What is it about?

Cattle feedyards are a common feature of the Great Plains. These animal feeding operations shape the region’s landscape, economy, and social fabric in significant ways and form an integral part of the American beef industry. Feedyard workers often perform dirty, dangerous, and demanding jobs involving cattle, horses, and machinery in challenging conditions with high risk of occupational injury. This article discusses the experiences and vulnerability of feedyard workers based on ethnographic research in Nebraska, along with the implications for the Great Plains. It also presents key insights and recommendations related to efforts to improve the safety and health of workers in the cattle feeding industry. Key insights: 1) Cattle feedyard workers experience difficult conditions and a variety of risks to their safety and health. Many of these workers are hardworking, gritty, and adapt to their often dirty, dangerous, and demanding jobs. 2) Feedyards currently implement limited and variable safety training, but workers, managers, and operators express a willingness and/or desire for new safety training materials and resources. 3) In the absence of robust safety training, some workers have self-organized systems for managing risk and fostering safety. 4) Some managers have also taken measures to reduce injuries and shape the culture of feedyards. 5) One of the key concerns of both managers and workers related to safety and health is a shortage of skilled local labor with agricultural backgrounds, experience, work ethic, and common sense. 6) Feedyards are seen by some workers as "the last place to be a cowboy" and, for some migrants, immigrants, and rural people, as the best place to improve their lives and the future for their families--at least momentarily.

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Why is it important?

This research offers insight into the perspectives, experiences, needs, and everyday situations of cattle feedyard workers in Nebraska. The findings suggest that understanding and addressing the vulnerability of feedyard workers— both immigrants and local rural folks—may be critical to improving safety, reducing costs, retaining labor, and bringing about cultural change. They also show that ongoing efforts to bring about change can help meet the needs of feedyard managers, address gaps in limited training, and improve the safety and health of workers. This deeper understanding of the lives and jobs of feedyard workers also helps to illuminate and raise important questions about rural life and change in the Great Plains. By exploring the motivations, stories, and struggles of feedyard workers, we gain valuable insight into the humans at the heart of our food system.


We are grateful for the opportunity to apply anthropological perspectives and an ethnographic approach to ongoing transdisciplinary team efforts to understand and improve the safety, health, and well-being of cattle feedyard workers. These efforts are important and urgently needed to shape the future of agriculture and rural life in the Great Plains. We also hope this research contributes to a better understanding and awareness of the humans behind the meat we eat.

Ryan Klataske
University of Nebraska Medical Center

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Cattle Feedyard Workers in Rural Nebraska: Safety, Health, and Precarity, Great Plains Research, September 2022, Project Muse,
DOI: 10.1353/gpr.2022.0013.
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