Cattle Feeding

By: Charles E. Ball

Type: General Entry

Published: August 1, 1995

Texas has long been considered the Number 1 cattle state in the nation. In fact, during its early years Texas had more cattle on its ranges than people. By the mid-1980s Texas had also become the Number 1 cattle feeding state. The cattle-feeding industry annually contributes $12 billion dollars to the state's economy. In this industry, cattle are confined in feedyards to add weight and improve quality. A typical yearling, weighing 500 to 700 pounds off grass, will double its weight during its 150-to-200 day stay in a feedyard. Its quality will improve from "unpredictable" to Choice or Select grade—the quality that consumers prefer. Besides adding weight and improving quality, cattle feeding in its early years also helped to dispose of unwanted by-products. Apparently there were some feedlots in operation in New England during colonial times, but the first widespread early cattle feedyards in the nation were built by cottonseed oil-mill operators in the 1850s. The arrangement spread, and by 1895 Texas had eighty-four yards. Initially, the owners viewed mill by-products—meal and hulls—as a burden and dumped them into nearby ravines or swamps. When the owners discovered that cattle would eat cottonseed meal and hulls, the mill owners started feedyards though the yards were still located near draws, ravines, or creeks for drainage. For example, the 6,000-head yard in Lubbock drained into the Yellow House Fork. In time, owners became concerned about polluting the environment and avoided building yards on streams and lakes.

Texas cattlemen early believed that cattle feeding would become a major industry in the state. At the Cattle Raisers Association of Texas meeting in Fort Worth in 1895, Greenlief W. Simpson predicted that by 1900 the state would lead the world in cattle feeding (Texas attained this distinction in the 1990s). A problem arose in the early 1900s when cattle numbers dropped rapidly from 50.8 million to 35.8 million by 1914. A few cattle raisers suggested that feeding young animals would be more efficient than waiting until they were two or older. J. E. Boog-Scott, a major rancher-feeder at Coleman, promoted the idea and believed the best way to gain acceptance was by influencing future ranchers. In 1912 he organized the first Boys Baby Beef Club, a forerunner of the Four-H Clubs. In the 1890s the Brownwood Cotton Oil Company, in Brownwood, was one of the first Texas oil mills to operate a sizable feedyard—500 to 1,000 head capacity. From 1900 to 1927 the Planters Oil Company ran a feeding operation in the Brazos River bottoms near Hearne. By the late 1920s, the Simmons Cotton Oil Mills had processing units—most with feedyards—at Lubbock, Rotan, Sweetwater, Quanah, and Childress. Tom B. Simmons, Jr. of Lubbock, son of one of the founders, entered the business in 1930 and fed cattle yearly until 1992. His first exposure to the industry was as the manager of the pens at Quanah. These pens were made of wire and could handle 7,000 head, but they offered scant restraint against stampedes during lightning storms. Oil-mill feedyards became an expanding industry. During the 1920s and 1930s these yards numbered in the scores. Swift and Company, for example, bought cattle in Fort Worth, and fed them in as many as twenty yards at a time. But there were lean years when fewer than 50,000 head were fed statewide (some individual yards could finish this many in the 1990s). During the depression era, large feedyards flourished on the South Plains. Two were at Brownfield—the D. H. Snyder pens and the Baricora Development Company feedyard. The latter, owned by newspaper millionaire William Randolph Hearst, had 10,000 head on feed in 1937. H. W. Stanton built a large yard along Yellow House Canyon, which later was engulfed by a growing Lubbock. To provide clean running water Stanton equipped his pens with what Ripley's "Believe It or Not" billed as the world's longest water trough—2,230 feet running the length of the pens. A pump on one well daily fed the trough until it went dry in 1946 and the yard was closed.

