to me to watch," Patterson said. "It was surprising to me because some of the operations I worked on years ago, it was just get the cow through as fast as you can," he said. "We have come a long way as an industry. It's amazing to see how easy and how smooth and how good these crews are."

Patterson will be judging the teams on their cattle-handling skill. He's going to deduct points if teams have to resort to less desirable methods, such as using a hotshot or a whip to get the cattle moving.

"One thing this whole contest focuses on is doing everything by the book and with the least amount of stress on the cattle as possible," Patterson said. "This is a really great place for people to come and see how it's really done because these are the real crews that do this out in the feedyards.

"Not too many people can be watching in the audience because if there are too many people, it spooks the cattle, but everyone should come out and enjoy as much of the festivities as they can, and enjoy beef."

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