Stocker operations are as diverse as the cattle grown and the people managing them. But all serve the common purpose of building beef more cost competitively while rationalizing spring-heavy calf supplies with year-round feeder cattle and fed beef demand.
It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that the stocker sector really serves as the supply fulcrum of beef production.
This essential component of the supply chain is often invisible, though.
One reason is because of how folks define it, as well as the fact that a cow-calf producer may be a stocker one-year—retaining calves to grow on grass—and not the next—opting to sell at weaning instead .
Another reason is that there are so few full-time stocker producers in the U.S. In fact, in the National Stocker Survey conducted b y BEEF magazine a few years back, only 17% were engaged exclusively in stockering and backgrounding cattle . Cow-calf operators who stocker and background their own calves, or purchase calves, comprised 65% of stocker producers.
Those are primary reasons BEEF established the National Stocker Award program nine years ago. We wanted to highlight the sector’s necessary role within the industry. We also wanted to recognize some of the stocker sector’s most effective practitioners for their efforts, while offering a platform for peers to learn more about how others add pounds for a profit.
The previous winners of the National Stocker Award – profiled below – ranged from smaller mom-and-pop home operations to massive multi-state ones. The eight winners to this point hail from seven different states.
All understand there is profit opportunity in adding pounds to calves while aggregating uniform marketing and feeding groups. They understand the unique advantages they have in accomplishing this. And, they each continue to look for ways to become even more efficient at what they do.
This year’s National Stocker Award is sponsored by Zoetis . The winner will receive $2,000 worth of Zoetis product, a cover story in the October issue of BEEF magazine, and $1,000 in travel expenses to accept the award at the National Cattle Industry Convention in San Antonio next February.
Who and how to nominate
You can nominate any U.S.-based stocker operator who derives a significant portion of their annual cattle income from their stocker enterprise. Or you can nominate yourself. To nominate a candidate for the BEEF National Stocker Award program sponsored by Zoetis, you’ll find an online entry and nomination information by clicking here.  Learn more about past winners by clicking on the short profiles below. Nominations close Sunday, June 15.
If you have questions, please contact Wes Ishmael at w[email protected] or by phone at 817-249-4545.
Previous winners of the National Stocker Award
Hughes Cattle Co., Bartlesville, OK
“Our emphasis has always been toward grass production which increases beef production," explained John Hughes of Bartlesville, OK.  He and his son Robert received the very first BEEF National Stocker Award.
It was a university program more than 50 years ago where John realized how much he could increase production by managing the brush.
"Not to eradicate the brush," explained John, "but to manage the brush, utilize stocking density and grazing strategies to increase production... Land has always been too expensive for ag to pay for it, but if you can increase the production per acre on existing land, it can change the economics."
Mercer Cattle Co., Richton, MS
“We look at maximizing profit per head rather than the number of head,” says Shawn Mercer of Mercer Cattle Co., Richton, MS. He is explaining the decision to maintain their operation at a size defined by thousands of head annually, rather than the tens of thousands run by operations that rely on the stocker business alone. “We can keep our costs and overhead low and turn more profit per animal rather than simply run more numbers.”
“We have control of the market one time, when we put out the orders for the calves; after that, we're a price taker,” Mercer says. In between, he believes management can best dilute the inherent risk.
Pendergrass Cattle Co., Charleston, AR
Though stocker cattle were always a focal point, John Frank Pendergrass of Pendergrass Cattle Co., Charleston, AR, began  growing the business in earnest when he took over management in 1972. A decade later — five years after son John Paul returned home — they built a starter yard in Charleston that's since served as the fulcrum of operation flexibility and growth.
“The starter yards give us the flexibility to run cattle on our own grass, on someone else's grass, on grain pasture, or to take them straight to the feedyard, so it's really the hitch pin of our whole operation,” John Paul says. In effect, it's also enabled them to run three sets of cattle on their own ground each year rather than one like they used to … “Not all of managing risk is managing price risk. Being able and prepared to move cattle into another production phase is part of it, too.”
Hollinger Cattle Co, Camden, AL
“It more effectively utilizes our labor, time and management, complementing our stocker business,” says Leo Hollinger, Jr. of Hollinger Cattle Co., C amden, AL. “You're doing the same thing with the same facilities; you're just working harder in the off-season.”
He’s describing his decision to diversify risk by weaning and preconditioning calves for others.
“This provided a way for us to take a limited amount of capital and make more money, or the same amount of money, as if we invested our money in two or three turns of buying and weaning 500-lb. cattle.”
Porter Cattle Co., Reading, KS
“If you would have told me three years ago that I’d be limit-feeding calves, I’d have said you were crazy,” says Rich Porter of Porter Cattle Co., Reading, KS. In basic terms, calves here are fed the amount they can eat in three hours.
“We hold calves to consuming no more than 2.2% of their body weight for the first 30 days,” explains one of the Porter crew. “It keeps them hungry and aggressive. If something isn’t feeling good, they’ll stand out. It makes our job pulling cattle easier and our health costs are way down.”
Bonds Ranch, Saginaw, TX
“This is the only legal business I know of where you can make the kind of return on money that we can,” says Pete Bonds of Bonds Ranch, based in Saginaw, TX.
Rather than profit per head, Bonds began focusing on return on equity a few years back and it made all the difference. At the time, he realized he wasn’t in the cattle business; he was in a business that involved cattle.
“With the cow business, the main goal oftentimes is the way of life rather than making money,” Bonds says. “If you’re turning out yearlings, you’re turning them out to make money. The stocker sector is a lot more business-minded. I don’t have to compete with people who aren’t in it to make money.”
Gracie Creek Ranch, Burwell, NE
“Our emphasis is on increasing the use of forage and decreasing the need for supplementation,” says Bob Price of Gracie Creek Ranch, Burwell, N E.
Rather than eyeball the grass and decide when to rotate cattle, Price’s rotation is based on a plan generated with software called The Grazing Manager. Instead of using animal units as the measuring stick, the software is based on grazing demand days, which adjusts for maintenance requirements of the animals based on body weight as well as the forage demand for desired gain.
Jay O’Brien. Amarillo, TX
For Jay O’Brien, stocker cattle continue to be a key answer to the question of improving the ranches in his care while cleaving a sustainable profit.
“That’s basically the mission statement for all of the ranches I manage: Care for the land and create a sustainable profit,” O’Brien explains.
“The opportunity is that you have a resource in forage that basically has no other beneficial use than turning it into beef. You can do that with stockers or with cows,” O’Brien reflects. “If you don’t put cattle on it, you don’t have a way to get paid anything for the grass.”
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