The Sudan Livestock and Feeding Company, in Sudan, was one of the first feedyards to operate year-round. Ben H. Davidson and Anton Rieder opened the lot in the fall of 1940 with a capacity of 2,000 head. Eventually, the size expanded to handle 25,000 head and the ownership changed, but it still retained its original name in 1993. During the 1950s and 1960s several sizable feedyards opened and closed in East and Central Texas. Cattle were available locally, but grain was in short supply and the mud problem was unmanageable. In the early 1950s, Durward W. Lewter, a county agent at Big Spring, learned how to feed grain sorghum to Four-H Club steers and won blue ribbons across the nation. To test the commercial market, he secured the financial backing of oilman Clint Murchison, Sr., of Dallas and in 1955 built the largest commercial feedyard in West Texas. Lewter quickly illustrated the profit potential of large-scale cattle feeding. He fed mainly company-owned cattle to High Choice and Low Prime grades and expanded the yard until by 1960 he had more than 30,000 head of cattle on feed. During the market drop in the early 1960s, Lewter experienced hard times and became entangled in a legal dispute with Murchison. In 1962 the giant feedyard was sold by the court. E. C. Crofoot and his son, Jay, of Kansas, bought the operation and renamed it Lubbock Feed Lots. In the late 1950s an El Paso feedyard became involved in a boundary dispute with Mexico. When the United States entered World War I, Joe Peyton, an El Paso butcher, obtained a contract to supply beef to the army at Fort Bliss. As the demand escalated, Peyton built a packing plant on the Rio Grande with a 3,000-head feedyard. Through the years the yard grew to a capacity of 17,000 head. But a hitch developed for Peyton Packing Company and Peyton Feedyard. Since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) the Rio Grande had shifted, and for a century Mexico claimed 630 acres (the Chamizal Strip) in south El Paso. In 1962 President John F. Kennedy met with President Adolfo López-Mateos and discussed the disputed tract, a meeting that led to the signing of the Chamizal Treaty in 1963 (see CHAMIZAL DISPUTE). Peyton was compensated, and he moved his packing plant to the eastern edge of El Paso and placed his feedyard forty-eight miles downriver at Tornillo.

During the years following World War II, the increased use of technology changed the landscape and economy of the High Plains of West Texas. Two major breakthroughs spurred this change—the discovery of hybrid grain sorghum and the development of irrigation. Yields doubled and quadrupled—up to 7,000 and 8,000 pounds per acre—but the huge surpluses depressed prices. In 1955 farmers organized the Grain Sorghum Producers Association in an effort to find new markets with cattle feeders at home and abroad. In 1959, GSPA joined with the West Texas Chamber of Commerce and announced the first of three tours to study feeding practices in the Midwest and the Far West. West Texas farmers, cattlemen, bankers, and agribusiness leaders traveled by train and bus to Iowa, Illinois, Arizona, and California. After the 1962 tour to Arizona and California, where commercial feedyards were booming, a concerted effort was begun in West Texas to expand the feedyard operations there. A group that included Wenzel L. Stangel, former dean of agriculture at Texas Tech and chairman of the WTCC Agriculture Committee; Sam Thomas, manager of agricultural development, Southwestern Public Service Company; and D. G. (Bill) Nelson, executive vice president of the Grain Sorghum Producers Association, launched a campaign to attract entrepreneurs from other states. Cattle feeding in West Texas boomed. The number of fed cattle increased from 300,000 head marketed in 1958 to nearly two million in 1968 and 4.8 million in 1973—a 1,600 percent increase in fifteen years. During the 1980s, the number stabilized at around 4.8 million per year, or about 22 percent of the United States total. In a 1973 speech Charles E. Ball, executive vice president of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, attributed the boom to available feeder cattle, bountiful grain supply, good climate, reasonable financing, and entrepreneurship.

Cattle feeders believed that an association of cattle feeders was needed. In 1961 the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, headquartered in Fort Worth, formed a Cattle Feeders Committee, TSCRA president Dolph Briscoe (later Texas governor) appointed Norman Moser, a rancher-feeder at DeKalb, as chairman. The committee hired Lloyd Bergsma, extension livestock marketing specialist at Texas A&M University, to be executive director. The committee was made a division of TSCRA. As most of the new feedyards were built in the Panhandle—300 miles from Fort Worth—a majority of the owners soon desired autonomy, a closer head office, and separation from the rancher-controlled TSCRA. On May 18, 1967, ten cattle feeders met in Amarillo to discuss the matter. Attending were Jack Carrothers of Friona, Robert Allen of Tulia, J. O. Parker of Happy, Richard Jagels of Hereford, R. M. (Bob) Carter of Plainview, H. D. King of Muleshoe, Grady Shepard of Hale Center, Walter Lasley of Stratford, Rex McAnelly of Pampa, and Gene Newman of San Angelo. A questionnaire mailed to all known feedyards in the state showed that sixty-three of eighty-one respondents wanted a new organization. At the May 18 meeting the feedyard owners formed the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. The first officers were Jack Carrothers, president; R. M. (Bob) Carter, vice president; and Robert Allen, treasurer. They hired Lloyd Bergsma as the executive director and James W. Witherspoon of Hereford as TCFA attorney. By the fall of 1967, TCFA had seventy-two regular members and forty-eight associate members. Its five standing committees included Research and University, Membership and Finance, Insurance, Water and Air Pollution, and Technical. TCFA grew rapidly in services, membership, and finances.

