Tom Jones is constantly raising the bar — that's the kind of person he is and the kind of feedyard he manages.
In 1999, he and some investors bought a 28,000-head yard near Montezuma, Kan., and immediately began doing business as Hy-Plains Feedyard LLC. Two decades later he still makes his living at the business, even though it looks different today than it did then. It may look different next year, too, or even next month.
"We have cattle grading 100 percent choice and now we are working on prime, so what is the next demand driver going to be?" Jones asks. "We have to look to our new customers and they are looking for transparency, for wholesome food. They are looking for traceability, so those are some of the things I'm looking toward in the future."
His visionary attitude, and the actions to back it up, earned Hy-Plains Feedyard the 2019 Certified Angus Beef Progressive Partner Award during CAB's annual conference in September.
Coming off of a good year in 2014, the business was in a strong financial position. Having expanded twice before — first to 35,000, then to the current 50,000 head — Jones wasn't interested in building more pens or buying new feed trucks. Instead of traditional capital outlays, he decided to make a long-term, far-reaching investment.
In 2017, the company opened Hy-Plains Education and Research Center.
"We felt it was time. The industry has changed over the last seven years, the genetics have changed. Our ability to study cattle, collect data and see how that affects performance has changed," Jones says.
The center is part research, part demonstration facility, part communal office space, but all grounded in sharing knowledge and producing more of it. "If we can study our lessons, we can make a huge difference," he says.
Jones enjoys feeding cattle for commercial and registered Angus customers, because they're the ones who influence change in the industry.
On any given day, staff from ABS might use one office, while next door veterinary professionals from the Hays, Kan., based Veterinary Research and Consulting Services analyze data they've gathered at the yard.
"The facility, with the managers involved and Tom's visionary thinking and ability to think outside the box, allows us the avenue to try different things, different products and different management strategies to give us valid results that will help us make improvements all along the production chain," says Miles Theurer, research director for VRCS and Hy-Plains Feedyard.
They find new answers and externally share those answers with the industry.
"We do have a great story to tell, it's just hard to find the time to do it," Jones says.
So they make time.
"My biggest desire was to be able to bring in a busload of fourth graders and have them watch us process cattle," he says.
Jones hosts executives from McDonalds and Carls Jr. in the same location where 120 elementary students from neighboring schools come out for a field day. One day he's tackling global environmental challenges as a member of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and the next he's training college-age interns.
They all get the same version of Jones, someone who is focused, competitive and serious about providing the best care he can for the cattle in his yard.
But don't ask how many cattle his team can work in an hour.
"Processing cattle is not a timed event," Jones says definitively. "We spend time teaching stockmanship skills to our employees, and the cattle are not stressed. They are more comfortable so they perform better. We work them as quietly as possible."
It takes extra work and hours to collect data and do it right.
"These people we have on staff are very interested in making a difference," Jones says.
His push to get better is as much a part of how he was raised — and a reflection of the people who mentored him along the way — as they are a personal philosophy.
From his own dad, he learned hard work and getting by with less. As a cattle buyer for IBP (now Tyson) and then Hy-Plains Dressed Beef, Jones learned about business. Working for feeding pioneer Earl Brookover, first as a pen rider and then as a manager, Jones saw the importance of setting an example worth following.
"You have to own something in your life. It doesn't matter if you own the job where you are working or you buy land or own your business. Own what you do," he says.