Cactus Feeders “dedicates our most critical resources to the animals in our care and the employees that care for them, with the goal of a finished product of high-quality animal protein to feed hungry people.”
By Larry Stalcup
When Paul Engler started Cactus Feeders in 1975, he saw the opportunity to market cattle based on quality, not an average price. He took managing risk of all forms seriously. His plan to make the company employee-owned proved valuable because workers from pen riders to the feed mill to the front office saw more incentive to bolster “their feedyard.”
Nearly 45 years later, that philosophy still reigns for co-CEO Paul Defoor and the hundreds who work for what is considered the world’s biggest cattle company. Headquartered in Amarillo, Cactus is the pioneer of High Plains custom cattle feeding. It operates 10 feedyards, with an overall one-time capacity of more than 600,000 head and a 1.2 million head annual marketing capacity.
Cactus also runs tens of thousands of stockers on wheat and grass and owns nearly 10,000 beef cows in cooperation with ranches from Nebraska to Texas, as well as a portion of several large ranches.
The cattle feeding giant also operates what is likely the world’s largest beef cattle research operation. It takes pride in working directly with cow-calf producers and stocker operators to develop the highest quality feeder cattle that will satisfy the needs of packers, retailers and, ultimately, consumers.
Retained ownership programs benefit ranchers as well as its feedyards. Solid preconditioning and animal health programs help make that happen. “Around Cactus, we often say that cattle and people have to be prepared for the next step,” says Defoor, a native of southeast Texas near Willis. “We have had tremendous success in helping our customers find value feeding cattle and much of that comes in the form of good health.
“Over the last few years, we have had to treat only 4 to 5% of the cattle that come to our feedyards. A lot of ‘preparation’ goes into achieving this and much of that occurs prior to arrival at the feedyard.”
The cattle come first
Cactus helps producers develop individual production plans that help them create value and promote good cattle health. “Some of those ranches partner with us on their cows as well as their calves,” Defoor explains. “Some partner with us on the calves going to wheat pasture, summer grazing and through the feedyard. Some have unique arrangements with us that accommodate the needs of their operation on a variety of fronts.
“We are open to all sorts of customer innovations. What we insist on is cattle health, cattle value, and personal integrity.”
Defoor says that the pillar behind the success of the company is the attitude that the cattle come first. “Our cattle feeding customers are the core of our business and our identity is wrapped up in them and always has been,” he says. “Our roots are in custom cattle feeding and our future is there as well.
“Care for the cattle comes before our comfort and rest. Another saying we have is ‘it takes more than concrete and steel to build a feedyard,’ meaning they only work when you have the right people running them. These things — customer focus, cattle care, and the right people — are the foundations of our culture and they have not changed.”
The love of livestock was always in Defoor’s blood. He was raised working with horses and cattle in Southeast Texas and graduated from Willis High School. After high school, he attended Texas Tech University to study animal science. That led to a Ph.D. in animal nutrition.
“As a freshman in high school I traveled to Lubbock for the State FFA Convention,” he says. “My ag teacher, Gary Yancey, knew my love of the cattle industry and interest in feedyards. He made every effort to help me along the way and show me the opportunity on the High Plains.”
On that FFA trip, Defoor and his buddies stayed in the Texas Tech dorms. “I got acquainted with the Tech Animal Science Department,” he remembers. “I knew that was where I wanted to go to school.”
Upon graduating from high school, he took some basic college courses at Sam Houston State University, not far from his hometown. “I also spent that year roping and shoeing horses,” he says. “The following year I loaded up my head horse, moved to Lubbock and started in animal science at Texas Tech.”
Life as a young Red Raider was fun, but Defoor had just as good a time taking care of wheat pasture cattle around the area, working at area feedyards and shoeing horses. “All of that enabled me to make more money, in the shortest period of time spent working, than anything else a college kid with my background could do,” he says.
That is also when he met and took courses from major influencers for his future career. “There are too many Texas Tech professors to mention who all helped me,” he says, “but Dr. Bob Albin, Dr. Sam Jackson, Dr. Andy Herring, and Dr. Mark Miller were particularly instrumental in helping me understand how science and production come together.”
Defoor was more production-minded. “However, I could see in Dr. Jackson’s teachings that innate production skills were amplified by his foundation in science,” he says. “That appealed to me and I became more interested in animal nutrition.”
He was offered a job as an undergraduate research assistant in the animal nutrition laboratory. Guidance from Dr. Reid Richardson provided Defoor an opportunity to work on a research project with cotton byproducts as roughage for ruminants. His studies also included work at the former Cargill packing plant in Plainview.