To speed the market infomation, the organization installed a telephone-computer network to permit TCFA market analysts to communicate with feedyard members, hired lobbyists to represent the organization in Austin and Washington, established a liasion with the fifteen state and national agencies that regulated feedyards, promoted beef promotion, sponsored research at universities, offered group insurance, initiated safety programs, published a weekly newsletter and the Cattle Feeders Annual magazine, and funded educational seminars. Membership grew from 390 in 1968 to a peak of 7,128 in 1984, then leveled off at 6,500. In the 1980s feedyard members numbered around 160, including most of the 150 commercial feedyards in Texas as well as yards in New Mexico and Oklahoma. "Custom feedyards" were developed. In them, operators handle from 2,000 to 50,000 head that they feed on a custom basis (cost of feed plus a service charge). Very few feedyards own the cattle they feed, because of the investment, credit requirements, and risk. In the 1990s a 20,000-head feedyard could cost more than $2 million for equipment and facilities, plus as much as $16 million for cattle. As TCFA grew it reflected the changing nature and needs of the industry. The annual budget increased from $40,675 in 1968 to nearly $3 million in 1993. The staff increased from three in 1968 to nineteen in the 1980s. At its twenty-fifth anniversary convention in November 1992 in Amarillo, TCFA honored the eighteen presidents and three executive vice presidents who had served the organization.

Since the boom years that began in the 1960s, the Texas feedyard industry has faced both economic and political challenges. In late 1972 and early 1973, for example, there was a flurry of consumer boycotts of beef and public protests against rising beef prices. On March 29, 1973, President Richard Nixon imposed a price freeze. As feeders delayed the marketing of cattle, this caused a buildup of supply and a price drop when the freeze was lifted in the fall of 1973. Cattle raisers suffered losses that ran $100 to $200 per head, and many declared bankruptcy. A number of feedyards closed. The episode became known as "the Wreck." Meanwhile, TCFA had called on its members to contribute a dollar a head for an emergency fund—to tell the cattlemen's story in Washington. In three weeks the organization raised $519,350. This ultimately led to the national dollar-per-head checkoff, authorized in the Agricultural Act of 1985 for beef promotion and research. In the 1970s, when packers were delaying payment for cattle for seven to eighteen days, TCFA took the lead and secured federal legislation requiring payment by the close of the next business day after delivery. During these years as consumers became concerned about dietary goals, leaner beef, food safety, animal welfare, and the environment, Texas cattle feeders addressed these issues in their programs and operations.

By 1984 Texas was the Number 1 cattle feeding state. The economic impact of this relatively new industry had mushroomed within less than thirty years. Economists estimated that the 4.8 million head marketed in 1990 contributed $11.5 billion to the Texas economy. The state comptroller's office reported that year that feedyards spent more than $1.1 billion in purchasing Texas-grown feeder cattle, bought $355 million worth of feeds, and paid $105 million for trucking. The industry had 5,000 regular employees and several hundred contract workers. An estimated 40,000 jobs in the state depended on cattle feeding.

Charles E. Ball, The Finishing Touch (Amarillo: Texas Cattle Feeders Association, 1992). James Cox, Historical and Biographical Record of the Cattle Industry (2 vols., St. Louis: Woodward and Tiernan Printing, 1894, 1895; rpt., with an introduction by J. Frank Dobie, New York: Antiquarian, 1959). Henry C. Dethloff and Irvin M. May, Jr., eds., Southwestern Agriculture: Pre-Columbian to Modern (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1982). Robert L. Haney, Milestones: Marking Ten Decades of Research (College Station: Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, 1989). John H. McCoy, Livestock and Meat Marketing (Westport: AVI, 1979). J'Nell Pate, Livestock Legacy: The Fort Worth Stockyards, 1887–1987 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1988). Jimmy M. Skaggs, Prime Cut: Livestock Raising and Meatpacking in the United States, 1607–1983 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1986).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Charles E. Ball, “Cattle Feeding,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 20, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 1, 1995