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 cautions. "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 adds 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 agrees. 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 says. 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 says.
FROM 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 says. "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 says 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 says. "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 says 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 notes. 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 says. "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 says 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 explains. 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."
The People Side of Success for Commingled Cattle Sales:
As complicated as it can be to match up cattle from different producers into truckload lots, Clint Berry says the cattle are usually the easy part.
1. TEAM APPROACH. "It is less about the cattle than the people," says the Texas-based Superior Livestock Auction representative. "Without a team approach, it will fail. These are no longer your cattle, they're the group's cattle." He adds, "You can change a vaccination or weaning program fairly quickly. You can even change the genetics in a few years, but you can't change a person's attitude if they aren't willing."
2. LASTING PARTNERSHIPS. This is not a quick-and-easy undertaking. "You have to form a long-term partnership to market cattle that are consistent and uniform in type, kind and management," Berry explains. He adds genetics fall under type and kind, while value-added programs come under the management.
3. BLACK HIDES. Color, quality and age really do count. "The higher percentage of black-hided cattle you have on the load, the better off you're going to be pricewise," says Clemson University (CU) area livestock and forages agent Brian Beer. "As far as genetic potential, it is really important on these Global Animal Partnership (GAP) cattle. They are going to a premium market, and if you have ignored the carcass characteristics in your bull selection, the buyers of your cattle are probably not going to be very happy." Mid-Atlantic Cattle Sales representative David Landreth adds the age of the cattle is also part of the uniformity equation. Some of the value-added programs require the cattle be processed by the time they're 30 months old. He says, "A 14-month-old calf isn't going to marble like a 22-month-old one."
4. GO WITH THE BASICS. "Start simple," says CU area livestock and forages agent Travis Mitchell. "If you've historically weaned your cattle on the trailer on the way to the stockyard, start by vaccinating calves while they're still on the cow. That's for your protection, because the next step is weaning your calves, and those vaccinations will decrease your risk of a respiratory outbreak." Once you're comfortable weaning and preconditioning your cattle for at least 45 days, preferably 60, then you can start looking at value-added programs and commingling with other producers to form truckload lots. He adds, "Do what you say you're going to do. You're transitioning to selling cattle based on your farm's reputation."
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