Your Feed Killed my Horse

Hang in the Pocket

            Nothing can ruin a great day in your Ag sales territory like a phone call from a customer telling you that they suspect your feed killed their livestock.  If you’re in the feed business for long enough, it’s going to happen.  Said another way – If you feed it, you will eventually be involved in “killing” it with your feed.  Well, hang in there and don’t despair.  You can handle it.  It’s going to take some discipline as these situations can get emotionally charged.  When I say hang in there, I mean that sincerely.  When coaching, I describe it like a quarterback hanging in the pocket.  There’s emotion, commotion and chaos going on all around you.  However, you need to be the one to remain calm and keep your head in the game as you look for answers and solutions to this situation.

Scene 1:  Dead Horse phone call

            “Greg, we had the vet out yesterday and she thinks Bailey died from bad feed” 

            “Wow, what makes her think it was the feed?”

            “Greg, she looked at everything and she examined Bailey before we buried her and the vet thinks it might have been due to bad feed”

            “I happen to be near your place, can I stop out and take a look?”

Scene 2:  Dead birds phone call

            “Greg, I got tumblers and star gazers on my hands and the chicks are dying on me since I switched to your feed.  I’ve sent samples off and there’s not enough vitamin E in the feed.  When can you be out here?  These chicks are worth a lot.  I can’t afford to be losing them like this.  I have customers expecting them in 3 months.  I’m not going to have enough if I don’t………”

            “I’m sorry.  What is a star gazer and a tumbler?”

            “When the birds get low on certain vitamins, they have brain development issues.  Some develop into tumblers.  They look down and tumble over, stand up and repeat the tumble, over and over until they can’t stand up anymore.  Star gazers do the opposite.  They look up, tumble backwards and stand back up again.”

You can stop laughing now as you try to imagine what this looks like.  Not funny at the time but now it kind of sounds amusing.  It was definitely a difficult time for the owner.  In the end, neither case was due to the feed.  Fortunately, these two owners were looking for the real reason their animals died.  After digging into the feed, the farm and the lab results, we found out what the problem was.  In the case of the horse, it had eaten some noxious weeds that grew on the property.  In the case of the birds, we were adding a vitamin/mineral pack that the customer provided to us.  She had it tested and there was an issue with the amount of Vitamin E in the pack.

When in emotionally charged cases like these,


  1. Remain Calm: Remember, you are the Fran Tarkenton, the Joe Montana, the Aaron Rogers (from last year) in this situation.  Keep your head in the game.  For us older folks, I could say that you are the Columbo in this situation – “One last question?”
  2. Ask a lot of questions:
    • Number of dead, sick, out of how many total animals? How old,
    • What pens or groups are dying, sick? Is it concentrated or isolated to one in particular?
    • What other feed, medication, supplements are being used at this time?
    • How much feed could they have consumed from the time feed was delivered? Was the feed mixed with other feed in the bin?
    • What are the symptoms, for how long has it been going on?
    • Is the vet involved? Is the vet posting some of the animals?  What other external testing is being done – university, etc.?
  3. Get on the farm and evaluate the situation:
    • Look at the general conditions of the pens, feed lot or pasture where the animals are at.
    • Look at any and all feed & water sources to include creeks, water tanks, pasture conditions, weeds that are prevalent, overhanging trees, on-farm hay and grain supplied.
  4. Take really good notes – these become part of your company records. Record the details from the first phone call all the way through the process.  Dig through the details.  Later on, these notes will help point the investigation many times in different directions.  Look over these notes frequently while trying to figure out what went on.  You will be surprised at the new questions and directions the notes will reveal
  5. Contact your internal people
    • Operations manager to verify formulas, mixer batching records, retained samples and follow regulatory process
    • Sales manager because they need to know before they find out from anyone else
    • Internal office staff – to find trucking records, load orders, verify delivery dates and what was hauled before this load of feed and what else was on the truck.
    • Technical Department – that might be your nutritionist, your staff veterinarian or whichever PhD is in your company to provide technical support on your products.
  6. Determine motive and intent – By this, I mean it’s important that you try to determine motive or intent. You are the sales person and are closest to the customer.  This is where your company needs you to step up and help make this determination.  What I mean is to determine if this customer is truly trying to solve the issue or are they just wanting a hand out/fix blame.  Often, a customer will see deep pockets and figure that this will be easy to make a claim.  Or, blaming the feed is an easier than trying to dig in and find the real reason.  Doing so, might put the blame back on their own management techniques.  It’s a judgement call, but if I suspect that this is just a money grab, then I’m going to throw the brakes on and change my approach.  I’m more inclined to jump in and work with an account that is trying to find out what happened, how to fix it and how to prevent it.  Then later on, we can talk about compensation if proven to be the feed.  If compensation is in the first several sentences of the phone call, pay close attention to the facts of what they are saying.


