I never thought I would feed cattle, until I got to know more than a few cattle feeders. Some were all about buying low, selling high and they were happiest when they beat both their supplier and buyer.
But in the mid 1990s, more feeders made new commitments to customer service, reaching out into the country. They wanted “relationships” with producers.
That was the beginning of the end for the island mentality, and the start of win-win alliances between ranchers, feeders and packers. Trust usually grew where it was given a chance. The old idea of partnering was reborn in the common cause of improving cowherds so that future generations of cattle would have more potential to gain efficiently and earn higher quality grades without giving up yield.
I had to overcome the barrier of weaning at home or with local family and friends before taking the further leap to go 50/50 with a new friend in the feeding business in 1999. But I had only half a load and it was a good enough year for other farm income to defer some into 2000. We had a few health problems for the first several years, but less and less with experience and as the cattle got better.
Now, you can find custom feeders that will coordinate health programs and timing to care for calves weaned on their inbound trucks. Even early-weaned calves less than four months old get kindergarten-like care and go on to hit the profit and quality targets for everyone from gate to plate.
Still, most cow-calf producers don’t show much interest in their calves after weaning.If you care what happens to them, that’s good for the beef supply chain because it suggests you’re getting them ready with vaccinations and proper nutrition. You could take the next step and find out how to adjust selection and management to make your cattle worth more to you and others.
State breed associations and universities often host carcass value discovery projects that accept enrollments of as few as three head and provide feedlot and carcass data. They can give you an idea of herd performance over time, and perhaps confidence to take another step into finishing some at home or partnering on more of your calves at a custom feedlot.
Regardless of whether you feed a few or many in partnership, there are sometimes other options for carcass value discovery.
Researching service-oriented feedlots and vigorous communication before an auction or direct sale can land your calves in a pen where you’ll meet a new friend in the feeding business.
Don’t be afraid to follow up when you know where the calves went, and offer to pay the modest per-head fees that will return individual carcass data. Maybe your early discovery work shows you have much more selection and coordinated management to get right before taking a further step in feeding, but a 50/50 partnership makes sense for many producers.
I like that arrangement so much, I used to wonder why anyone would retain full ownership in the feedlot. Then I rode around with more than a few ranchers who have selection and management figured out to a higher level of confidence.
They’ve seen the reports that retained ownership has been profitable more than 85 percent of the time over the past two decades, but some of them figure it’s been profitable every year. That’s because their cattle are far above average. Average cattle are 35 percent to 45 percent Select at harvest, and that portion of the pen does not usually make money for anyone.
But cattlemen who have used data feedback not only to pick better bulls but to cull below-average cows rarely market any Select calves.
“I’m trying to make a living out here with this herd, and now that I have it producing the way I want it, I can’t afford to split the profits with anyone else,” an Oklahoma rancher explained this summer. It made me realize I had to take a few more steps to hit that level.
For now, I will keep retaining at least some interest in all steers and using the records to climb the profit ladder.