When I was a kid I really wanted to be a feedlot pen rider. It’s not a dream that most people have, but I couldn’t think of a better job to do when I was a teenager. Working calves on horseback was (and still is) one of my favorite things.
Unfortunately, though, there weren’t any feedlots near my house when I was growing up, so I never got to be a pen rider.
However, right now, my 21-year-old brother is getting to live out my dream. Bradley recently moved to the Lincoln, Neb., area. He not only gets to pen ride, but he’s also studying to be a ruminant nutritionist — another one of my dreams. I started college with a cattle nutrition goal in mind, but abandoned the dream after I took the first chemistry class. Bradley did great at chemistry and graduated this summer with an animal science degree from the University of Wyoming. Before he starts graduate school at the University of Nebraska, he’s doing an internship at a feedlot in Arlington, Neb.
As part of the internship, Bradley has worked a variety of jobs in the feedlot, including pen rider. According to him, feedlot pen riding is an art form. Cowboys who pen ride have to pay close attention to detail and notice any small abnormalities in the cattle they are in charge of. Missing a sign can lead to calf death and profit loss for the feedlot. Pen riders are blamed for a lot of problems around a feedlot — especially if a calf dies. Even though they are some of the lowest paid staff at a feedlot, pen riders face a lot of pressure — and get chewed out by the boss regularly if they mess up.
For Bradley, a typical pen riding day starts about 6 a.m. with a morning meeting detailing any new cattle the feedlot received. After that, Brad saddles his horse and checks all the water tanks. Then he rides through the pens and looks at each calf (his feedlot has about 6,500 head right now.) He checks cattle until around noon or 3 p.m. — the time length depends on the day, weather and problems he encounters. If he finds any calves that show any clinical signs of illness — such limps or not coming up to eat when fed — he pulls them out of the pen.
Brad’s feedlot has a sophisticated health monitoring system for calves. Sick cattle are run through a chute that determines their body temperature and correct course of treatment. Calves normal body temperature fluctuates during the day, but an average is around 102 degrees. If a calf has a temperature above 105 degrees they are considered sick and generally receive a shot. Each time a calf is given treatment his ear tag is notched. If a calf receives four treatments he’s sent to a chronic pen out on grass. Soon, after any medication withdrawal periods, he’s shipped to slaughter.
Brad’s learned to respect the position of feedlot pen rider over the last few months, and he was kind (or cruel) enough to tell me to give up the dream — I wouldn’t be a good pen rider. I was a little bristled when he told me that, but he’s right. The hallmarks of a good pen rider — attention to detail, quick decision making, thick skin, and cold weather tolerance — are all characteristics I don’t possess in the least amount.
Though I am a little bummed that my dream turned out to be a bad fit for me, I am glad I found out before I moved somewhere to try the job. On to the next dream! ❖