  1. Admit anything that is not true/accurate/proven – verify everything on your end and on the customer end. “We delivered your squirrel grower ration on Tuesday” “We shipped 4 tons of pellets on that load” are facts that I feel are open to sharing as they help you and the customer deal with the situation.  They would be open for sharing in any legal proceeding.  However, “We’ve had leftover feed caught in truck augers before and you never know”, “We’ve had problems with that pellet mill operator before, I’ll bet he made possum finisher instead of squirrel grower” are not fact nor do they help nor should you say or acknowledge them if said by the customer.
  2. Talk about it with anyone outside of your company and the customer – rumors will start to fly. Friends and peers of that customer will find out and may ask you or just spread the rumor.  It might even show up on social media or on local TV.  Ignore any of those discussions.  As much as you would like to set the record straight, don’t.  That’s for later and that’s probably for someone else in your company to do.  There’s plenty of horror stories out there of people who jumped on social media sites and started retaliating or commenting on their business.  Let the professionals do that.
  3. Make a federal case out of one dead pigeon: I’ve been on the receiving end from customers and from sales reps that are in a complete panic and want a CSI team on the farm with rubber gloves and a crime scene unit – all to understand why their pet sparrow has the sniffles. (That’s a bit of an exaggeration but you get the point).
  4. Ignore the situation and hope it goes away: This is the opposite of the last point.  Apply the correct amount of concern and due diligence based on the situation.  You get better at this as time goes on

Epilogue –  I have had initial calls on sick or dying horses, rabbits, chickens, pheasants, quail, a rare Russian crane, an elephant, goats and I’m sure there were others I can’t remember.

In all the years in the feed business, there were only several at most where we could definitely identify the issue as feed related.  These were handled above board and I feel good about how we handled them and so did our customers.  However, the vast majority ended up proving to be something else.  Such as:

– Stray voltage in the watering system causing animals to dehydrate.

– Medication reactions that caused animals to go off feed

– Spouse fed the horses a beef feed accidentally – bet that was a great family night around the dinner table.  “So, how was your day honey besides the fact that I poisoned your horse?”

– We simply stopped doing business with a customer because they said our feed tasted too salty.  No dead or sick animals, but if this was how they were going to operate and evaluate our feed, we really couldn’t afford to risk killing one of their rare birds for a buck a bag.  How many bags of feed would we have to sell to recover the cost of me flying to Kamchatka and collecting a rare bird egg, hatch it and deliver it to our customer?  We thanked them and gave them the phone number to our favorite competitor.

– Horses were eating either some noxious weeds or poisonous tree leaves on the farm.  The relief of not killing several expensive horses was wonderful to say the least.  It also did wonders for our reputation as rumors were starting to spread that we were the cause.  Blood and stomach content tests were critical in this case.

Good luck and remember that you can handle it.  Hang in the pocket like Big Ben from Pittsburgh does.  I know it helps that he’s 6’5” and 250 pounds.  But you’re going to be 6’5” and 250 pounds by separating fact from fiction, real from rumor and g___   from guessing. (I couldn’t think of a good “g” word but you get the point).

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