You've heard it until you can quote it in your sleep. Uniform truckload lots of feeder cattle bring more money than single head sales. The problem is it's hard to get to that truckload lot unless you have at least 200 mama cows and a fairly tight calving season.
Brian Beer believes smaller herd owners can still get top dollar by working together. For the past 17 years, the Clemson University (CU) area livestock and forages agent has helped producers in the Tri-County Cattlemen's Association put together and sell load lots of feeders. He and his father, Allen, sell their own feeder calves from their 65-head commercial cow herd through the group.
There is nothing simple or easy about this process, Beer cautioned. "But, when we start getting $25 a hundredweight more for the cattle we sell this way, people are willing to jump through hoops. Every time we add a vaccination to our protocol or add additional recordkeeping requirements, or increase the number of weaning days, we know it added time and expense. It's not an easy way to sell calves. So far, though, we're getting enough return to justify the investment."
Travis Mitchell agreed. He's another CU area livestock and forages agent with his own 150-cow herd. Even though he could conceivably squeeze out a truckload lot of steers, he goes in with others in the Saluda County Cattlemen's Association to build out uniform load lots.
"What I've done for the last five years is take my very best then commingle them with another producer's cattle to help me make up the balance," Mitchell said. He has a 65-day calving season, but even with that small age spread, he can have a 250-pound difference between calves in a load.
"Now, we can make a uniform load of steers all within 75 to 100 pounds of each other. That's very attractive to a buyer," he said.
SALE BARN TO THE PRESENT
Both the Tri-County Cattlemen's Association sale and the Saluda County Cattlemen's Association sale evolved from commingling the calves from all the participating producers at a sale barn, then individually weighing and sorting them into load lots.
Producers in both groups were already gravitating toward value-added programs like Global Animal Partnership (GAP) certifications, age and source verification, all natural and Non-Hormone Treated Cattle (NHTC) programs. They were already preconditioning calves. But, buyers were concerned about the toll time at the sale barn might be taking on the health of the animals.
"It didn't make sense to bring over a thousand head of cattle into one facility and commingle them on the hottest day of the year," Mitchell said. "Some of those calves would arrive at 7 a.m. and didn't get weighed until 3 or 4 p.m. Our producers were giving up a lot on shrink. We decided to make the move and start making as many loads as we could straight off the farms."
Calves are sold through video auction. Beer said both groups of sellers have been using Mid-Atlantic Cattle Sales (MACS) for the last four years because the group was marketing the greatest volume of those program types of cattle and had buyers. The auction group is based in North Carolina.
PLANS FOR SHIPPING DAY
Before calves ever set foot in a pen on load-out day, a lot of brain work takes place. Mitchell, who started his Extension job in 2013, is thankful for the time he spent with stockyard personnel sorting cattle from different farms into uniform truckload lots.
"By 2018 or 2019, when we switched over to MACS and sorting and shipping off the farm, we knew our producers' cattle and where they fit," he said. "It would have been much more difficult to go out on these farms individually and make loads with multiple producers from scratch."
Both Mitchell and Beer start with a sheet of notebook paper and individual weaning weights from the cattle. Then, they go to spreadsheets and start juggling numbers on the computer. Some of their larger producers are comfortable making their own loads. Besides number and weights, producer facilities, or lack thereof, can be a challenge, especially with smaller producers. MACS representative David Landreth said at this point, most participating producers have the needed facilities.
"If they don't, they usually have a neighbor who lets them borrow or rent their pens," he noted. Some of the producers have even gone together and bought load bars and indicators they can slip in their chutes to weigh calves, although most aren't legal for trade. Beer and Mitchell also bring scales, if needed, and Landreth has a set of portable scales that are sale-legal.
The Saluda County Cattlemen's Association has also invested in a covered facility with pens where 4-H and FFA shows take place, as well as the group's replacement heifer sale.
"We loaded three loads out of it this year," Landreth said. "The other cattle that use that facility are all vaccinated, so health problems and sickness aren't as big a concern."
For cattle that aren't commingled until the day they're loaded, Landreth said buyers request producers give them an intranasal vaccine for respiratory illnesses four to five days before they're shipped. "That way, the vaccine reaches its peak level when the cattle arrive at the feedyard or receiving facility," he explained.
The strategy appears to be working. "I loaded a truck with cattle from five different producers. All gave the intranasal vaccine. The cattle were hauled 1,400 miles, from South Carolina to Nebraska, and the buyer didn't treat a calf."
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