Keeping Employees Healthy During the Pandemic
by Terri Queck-Matzie
COVID-19 has changed many things, even at the feedyard.
But one thing remains a constant: “Our first and foremost responsibility is the daily care and feeding of these animals,” says Keith Bryant, manager of Reeve Cattle Company and Reeve Agri-Energy.
To do that, he must first keep his employees safe and healthy.
Reeve Cattle Company near Garden City, Kansas, is a 47,000 head feedyard that includes a small ethanol plant. They depend on 30 employees to keep things running.
“When we first heard of COVID, we knew it would take awhile to get here, so we took a wait and see approach,” says Bryant. “We told employees to practice social distancing at home and to stay home if they were sick.”
It soon became obvious more extensive measures were needed.
Outside vendors are now kept to a minimum. Access to hand-washing stations and hand sanitizer has increased. Bilingual signage is plentiful and reminds staff to social distance, wash their hands frequently, and stay home if sick.
Facemasks were readily available before COVID for use in heavy dust situations. Bryant tapped a college friend 3-D printing plastic face shields to offer another line of protection.
Remodeling a 25-year-old scale house to install a bank-like walk-up window keeps truck drivers out of the scale house and reduces face-to-face contact.
Clayton Huseman, executive director of the Kansas Livestock Association’s Feedlot Division, says some have gone a step further, photographing the scale ticket and texting it to the driver. KLA held a panel format webinar with members to hear issues and possible solutions from producers and feedyards.
“We were able to help our members think through some things,” says Huseman. “But there is no one size fits all approach. It’s different for everyone.”
Reducing employee contact with each other is a key element. At Reeve Cattle Co. work is arranged so employees can “stick with their crew.” Large company-wide gatherings and meetings are a thing of the past. Some equipment has designated operators, so the same person is in the cab day after day.
Huseman says in other operations, staff who carpool are assigned to work together all day.
“It pays to know your employees,” says Huseman. “You know how they get to work, who rides with who. And you know who carries greater risk of exposure because they have a family member who is a nurse or who works in a packing plant.”
Knowing an employee’s personal living situation helps deal with the challenges of COVID in other ways as well. Bryant has been able to adjust employees’ work hours to accommodate their need to be home at certain hours for home schooling and childcare.
“Good employees aren’t that easy to come by,” says Huseman. “It’s important that they feel safe and confident in coming to work.”
Bringing in new employees brings a new set of issues. Where did they come from? Should they isolate for 14 days before beginning work?
“The guiding principal should be how to design the workplace so if one person tests positive, the rest will still be OK and able to continue working,” says Huseman.
Bryant says how to make changes to adapt is now front and center and a lot of time is spent talking about “what ifs.” “Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath, take things one day at a time, and plan as much as you can.”
He can see the virus taking its toll on employee morale. “It’s wearing on people. They’re edgy, and tired of being cooped up. That’s better now that it’s summer and people can be outside more, but people like routines, and it’s hard to adjust to a new norm.”
Follow the rules
Huseman says following guidance put out by federal and state health officials is crucial. Unlike the early days, when local health agencies stepped up to create protocols, sometimes with significant variance from county to county, both the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state agencies like the Kansas Department of Health and Environment provide easily accessible information and direction.
“There is now very clear guidance on how to treat essential employees, and ag workers are deemed essential employees,” says Huseman. He advises feedyards to create documents spelling out action for specific scenarios, according to the official recommendations. “Even if it is not needed, it helps give employees assurance.”
For Bryant, following the official directives makes his decisions simpler.
“It takes the emotion out of the decision making,” says Bryant. “We just do what it says we should do, and we know where to draw the line. That way we are treating everyone the same. The decision is not based on emotion. It’s out of our hands.”
Packing plant closures due to COVID outbreaks have wreaked havoc on the flow of cattle in and out of the feedyard.
But the food chain is not the only disruption. Bryant has a feed truck that was supposed to be delivered in April. He’s still waiting.
Parts for the ethanol plant are delayed, as is an expert to come in and diagnose the problem.
They stocked up on vet supplies and regularly needed medicines early on, so they can now maintain a 30-day supply in case availability lags.
Bryant says Reeve Cattle Co. is able to source enough corn locally to feed the cattle and the ethanol plant, eliminating a problem others may have.
It’s not all bad
There are advantages to the new COVID way of life. Old friends gather for virtual gatherings,
when before the virus they didn’t have the time to get together. Relatives check up on each other more frequently.
Bryant says he hasn’t had to attend a meeting in months, and he passed on a leadership development opportunity because spending time with his young family is more important.
“I used to drive 4 hours, sit through a 2 hour meeting, and drive 4 hours home,” he tells. “Now I just ZOOM from the office, then go home and spend more time with my wife and kids.”
Still, one of the advantages of working at Reeve Cattle Co. has been put on hold. “Our employees have access to beef through a local locker,” explains Bryant. “But, we can’t get booked into the locker until December.”