The cattle manager for Simplot’s massive feedlot in Idaho enjoys the cows, horses and fast pace of her job.
Mud, manure, pipe fences and thousands of cows fill Shawna Mahon’s world.
At age 19, she began working for a Caldwell, Idaho, feedlot owned by the large agribusiness corporation Simplot. Three months later, the Caldwell location was closed, so Shawna transferred to the company’s 150,000-cow-capacity feedlot in Grand View, where she was placed in a supervisory role. After working horseback for 12 years, she was promoted to cattle manager three years ago, a position that oversees processing, doctoring and the cowboy crew, which includes 16 pen riders.
Although Shawna was raised on cow-calf ranches in Nevada and Oregon, she prefers working for a full-scale feedlot operation.
THE SMELL doesn’t really bother me. Some people think, “Ew, the feedlot!” My mom was a brand inspector, and my dad ran large ranches. So I grew up with a respect for the feedlot.
MY INTENT was to come here just for the winter to learn about sick cattle and better myself. I grew up on outside, cow-calf kinds of places. But doors opened up for me here. At times I have gone and helped people outside, but I actually like the fast pace of a feedlot.
BECAUSE OF THE VOLUME of cattle we have, things are done pretty quick. But we handle cattle right. We don’t mash and crash. That’s a big thing to me—the way you handle cattle.
MY MOM LIVED in Nevada, and my dad lived in Oregon. We basically lived in a cow camp setting. They were supportive of me taking this job.
WHEN I TRANSFERRED to Grand View, I got a promotion. I was 19, and they put me in charge of weighing and shipping fat cattle. At that point, we shipped 12,000 head a week—all at night. That was a big adjustment. There were a couple of cowboys under me, bringing cattle to the scale. Sometimes we’d load 30 to 50 trucks in a night.
I REMEMBER the conversation with the feedlot manager at Caldwell. I thought they just wanted me to come to Grand View to push cattle on the scales and load trucks. But what they meant was for me to do the weighing, the counting, figuring the loads, ordering the trucks. I was like, “You think I can do that?” And he said, “Just kick the door when you walk in. Go in with that attitude.”
I THINK THERE WERE some people that were skeptical in the beginning. But if you show up and do your job, keep things straight, you gain people’s respect. I’ve had the opportunity to work for some pretty amazing managers. I’ve just tried to be like them.
I’VE BEEN ACCUSED of being married to this job. And it’s true. It has to be. I work most every holiday. Things never shut down; it’s 365 days a year. It never ends.
DAD ALWAYS TOLD ME if you work hard, everything else will work out for you. And in the end, it has.
I TRY TO GIVE everybody a chance to do the right thing. If they don’t, then you get somebody in here that will. There’s been a couple instances where I had to fire somebody that I would consider my friend. That’s a little more difficult. But still, at the end of the day, what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong.
THE REAL GOOD pen riders will spot a sick cow early. And that’s what we want. You’ve got to catch them the minute they’re starting to feel sick in order to get the medicine in them.
A LOT OF TIMES pen riders are by themselves, and they have to be able to sort a sick one out. Pretty much all day sorting cattle, moving, sorting. Lots of sorting cattle. So you make a good horse quick.
WE HAVE AN ARENA at the feedlot, so I team rope here quite a bit for fun. I don’t have a lot of extra time. Most of the time I spend after work is taking care of my own cows.
MY MOM BOUGHT WILFORD for me when I was 9. He was a nice bridle horse, and he was good to rope with and brand with. He came out of Jordan Valley. After I learned on him, he trained a bunch of other kids, too. He died a few years ago. He was named after Wilford Brimley; he was an easy-keeper.
I LOVE TO DO ANYTHING from a horse when you’re handling cattle. That’s my deal. I’ve never been one to go for a trail ride. I’ve got to have something to do with a cow.
EVEN WITH ALL the technology and research that we do, we still have to have the cowboy to go get the cattle and do the job. When it comes to sorting fat cattle or looking for sick cattle, there’s nothing like the cowboy’s eye. You can’t depend on the computer. It’s a good tool, but you have to have human eyes.
This article was originally published in the April 2013 issue of Western Horseman.