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Move em’ out

Ryan Hanrahan with the Buffalo Bulletin, via the Wyoming News Exchange

BUFFALO — On the northern bank of Crazy Woman Woman Creek, rancher Dave Belus stood in the center of a maze of rusty, red corrals and fenced-in alleys, watching over what he described as “organized chaos.”
While the cattle-shipping process he was overseeing in eastern Johnson County this past Tuesday may have looked chaotic, it actually went smoothly, with his crew of family and friends working as a well-oiled machine to keep the cattle moving between the corrals with few stops required.
In the outermost corral, a trio of cowboys sat atop their horses, riding among the cattle to sort the calves from the rest of the herd.
One cowboy worked the gate, opening and closing it as the cattle rushed toward him, directing the steers and the heifers being shipped that day toward the innermost alley.
In the alley, Dave Belus, Adam Belus and ranch manager Wade Land separated the steers from the heifers. The Beluses walked amongst the cattle, prodding them to get them moving to the correct corral.
Once the steers and the heifers had been separated, the Beluses split them into groups of 20 and moved them onto an industrial scale — where Dave Belus said the animals weighed in right about where he expected, even though they were a little heavy.
"Because they're heavy enough, most of them are going to go to the feedlot and go on feed,” he said.
While Belus' cattle were heading to the feedlot, like most in Johnson County, their animals are a bit different because they are raised under the requirements of the Global Animal Partnership program.
That program, established in 2008, works primarily to foster better “farm animal welfare standards” in the agriculture industry, according to its website.
To participate, ranchers must follow multiple rules for cattle, including primarily raising the animals on pasture, following age requirements for weaning and castration and limiting transportation time when shipping.
"These cattle can't get any animal byproducts, meaning feathers, chicken meal, any of that kind of stuff, which some of the feeds have, so I have to be selective on what we feed, which is predominantly grass and hay," Belus said.
Belus' cattle wear specific ear tags that denote them as being part of the GAP program. If an animal must be removed from the program for any reason - the ear tag must also be removed from the animal. 
The GAP cattle are tracked through the rancher's daily record keeping, according to the GAP website, which includes such items as daily herd incidences, any medication or treatment of animals and any movement of the animals on the ranch or off of it.
Belus said the GAP program is beneficial for consumers, especially "as people become more conscious about what they're eating." 
That's because GAP-certified meat is labeled at stores so people who buy it know the standards used to raise that animal, though that meat is often more costly than non-certified meat. 
It's beneficial for producers too, Belus said, because they can get about 10 cents a pound more for animals raised under the GAP program standards.
The producer's monetary benefit can be offset somewhat by the initial enrollment fee and by the audits that occur every 15 months to make sure that producers are complying with the standards of the program for their animals.
But for producers with large herds, the per pound premium outweighs the initial setup costs.
"People that only have 100 or 200 head of cattle, it's too expensive, but with the amount we ship, it's worthwhile," Belus said. "...
There’s some stipulations that a lot of people don't like, but like I said, it typically pays pretty well." 
As the groups of steers and groups of heifers were moved on and off the scale, Belus and a handful of his helpers stood in the shade, sipping coffee and eating donuts that had arrived on the back of a side-by-side. At one point, Belus reached down and picked up a handful of grass, commenting to the person next to him that he was glad it's greener than normal.
Belus said that, especially compared with last year's significant drought in the county, this year's precipitation helped keep the pasture his cattle were on in good condition.
"We got timely moisture," Belus said. "Labor Day weekend, three and a half inches of rain saved us, and then the summer has been going well and we've had full moisture." According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Johnson County is currently experiencing abnormally dry conditions, which is a significant improvement from last year at this time, when the county was experiencing extreme drought.
That extreme drought forced some producers to ship their cattle in September last year - which is earlier than normal - Jim Magagna, Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President, said at the time. That doesn't seem to be the case this year, according to the ranchers helping the Beluses ship their cattle, as many said they were waiting until the end of October — and some even into the first weeks of November — before shipping.
While moisture is better this year, market prices are also significantly better this year compared with the same time last year. 
According to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture weekly summary report for Wyoming, steers in the 500 to 600 pound range are selling for $31.18 more per hundredweight at auction than last year’s, and heifers in the same weight range are selling for $31.64 more per hundredweight. 
After the calves were sorted and weighed, they were moved into the back of one of five semi trucks prepared to take them to their feedlot destination. 
While the animals moved into the trucks, Dave Belus' wife, Leesa, stood with the drivers, completing the extra paperwork required under the GAP program. 
“When the trucks leave, we have to keep track of what time they load, what time they ship (and) they can't be on a truck for more than, I think it's eight hours," Dave Belus said. 
After the paperwork was completed and the animals were loaded, the trucks rumbled away down on the gravel road — with the steers destined for Oklahoma and the heifers headed toward Moorcroft.
This story was published on Oct. 27, 2022.

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