Colorado Feedlot Wage Survey 2009

Colorado Feedlot Wage Survey 2009

Gregorio Billikopf
University of California

What began as an effort to collect wage data from feedlots across the USA, soon turned into a Colorado Feedlot Wage Survey. No doubt feedlot producers are a fiercely independent lot and it took the efforts of Rachel Motteram, of the Colorado Livestock Association, to get the trust of a group of 20 Colorado producers to answer the questions. Two additional respondents, one from Oklahoma and one from Missouri, brought our total to twenty-two respondents. Despite the small numbers, the results are quite interesting and we thank each of the feedlot producers for their willingness to participate. The survey is based on a dairy wage survey I have been conducting since 2003. Additional questions were developed with the help of feedlot producers and Rachel Motteram.

Wages and hours worked

Feedlot employers were asked to select one cowboy or cowgirl and answer all of the questions with this individual in mind, based on wages paid and work done in April 2009. The cowboys had worked from 1 to 23 years at the feedlot (average was a bit over 6 years). Length of employment is normally important in making wage comparisons, as employees who have worked longer tend to climb higher up the rate range within their pay grade. There was no relationship, however, between length of employment in this sample, and wages. Some of the highest paying feedlots were paying $15 to $17/hour to their entry level cowboys yet in other operations employees of 10 and even 20 years were earning about $10/hour. The average pay was $12.63/hour.

Thirty-two percent (n = 7) of the feedlots had differential pay for more difficult shifts.

For the month of April 2009, cowboy earnings ranged from $1,600 to $3,500 (average was $2,569). In addition to their regular pay, 70% (n = 16) of the cowboys were eligible to earn a bonus or incentive. The bonuses or incentives actually earned in April ranged from $0 to $266 (average was $128). When we count only those who earned some incentive, the average was $158.

Vacation, insurance, retirement, housing and overtime

Vacation ranged from 0 to 27 days/year. Among those who received some vacation, the average was 15 days/year. Two cowboys received approximately half of their vacation as actual time off, and the other half as paid time in lieu of additional time off. Generally speaking, feedlot employers who were very generous with their vacation plan did not offer health insurance.

Seventy-seven percent (n = 17) of the feedlots provided some sort of health insurance for the cowboys (e.g., health, dental, eye). This insurance cost the feedlot from $50 to $1200/month (average was $445/month). Cowboys worked an average of 9.7 hours/day, and 6 days/week. Cowboys were generally paid on an hourly basis (68%, n = 15), while the rest were paid a salary. Retirement benefits were provided by 59% (n = 13) of the feedlot operations.  

Housing was a benefit obtained by 18% (n = 4) of the cowboys, either directly or in the form of a monthly housing allowance.

One Colorado respondent paid overtime. The question about overtime was overshadowed by doubts as to whether cattle feeders in Colorado are required to pay overtime. Feedlot managers are encouraged to consult their labor attorneys on this matter.

Unions, foreign workers and women

None of the feedlots were represented by unions. Feedlots averaged 5 cowboys working at any given time. Foreign-born cowboys averaged one per feedlot, while cowgirls averaged one per every two feedlots.

General feedlot statistics

The feedlot operations averaged 6,800 heads checked per day per cowboy. For most (64%, n = 14), this number had changed little from three years ago, while the remaining feedlots were about evenly divided between those who were checking more or fewer heads. The one time capacity was an average of 45,750 heads/feedlot. Pen checking time averaged 4.6 hours per cowboy (ranged from half an hour to 8 hours).

Horses were used by 86% (n = 19) of the feedlots. Of those who use horses, 58% (n = 11) require the cowboy provide his own mount while the rest (42%, n = 8) are flexible on this matter. Some cowboys were limited to 2 horses (42%, n = 8). Others had some limits, but could bring at least three mounts (47%, n = 9). Finally, a couple of feedlots had no limits (11%, n = 2).  

Quite a few cowboys (42%, n = 8), even those who provided their own horses, were tested or evaluated in terms of their riding abilities. This is an excellent practice in order to avoid future injury to riders. I recommend a multifaceted test including riding ability, working with cattle, handling horses, loading horses into trailers, and ability to groom and saddle. Most (68%, n = 13) cowboys were expected to provide their own saddle.

One question attempted to gauge if feedlots could tell the difference between those who wished to work versus play cowboy. Respondents generally attempted to either test applicants on their horsemanship and animal husbandry or asked open questions in interviews. Some tried references.

Labor supply and key labor issues

In terms of labor supply, 9% (n =2) found it much more difficult to find cowboys than three years ago; 36% (n = 8) more difficult; 18% (n = 4) the same; and 18% (n = 4) easier. An additional 18% (n = 4) had no need to hire new cowboys. Of those who found changes in their ability to hire cowboys, 93% (n = 13) felt these changes were externally caused; while one feedlot (7%) felt they had made changes in their operation that made it easier to recruit. This is a critical point in labor management. Some operators have found a combination of management practices that help them attract and retain good employees even while there are labor shortages. These include giving job sample (i.e., practical) tests to applicants to make sure the very best are hired, establishing a wage structure within which excellent employees can climb, creating effective incentive pay opportunities that benefit employee and farm operation, and supplying plenty of opportunities for open two-way communication, to name a few.

General labor related issues of concern, besides ability to find people, were: finding quality employees; managing compensation; safety; employee retention; housing; insurance; and agricultural working schedules.  

Gregorio Billikopf is a University of California Farm Advisor working on labor management issues since 1981. You may wish to download a complimentary copy of the book Labor Management in Agriculture: Cultivating Personnel Productivity as well as research and other papers from his Website at:


© University of California 2009
Permission to reproduce research paper is granted provided author and University affiliation are credited.

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Gregorio Billikopf
University of California Ag Extension
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6 November 2009