Peter Landskroener had a dilemma. His European beef customers demanded not only Non-Hormone Treated Cattle (NHTC) but exceptional high quality. Most of the year, the exporter could fill that order, but with many U.S. operations calving in the spring, he often came up short in March, April, May and June.
He didn't know it, but the answer to his challenge was just 60 miles south of his Atlanta, Georgia, office. Jim Ham, a Savannah, Georgia, cattleman was more than happy to enlighten him.
He heard Landskroener speak at an export conference in 2013 and came home and told his brother Phil he should get in touch with the exporter. Armed with a PowerPoint presentation and spreadsheets featuring years of carcass data, Phil and Jim set a meeting with the exporter. They invited others in their informal feeder calf network to join. The group's feeder, Bill Pellett, out of Atlantic, Iowa, flew in to vouch for the performance of the group's cattle. The following May, a Greater Omaha packer buyer came to Forsyth with Landskroener.
"The buyer said he didn't realize there were cattle like this down here," Phil Ham says. "He thought they were all culls with big ears."
BUILDING A FOUNDATION
In a meeting on Jim Ham's back porch, with a view of the cattle in question, each party outlined what they needed to make an export agreement work.
The Hams and James Vaughn, a producer who started the Iowa to Georgia connection for the group, were already Global Animal Partnership-certified (GAP). They sent a load of heifers to Pellett that July, which was processed and graded over 50% Prime.
"The people and cattle were in place," Phil says. "But, it took a year of a lot of work to get everyone ready for the IMI Global audit." IMI is a third-party verification service. One of its programs certifies NHTC cattle.
Wesley Ham, Phil's son, says by being certified and participating in this program, producers are rewarded twice -- first when they sell feeder calves to Pellett and again at harvest. There is a trial period to be part of the program. The first year, sales to Pellett only bring market price.
"Nobody knows for sure what your cattle are going to do until they take the hide off," Phil says. "At that point, premiums are based on health, docility and average daily gain." He adds, "Once you get cattle in, and they grade 40 to 50% Prime, and there is no sickness, your price goes up."
Contracts are negotiated yearly with Greater Omaha. Cattle that meet the specs, which include at least 80% Choice and no greater than 20% yield-grade 4s and 5s, bring another bonus.
Jordon Vaughn, James Vaughn's son, says, "The premiums are great. Even though the market fluctuates, it steadies it for us a little, and it feels more secure."
He adds getting carcass data back is one of the best parts of the program. Like the Hams, the Vaughns have both commercial Angus and a small registered herd. Jordan says carcass data helps them improve on what they're doing year to year. In March 2018, the Hams' closeout sheet was impressive. On 122 head, carcass weights averaged 880 pounds, with 65% Prime, 31% Certified Angus Beef and 5% Choice.
MORE THAN LUCK
While there was a bit of luck involved with Jim Ham's first encounter with Landskroener, the people and cattle were already in place to do the job.
James Vaughn and Pellett had met earlier when a group of Georgia cattlemen started sending a sample of their feeder calves to the Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity in Iowa in the early 1990s. When he began sending truckload lots to Pellett, he needed a few extra head and asked the Hams to join in. They saw the benefits of selling cattle to Pellett and started sending truckloads of their own. Other friends and neighbors joined in. One member of the original group, Jim Ham, didn't live to see the success of what he helped start. He was killed in a vehicle accident December 2016.
When it comes to working with the Georgia group, Pellett says they fit right in with what he calls his "people factor" for doing business. "I like to have four key things in a relationship. Those are trust, honesty with each other, integrity and communication. Those are there with this group," he says.
Jordan Vaughn agrees, "It is a very trusting relationship. I'm going to do my best to send calves to Bill that work for him. I'll take a little less money and send some calves to the sale barn if I don't feel they'll work for Bill. He pays us a little more because he knows we do that."
Landskroener has noticed. "There seems to be a real emotional connection. If it was just dollars and cents, I'm not sure it would work. But, everybody wants it to work, and they're making it work. It solved one of my problems, which was getting quality calves in the spring. It has been one of the nicest experiences of my career."
Landskroener adds between 2015 and now, the number of feeder calves going through the NHTC export program has doubled. "We have common goals," Pellett says. "And, the numbers and demand are there."
"It is a win-win situation," Phil Ham says.
His son Cody corrects him. "No, it is a win, win, win, win situation for us, for Bill Pellett, for Greater Omaha and for Peter."
It's a big job to see to it that 26 middle-Georgia farms, ranging from 32 cows to 600, meet their required audits to fulfill all Non-Hormone Treated Cattle (NHTC) standards. Add to that the coordination required to sort, load and ship uniform truckload lots, plus getting performance data from Iowa feedlots, harvest data from Greater Omaha and finally, harvest premiums back to the group's producers.
Doing it all takes a team. This one includes Phil Ham and sons, Cody and Wesley. Together, they are GA-IA LLC.
> AUDITING. First comes the auditing process. One member of the GA-IA team usually goes out the month before to make sure producers' records are in order prior to IMI Global's yearly audits. Producers document their feed and mineral source, furnish calving records and list details of their herd health program, including the vaccines used.
> TRANSPORT. After a mandatory preconditioning period of at least 45 days, Cody and Wesley schedule trucks, and tell producers when to bring calves to the sorting and loading facilities at Sleepy Creek Farms. The Hams usually ship 30 to 35 loads off their farm. If a producer has enough for his own truckload and adequate facilities, he may ship from his own farm.
> BACKGROUNDING. The Hams also do some custom backgrounding. If a producer brings 95 calves, and only 70 fit on the truck, they'll background the remaining 25 until there is room for them on a future truck. Normally, feeder Bill Pellett buys the calves when producers bring them in then pays the Hams for backgrounding.
> CONTRACT NEGOTIATIONS. Phil Ham negotiates the contract for harvest premiums with Greater Omaha each year. His first stop is Bill Pellett's feedlots. "The first thing I do is look at the health records," he says. To ensure Pellett doesn't have health worries with calves from the group, the Hams' veterinarian, Jeff Davis, works with Pellett's veterinarian to develop an autogenous vaccine for any infections. After feedlot stops, Phil turns his attention to Greater Omaha to make sure the Georgia group's producers are rewarded for their efforts.
> DISBURSEMENTS. When premium checks are issued, they go to GA-IA LLC, where the Hams' secretary immediately writes and mails checks to participating producers. "That throws us under the Packers and Stockyards Act," Phil says. "We're bonded and insured."
> CARCASS DATA. The packer sends the 15-digit electronic ID (EID) number for each animal harvested, and Phil matches it to the producer so he can pass along the carcass data.
> REVIEWS. "Once a year, Caitlin Jackson, our county agent, helps summarize the data, and we have a meeting to present it to the producers," Phil explains. "Greater Omaha sends us rib eyes from our cattle, and we cook them."
> PUBLIC RELATIONS. The Hams, along with Pellett, have made trips to Germany and China to meet with buyers and tell them firsthand the story of the middle-Georgia cattle producers. Pellett says, "Phil has the right touch. I don't think the program would be going without him."
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