Mountain Top Prices

Preconditioning Sales Bring a Bonus to Cattlemen

Blake Francis (left) and Jerry Roberts maximize the profit potential of their smaller herds, by being members of the Mountain Cattle Alliance. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Mike Boyatt)

North Carolina's mountain cattle producers have always been an independent bunch. But a new alliance is proving to them that producers who sell together make more money.

In a preconditioned sale this year, the Mountain Cattle Alliance (MCA) of western North Carolina sold several truckloads at historically high prices. Steers averaging 665 pounds earned $2.33 per pound, while those averaging 700 pounds brought $2.23 per pound. Those steers at 820 pounds brought $2.11 per pound. In comparison, 700-pound steers sold at the local sale barn the previous day earned an average $1.83 per pound -- $280 per head less. That's more than enough to warrant a little teamwork.

"Most of us don't have enough cattle to market truckloads," said 25-year-old MCA member Blake Francis, of Waynesville, N.C. "Now that we're commingling calves with our neighbors and selling truckloads, the results are eye-opening."

MCA started with just 15 members, including Blake, in 2010. Since then, the group has grown to include 50 producers across eight counties. In 2013, MCA marketed 24 truckloads of feeder calves valued at $1.75 million.


In some ways, adversity inspired the creation of the MCA. In 2004, the primary livestock market in Asheville, N.C., closed, leaving producers without a local sale barn. Cattlemen in the western part of the state were forced to haul calves to livestock markets in Tennessee or South Carolina. For many, the round-trips of more than 100 miles through mountain roads were expensive and stressful, both for the men and the animals.

Hauling cattle creates shrink, and shrink costs money in lost pounds. The amount varies, but on average young animals lose 3% to 6% of their body weight on a 100-plus-mile trip. On a 600-pound steer priced at $2.20 per pound, that pencils out to a loss of between $39.60 and $79.20. Throw in sheets of ice covering highways or blinding thunderstorms, and hauling cattle is no picnic. In addition to shrink and the stress of travel, Francis said it bothered him that his Beef Checkoff dollars were being collected in Tennessee or South Carolina instead of his home state.

So the MCA was born, and like most alliances, members developed a set of guidelines they agreed to meet for cattle sold through the organization. MCA calves are weaned, vaccinated and preconditioned for at least 45 days. Calves are vaccinated with the Zoetis SelectVac program. The cost of vaccines, dewormers and identification tags is approximately $8.66 per animal. All producers selling cattle in the alliance are Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) certified.

After a 7- to 10-day weaning period, calves gain 2 pounds per day on average during preconditioning. Daily feed costs average $1 per head (depending on each producer's ration), but a gain of 55 pounds during the preconditioning period is worth approximately $110.

Calves are filmed at their home farms, with these videos then used across the country by Southeast Livestock Exchange (SELEX) to market the animals. Buyers make their bids in a monthly SELEX tel-o-auction. Sellers pay a 2% sales commission.

MCA's largest sales are in the fall. Sellers bring their cattle to either the WNC Regional Livestock Center, at Canton, N.C., or the Rutherford County Livestock Center, near Rutherfordton, N.C. Here they are loaded for delivery to buyers.

"Instead of a six-hour round-trip to sell calves, our hauling trip now takes 15 minutes," Francis said.

Once delivered to the livestock center, loads are organized by uniform weight and sex classes of steers or heifers, although split loads are sometimes necessary. Consistency and quality are checked by North Carolina Extension livestock agents Ethan Henderson and Jeff Bradley. They visit farms in the MCA and verify the loads of cattle are as represented.

"Accountability is what builds a reputation in this kind of market system," Henderson stressed.

The level of success the MCA has brought to producers has encouraged them to invest in better genetics. Blake's father, Dennis Francis, became focused on more uniformity, for example. He began to use black SimAngus bulls, and now a larger percentage of his calves are black or black/white face. He's saving black replacement heifers, turning the herd into a more uniform group.

"The feedlot buyers want predominately black loads of calves," Blake Francis said. "If the other producers bring in 30 black calves out of 40 head to make a load, we don't want to bring in 20 black calves and 20 white or red calves."


Following the success of the MCA's marketing program, a second group of producers from four counties in the North Carolina foothills joined the alliance two years ago. They deliver calves to the Rutherford County Livestock Center. These cattle are also sold on SELEX.

In 2012, a handful of producers from this area sold three loads of cattle. By 2013, the foothills group had grown to 25 producers marketing 12 loads valued at nearly $850,000. These producers made an extra $99 to $249 per head, Rutherford County Extension agent Jeff Bradley explained. He compared the prices for the alliance sales with prices paid the same day at the nearest sale barn for animals of similar weights. He said cattle sold in MCA truckloads typically earn $10 to $25 per cwt more than the same-weight animals sold at local sale barns.


Knowing Mountain Cattle Alliance (MCA) calves are healthy and ready to gain weight in the feedlot are big reasons buyers pay top prices. Here's the MCA health program that comes with a price tag of approximately $8.66 per head:

-- Vaccination -- Bovi-Shield Gold One Shot ($3.24)

-- Vaccination -- UltraChoice 7-way blackleg ($.54)

-- Ralgro implant ($1.10)

-- Dectomax injectable dewormer ($1.65)

-- Booster -- Bovi-Shield Gold 5 ($1.10)

-- Booster -- UltraChoice 7-way blackleg ($.54)

-- Mountain Cattle Alliance tags ($.50)

For more information about the Mountain Cattle Alliance, visit