Powder River:Leadership in Livestock Handling Equipment
Published on Mon, 04/06/2015 - 11:36am
Today as ranchers we enjoy the benefits of modern steel livestock handling equipment. Before the current century, you could most likely count the major developments in cattle handling on one hand. Arguably, the most significant of these developments occurred in the late 1930s. A welding shop owner in Baker, Oregon, produced the first commercial all-steel squeeze chute for cattle handling along with a line of gates and panels. Ranchers came flocking once they realized the advantages of these modular steel working systems over their traditional home-built and wooden counterparts. Aptly named for the Powder River that flows through Baker, the name stuck and that name would become synonymous with cattle handling and agriculture was born. Since that time Powder River livestock handling equipment has played a major role in the evolution of the equipment that we enjoy today in almost all cattle operations in North America and around the world.
The Early Years
In 1938, Al Crowson was running a welding shop in Baker, Oregon. With signs out front soliciting customers, he received a request for a steel cattle chute. This first chute sold for around $160. From there the chute business just kept growing. Word of mouth spread and soon they were building lines of gates, panels, tipping calf tables for branding, and water troughs. Anything was possible and requests kept flowing in. It didn’t take long before Powder River manufactured a full spectrum of livestock equipment. It was receiving requests from ranchers, commercial feedyards, and municipalities to construct rodeo grounds including grandstands.
In the 1950s the first requests from the U.S. Forest Service came in for cattle guards. Later the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) came looking for cattle guards and water troughs. Up to this time, all equipment was being painted with a brownish-red color.
With the orders for water troughs coming from the Forest Service and BLM, the request also came in to have them painted in green. Apparently the red paint stuck out too much on the landscape and made ideal shooting targets, an attribute not good for water troughs. Instead of utilizing two colors, the entire product line was switched away from red. The signature Powder River green was born, and that is what the new equipment still gets coated with today.
Powder River has always been on the edge of innovation. During these early years the company was also involved in running a welding school. As welding had taken a big leap with alloys and new stick welding products becoming available, Powder River was able cherry-pick the best welders for its production line. This tradition still continues today as Powder River utilizes the most recent and modern manufacturing practices.
In 1961 a site was purchased in Provo, Utah, and it became the primary manufacturing facility. During this time Powder River became a name recognized by the national cattle industry through its direct-mail marketing efforts and distributing its annual calendars to customers. At one time, Powder River actually had its own printing division with presses and mailing machines that produced its own literature and addressed mail pieces. Today Provo, Utah, remains the headquarters for Powder River and houses all the manufacturing and engineering activities. There is no printing press now, but tradition of investment in technology remains strong.
Powder River is known for building high-quality gates and panels. In working with the dealers that sell its products, Powder River has invested and developed a program called Powder River University. This gives retail employees and management of retail stores the opportunity to come and learn, not only about Powder River products but all cattle working equipment and the current trends in the industry. Powder River understands that, while some customers will always buy the low-priced, low-value products, if these retailers can explain the product benefits, customers will move toward the high-value products it produces.
Powder River produces a broad spectrum of products. It manufactures light-duty panels for small animals, including some dog kennels. It produces two lines of equine gates and panels called Powder Creek and Powder Mountain. In its offering for cattle-specific gates and panels it has the following (increasing in strength and durability): the 1600 series, the Rancher series, the Classic series, and the Super Classic line of products. The Classic gates and panels are known for their legendary strength and durability. This is due to using high-tensile steel in the rails and vertical stays, as well as a pentagonal shape in the rail. These design factors are not by chance and offer the toughest production panels in the market. These are the panels that helped make a name for Powder River in the market today.
Matt Johnson, Marketing Manager, recalls the following experience, “I had stopped by a ranch in Wyoming that also housed a historic site on it right off the highway. While visiting there I ribbed the owner about the non-Powder River panels in the parking area. He stood straight up and with pride declared, ‘well we do use them. We use them where it counts!’ He then took me over a rise and showed me the large penning area and working system he had there, all made of decades-old Powder River panels and gates.” Powder River believes in using the right products, ‘where it counts.’
The effort given to equipment quality is greatly apparent in the working system and chute categories. The safe and efficient design of equipment used for crowding and isolation is one of the top priorities at Powder River. “With current cattle trends, our interactions with cattle are increasingly becoming more invasive and more often. Modern engineering gives us some very helpful tools. In our office we can stress test a panel or even a squeeze chute before we lay down the first welds. We can take that data and test it in the field to verify our designs. The right steel in the right place is our focus, a better tub and alley way, panels that are tougher, chute designs that are robust mean the rancher can avoid harm’s way. . . . Who do we find working with us when we run cattle? It’s our family. It’s a grandson, a wife, a brother. Even if it was a neighbor, why would we compromise any bit of safety in our designs and our materials?” says Brian Manwaring, a Powder River Engineer.
Powder River has invested heavily in modern manufacturing technology. What used to be done with presses and shears left over from the war efforts of WW2, is now done with lasers, CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines, and robotics. What used to be painted by lowering an entire product into a 8,000-gallon dip-tank (green, of course) and letting it drip dry, is now painted by a state-of-the-art powder-coating process. Designs that used to be born in the welding shop are now drawn and stress-tested on computers first. Manufacturing advances like these allow for designs to improve in a rapid way. This is evidenced in the latest Powder River squeeze chute line the 2000 series. The linkages on the manual and hydraulic headgates, without modern process improvements, simply would not be feasible to manufacture and keep costs reasonable. These design advances benefit the entire product lines as designs are shared among components.
Providing Value to the Industry
The efforts to add value to the industry is apparent in all of the efforts of Powder River. The outside sales team is often busy making ranch calls to customers needing an extra hand in designing a corral system that will flow well, be cost effective, be safe, and just plain work for space allotted. This is a service that Powder River offers for free because they recognize the value it presents to the rancher. According to the customer service department at Powder River, “. . . it is not uncommon to get barely-legible hand drawings and turn them into an amazingly helpful computer-
drafted concept for the rancher who submitted them. Our drafting team has the experience to work out almost any problem in conceptual or existing working systems.”
Powder River is constantly involved in making an industry difference. In a recent study targeting ranchers across the USA, Powder River was recognized as the number one brand that met the respondents’ needs in the industry. Recently Powder River partnered with the National Cattlewomen’s organization in its efforts to increase new membership applications. It has donated time, equipment, and resources with many state cattlemen’s and cattlewomen’s organizations seeking to enhance their health and the health of the cattle industry.
Powder River takes pride in the fact that the only products it produces are for livestock handling. Powder River employs many ranchers, which it credits with helping it stay focused on the industry it serves. Dale Manwaring, General Manager, states, “We are not merely just a steel converter. We don’t have to answer to a steel mill forcing us to convert every bit of tube or sheet into a product. On a day-to-day basis, our brains and business acumen are dedicated to being the cattleman’s partner; our hearts are in this!”
Powder River has been doing it right for a long time. As a brand it celebrated 75 years in 2013. It has plans to be around for at least 75 more. It wants to hear more quotes like this long into the future. “One of my favorite parts about traveling around the country is that I get to meet people who have had our equipment in their family for generations. They talk about still using the gates they helped hang when they were a kid. It is not uncommon to have a squeeze chute or alley out there that is 40-plus years old. That’s pretty awesome, but really they should consider upgrading, we have better stuff now,” says Lamar Helm, the current Director of Sales, jokingly. Powder River equipment old and new can be found around the country. In recent ad campaigns they state, “America’s Ranches are our Showroom.” It is likely that the same thing will be true in another 75 years.