HERMISTON - Sam and Toni Rudnick run a small full-service custom feedlot near Hermiston, and they couldn't be happier.
"I like the challenge. Every day is like being in the big game, and at the end of the day to have survived is really rewarding," Sam Rudnick said.
At Reata Ranches the Rudnicks can background calves and prepare them to go to grass, grow calves to feeder weight and merchandize them for customers or finish cattle and sell them in the spring.
"There are options. That's what we can do for our customers," Sam Rudnick said.
Rudnick grew up in the business, riding pens and doctoring cattle at family operations in California, Arizona, and Nevada. After marrying Toni he managed an 18,000 head feedlot until the young couple set out on their own.
"We've been in the cattle and sheep business ever since," Sam Rudnick said.
The Rudnicks moved to Walla Walla and managed cattle in Texas and California for 10 years before they bought the set of pens on 130 acres near Hermiston and developed their custom business.
"I got a feed truck for my birthday that year," Toni Rudnick said.
Reata Ranches feeds between 5,000 and 8,000 cattle at a time. The Rudnicks background a number of calves coming out of California and buy some cattle for themselves. In February 2009 they owned 30 percent of their inventory.
While being a smaller, family-owned operation has its problems, the Rudnicks find their size gives them a competitive advantage in some areas.
"Because we're small and don't have to carry million-dollar feed inventories, we can source our feed at a better value than many of the big yards," Sam Rudnick said.
To insure they have feed available for thousands of cattle, the bigger yards purchase large amounts of feed at harvest to see them through the year.
"We traditionally buy our inventories when the market are low, and then adjust our rations," Sam Rudnick said. "A lot of the commodities we use, there isn't enough available to supply the bigger yards."
"It's economics of scale in reverse," Toni Rudnick said.
For instance, with alfalfa prices high this year, Reata Ranches is feeding wheat straw with dry distillers grain. The Rudnicks also make silage from the corn they grow on part of their acreage, fertilized with manure from the feedlot.
"The big yards might be more efficient with big crews and large-scale purchases, but we can be more flexible and adjust for our customers a little faster," Sam Rudnick said.
The Rudnicks have invested in new technologies to improve their operation. Computers handle the feed mixing and their feed truck carries a computer that monitors and reports exactly how much feed goes into each feed bunk.
Toni takes care of inventory control, keeping track of the cattle and the feeds. "It's all about who's where and who used what," she said.
"Another thing about being a small yard is that we see those cattle individually every day. Our people are cross-trained, they are cowboys and feed truck drivers, so if our cowboys are sick we've got two feed truck drivers who know how to doctor sick cattle. Plus, I sort all the fat cattle myself," Sam Rudnick said.
Reata Ranches charges customers for feed and for yardage - a set fee per head for the care and maintenance of the animals.
"Our customers are chaRged only what the feed costs, and that depends on the program and the consumption of the animals. We run a transparent company. Our customers can see what we pay for our feed," Sam Rudnick said.
Every business has its challenges, and cattle feeding is no exception. The biggest problem the Rudnicks face is retaining skilled employees. They generally hire unskilled labor and provide on-the-job training.
Sam Rudnick looks pretty happy when he heads out to tour the cattle pens.
"Because we are owner-operators, win, lose or draw, it's our baby," he said.