Beef cattle

In western Kansas, beef cattle are an important part of the economic puzzle. (Journal photo by Kylene Scott.)

In any given day I can drive a minimum of 44 miles a day. A. Day. And I only live 10 miles from Dodge City. I primarily drive to and from work/school and home at lunch time to let dogs out. If I go to the grocery store, grandma’s, to check pigs or any other errand that number can grow rapidly.

My husband's job is to take care of cattle for a local farmer. Just to get to his place it's roughly 30 miles from our home. Plus he has to take care of our own cows and calves who are more than 40 miles from our house. He could very easily drive more than a 100 miles in one day, likely much more. And that's just for work.

By definition we're both essential employees; me with the media and him in agriculture. He's out on the road doing what needs to be done and I take care of my work for the Journal (from home) and our family.

During the course of the pandemic I've noticed more than one article stating Kansas has some of the worst ratings when it comes to stay at home orders. When I started writing this blog post a week ago, my county, Ford, had a D rating and Clark County, where our cattle are, was given an F. Every thing here is spread out so there's no getting around driving. Anywhere.

The Kansas Department of Agriculture said the ag sector in Kansas employs more than 254,000 people through direct, indirect and induced effect careers, or almost 13% of the entire Kansas workforce. In Kansas, there are 45,759,319 acres of farmland, which accounts for 87.5% of all Kansas land. It's hard to tell we're under a stay at home order because so many of the people in this area are essential employees.

In my hometown alone, there's two major beef processing plants—National Beef and Cargill. Between the two, there's roughly 6,000 employees. The 2019 population of Dodge City was around 26,000. So some simple math gives me about 23% of the population works at the plants.

There have been rumors on social media about several positive COVID-19 cases among employees at each of the plants. As of April 16, there’s reportedly 51 positive cases in Ford County. Last week the plants confirmed that some of their employees are infected and describe what they're doing to keep other workers safe. The neighboring county, Finney, has a large packing plant as well, and that county has 19 confirmed cases as of April 16.

I'm not making any correlations between race or ethnicity, but instead relating the large concentration of people that work at these plants and go home to their families every day. And those same people go out into the community to shop for essentials. It's not a matter of how it’s being spread, but instead how far it's going to go and how high the numbers will go, I believe.

There are plants in other states that have already shut down for a few weeks to let the disease run its course. I'm terrified if these plants don't shut down for even a little while, there's going to be a revolt in Dodge City. Judging by what I've seen on social media, many believe they won't be paid during a shut down. I believe these essential employees might go on strike and this town will start to fall apart. More than once I read the comment on social media, "just don’t eat beef for 2 weeks."

Not eating beef is not the solution. The beef value chain is long and intricate. In case you're reading this and don't understand the beef production chain, it's simply this. Bull breeds mother cow. Calf is born 283 days later. If it survives until weaning, approximately 8 months of age, the calf is weaned and either put out on grass or other forages with calves of the same age. At 12 to 16 months the calves are sent to a feedlot, where they spend approximately 150 to 300 days on feed. Duration depends on age, breed, gender and several other factors. Once the animal reaches optimal finish, they are sent to the processor to be cut up, packaged and sent to retailers or restaurants.

I could fill many pages with who all is affected by a shut down or even a slowing of the beef value chain. But for me, a small cow-calf producer, it's absolutely frightening. We depend on these calves to bring good money in order to make land payments, feed payments and even pay the loan on our mother cows. Last year was tough with death loss, high feed costs and lower price. Admittedly, we struggled. This year just might be the straw that broke the camel's back.

I think it might be the same straw for a lot of families. Not buying beef or pork during a time like this is not the solution. Buying more is. Clearing out the products in cold storage allows the value chain to breathe a little more and keep it moving at a slower pace if necessary. Or even taking advantage of the producers who sell from gate to plate—Giles Ranch Beef of Ashland, Kansas, is one such business.

Everyone is hurting during this pandemic and subsequent shut down, let's not make it worse by throwing the blame around and getting angry. But instead lets get to work. We all know farmers and ranchers are some of the hardest workers out there. Same with the bankers, healthcare workers, emergency personnel, essential employees and businesses out on the front lines working to keep their communities safe and healthy. 

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