“We collected segments of the small intestine at the plant and measured the absorption of zinc supplements in a series of experiments,” Defoor says. “They were called inverted gut loop studies. There are better ways to go about that today, but the experience exposed me to the inside of a major packing plant on a number of occasions and allowed me to connect more dots between science and production. It gave me a more comprehensive understanding of the entire supply chain after largely being connected only with the cow-calf sector growing up.”
Upon graduating first in his class from Texas Tech, he delved more into the field of ruminant nutrition. He focused more on feedyards and wheat pasture cattle. He entered graduate school en route to his Ph.D.
That road took him to West Texas A&M University in Canyon where he earned his M.S. in ruminant nutrition and later an MBA. WTAMU’s feedyard program was becoming a force in the nation’s cattle feeding research. Defoor worked closely with steam-flaked and high-moisture milo.
“My graduate studies were all under the direction of Dr. Mike Galyean, who is now the Provost of Texas Tech,” Defoor says. “I started with Dr. Galyean at WTAMU and later returned to Texas Tech with him when he was recruited by Tech to lead the Ruminant Nutrition Program there.”
When Defoor earned his doctorate, much of it involved studying the interchangeability of roughage sources in feedyard rations; a topic that would play a major part in feedyards adapting to the most severe drought on record in the High Plains a decade later.
“The cattle I used in my doctoral studies were provided by Cactus Feeders,” he points out. “That allowed me to get to know Cactus a little better, a connection I relished and would later benefit from immensely.”
Following his doctoral training, Defoor worked for several entities. He served as a technical services manager for a pharmaceutical company, a professor of animal science and as a nutritionist for several High Plains feedyards.
“One of those yards was CRI Feeders in Guymon, Okla.,” he says. “Doug Schmidt, the general manager, might not have known it then, but he was teaching me way more than I was teaching them. He was and still is a class act, and I appreciate him giving me one of my first big breaks early in my career.”
In 2005, Defoor was doing business analytics work for Cactus. “It dealt with Beta Agonists; a topic that would frame my early years at Cactus as they brought me on full-time,” he says. “It didn’t take much thought to drop everything else I had going on and go to Cactus full-time, as they were, and still are, the epitome of the High Plains cattle feeding culture.”
And the Engler family him offered something that had remained elusive to him — ownership in a feedyard — not just one in this case, but multiple yards feeding a million head per year and the brand and culture that went along with it.
“It’s a cattle company that is likely to be as legendary as the XIT when the history of the region is next written,” he says. “Declared by National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) as the Cattle Business of the Century in 2000 and complete with the largest beef cattle research operation in the world, Cactus was where I wanted to be.”
Cactus operates seven Texas feedyards, including Cactus Feedyard in Cactus, Stratford Feedyard in Stratford, Frontier Feedyard in Spearman, Wolf Creek Feedyard in Perryton, Hale Center Feedyard in Hale Center, Wrangler Feedyard in Tulia, and Southwest Feedyard in Hereford. Its Kansas feedyards include Centerfire Feedyard and Ulysses Feedyard in Ulysses, and Syracuse Feedyard in Syracuse.
“While not much has changed in terms of our company culture and core business model in the feedyards, what has changed is the amount of time and energy we spend in self-examination in various areas of our business,” Defoor says. “Cactus’ research plays a major role in that process on topics such as antibiotic resistance, greenhouse gas production, animal well-being, and several others.”
Defoor says his confidence in these efforts allows him to state strongly that “U.S. beef producers can be proud of the business they are in and the product they produce. Be assured that we are part of the solution for the environment and a growing world population.
“Said another way, cattle and modern beef production are good for the people and the environment. However, we can’t be content to sustain; we have to advance and continue to improve. That is what got us here.
“Industry associations such as Texas Cattle Feeders Association, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) and NCBA are critical for bringing to bear the full collective resolve of its members around these basic truths and helping to make sure that the political process and its outcomes reflect those realities.”
Defoor concludes that Cactus Feeders “dedicates our most critical resources to the animals in our care and the employees that care for them, with the goal of a finished product of high-quality animal protein to feed hungry people.
“Our company mission is ‘Feeding A Hungry World: Family, Friends, and Neighbors.’ Our families are also consumers of our products. We want the best for our families and work hard each day to make sure that the products we produce are safe, nutritious, and affordable by families striving to feed their families. That’s what Cactus Feeders is all about.”
Cactus Feeders is excerpted from the September 2019 issue of The Cattleman magazine. Join today to start your subscription.