Challenging the big boys


SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. – Alfalfa has long been a staple in livestock feeding plans, whether grazed or cut as hay and fed.

Now, a small feed mill north of Scottsbluff is taking alfalfa to new heights, with all-natural feeds and supplements for a variety of livestock.

“Alfalfa always has been historically a pretty important part of animal diets,” said Aaron Berger, extension educator and beef specialist with the University of Nebraska Extension Service in Kimball County. “The protein there for cattle and ruminants is readily available to be used and it has a nice mineral and vitamin package to it.”

And that’s what Eric McManaman has hung his hat on. Platte Valley Ag Products, which McManaman owns with his wife, Jackie, is using that historic feedstuff to challenge the big boys in livestock feeding from his small operation in the Nebraska Panhandle.

The mill on Sunflower Oil Road once belonged to David Hergert, one of five feed mills he owned in Nebraska and Colorado, McManaman said. He worked for Hergert and learned about the feed and livestock business, working his way up the ranks to be manager of Hergert’s feed operations and involved in the cattle operations as well, McManaman said

“We were exposed to some of the information (Hergert) had at the time,” McManaman said. “When we bought this place in 2010, I took the knowledge I got from him and put together some (feed formulations) I’d tried personally. 

“I knew there was a niche for alfalfa-based products,” he said. “No one was doing it.”

PVAP’s earliest, all-alfalfa pellets were, and remain, a hit with the sheep industry. Then, the company started working on additional ration formulations, adding different grains, then vitamin and mineral supplement packs to the mix.

Today, the company produces about 15 different products, ranging from straight pelletized alfalfa to a ration containing no alfalfa at all, McManaman said. But their biggest seller, particularly at this time of year, is their range cubes for grazing cattle which come in 20-percent and 30-percent protein varieties.

The primary selling point for PVAP’s feed is it’s all natural, McManaman said. It follows a growing trend over the past five years toward antibiotic-free meats.

“We don’t use any antibiotics in any of our products,” he said. “Don’t even have them on the premises.

“It’s getting to be a major emphasis within the consumer world,” McManaman said. “People don’t want meat that’s been exposed to antibiotics, hormones, that kind of thing.”

PVAP products instead get their nutritional kick from pre-biotic and pro-biotic yeast cultures, which provide much the same benefits in the animal’s digestive system as antibiotics, McManaman said.

“It’s kind of like people and a septic system,” he said. “You can go buy the treatment stuff they charge an arm and a leg for, but all it is, is a yeast culture. It just adds billions of little bugs down there to break up the solids.

“It’s the same thing with the rumen of a cow or a sheep,” McManaman said. “What we’re doing is adding more microbes (to the gut). It exponentially increases the number of little bugs and their digestive system is healthier.”

The company also prides itself on using as many locally-grown ingredients as possible, from corn to barley to the staple, alfalfa, all purchased in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming, within about 50 miles of the plant. A handful of the ingredients have to be trucked in from further away that aren’t grown locally, but PVAP always looks for the best, which puts them in direct contrast to some of the bigger livestock feed manufacturers in the country and the world.

Where the big boys may change the formulations in their rations based solely on the price of ingredients, always chasing the least-cost input, PVAP keeps their formulas consistent year round, McManaman said. That may mean they’re not always the cheapest feed on the market, but he believes they’re competitive.

The big companies “may not be using whatever is most beneficial to the animal, they’re using whatever is the least cost,” he said. “We stay with something we know works and use it year in, year out.

“They don’t like us, we’re a thorn in their side because they don’t have the customer service, one-on-one relationships we have,” McManaman said. “We’ve really created a niche on a couple of those angles.”

He knows how those big companies work. McManaman honed his chops, going from feed yard to feed yard, working for one of the big conglomerate animal health product manufacturers before they bought the mill and opened Platte Valley Ag Products. 

And, when they did open, one of the first things that happened was one of those big, mega-corporations coming to his office, telling McManaman he could work with them or they’d put him out of business.

“That blew up in their face,” he said. “It’s very rewarding to me that now, that same company came back just a month ago and said, ‘We want to work with you.’

“They didn’t say they were going to put us out of business,” McManaman said. “They said, ‘We’ve seen what you can do and we want to work with you.’ It’s gratifying to see that.”

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