“I understand what has value to my customers and I make sure I have what they want,” says Rick Young, who owns and operates Young Cattle Company at Belmont, OH, with his wife, Jayne.
That’s a lesson Rick learned growing up in his dad’s stockyard business at Moundsville, WV.
That single statement also goes a long way in explaining how the Youngs — BEEF magazine’s 2014 National Stocker Award winner — have built a multifaceted backgrounding and stocker business in a part of the world where it was a novelty before 1995, when they moved here. The way they’ve grown supply and increased operational value serves as a learning model for others.
Growing the necessary supply
Consider the way that the Youngs fill the pipeline of cattle needed to straighten out on one end so that they can supply cattle to customers on the other end.
“There are a lot of older farm couples in the area who are retired. They’ve had cattle before and they’d like to run cattle on their grass for the summer, but they don’t want the hassle of straightening out calves,” Rick explains. “We buy groups of 4-weight and 5-weight cattle for them, start the calves and background them 45-60 days, and then sell them to these people. Then, in September or October, we buy them all back. That helps us keep our numbers up to have the supply of cattle we need to fill our orders.”
The bread and butter here is selling steers and heifers at 750-850 lbs. to Midwest feedlots.
So, the Youngs might place 20 head with one of these local growers, and 30 with another. But after they gather up all the calves to sell, they have uniform load lots. That means Rick’s stocker customers receive a load-lot premium for their calves.
“Besides delivering healthy cattle to these producers, we want the cattle to be docile and easy to handle,” Rick says. He calls buyers for the first couple of weeks after they receive cattle. If they run into any problems, he’ll go and help them.
Such trust has been established with these customers that Rick delivers the calves and sends them a bill — no conversations about the price. Come marketing time, he picks up the calves and sends a check — again, no conversations about price.
“Everyone has to be able to make money doing this or it doesn’t work,” Rick emphasizes. “I try to hold my margins down to where the cattle can work for the customer. Everyone has to be able to make something on the cattle.”
One way the Youngs reduce cost is by distributing products that they use themselves. For instance, they’re dealers for a high-energy supplement and an equipment line.
“I don’t make anything on it, but it saves me money and helps me build relationships,” Young says.
For their home place — around 2,800 acres of owned and leased land — the Youngs buy 6-weight and 7-weight cattle.
“We buy a lot of yearling groups — all one man’s cattle — but they might need a little more preconditioning,” Rick explains. “If someone wants them at the lighter weights, we sell them. If not, we’ll retain them until they weigh 750-850 lbs. We try to keep 1,200-1,500 head on hand here during the summer in order to fill customer orders.”
The Youngs also take cattle in on a gain basis. Think here in terms of someone wanting him to buy and straighten out 300 steers of a particular description, and put 200 lbs. on them before shipping. He’ll do some straight order-buying for clients, too.
“I try to stay away from high-risk calves, but sometimes you have to handle them because of numbers,” Rick explains.
If he buys calves in the country that would have gone through the auction barn, Young gives a commission to the sale barn. “When they hear of cattle becoming available, they’ll let me know first,” he says.
The high-risk calves go to a farm at Zanesville, OH, where Craig George manages them. George used to sell cattle to the Youngs.
“Craig starts them and backgrounds them, then turns them out until they’re ready to go to a feedlot, or they can come back to the home place and be grown to heavier weights,” Rick explains.
In all cases, wherever the cattle come from or where they’re grown, health is the hallmark criterion for the cattle that they market.
“I thrive on selling healthy cattle and being honest with people,” Rick says. “I don’t want there to be any surprises when the cattle I ship you are coming off the truck. I want you to know that they’re what I said they were.”
In fact, that’s one reason the Youngs liquidated their cowherd several years ago.
“We decided to sell our cows because calving in the spring overlapped with when I needed to background the calves we place for the summer,” Rick explains. “It was too hard to keep a handle on the health of the cattle we were backgrounding, plus calve out our own cows.”
Keep in mind, the labor here is Rick, Jayne and longtime employee Norman Wher.
Adding value to the ground
“I had a lot of ground leased in West Virginia, but it was spread out and hard to maintain,” Rick says of the decision to move to Ohio 19 years ago. “We wanted to move somewhere the ground was flatter and more productive, somewhere where there were more acres available.”
Rick and Jayne got married right out of high school. Plenty of their courtship was done on trips delivering cattle. Understand that Rick spent 38 years working for a power plant. His stocker and cow businesses weren’t part-time diversions, though.
“I took care of the backgrounding at night — that was the second shift,” Rick remembers. In between, Jayne and their two boys, Scott and Michael, handled what needed to be done. Rick would phone home often enough to fret and direct traffic that Jayne and the boys found it more productive to let the phone ring.
When Rick was ready to leave his job at the power plant, he says, “We came here and bought raw acres: no buildings, no fence and started from scratch.”
This isn’t just any ground, though. It was reclaimed from coal strip-mining in the 1970s. The way it worked in those days, coal companies would cut huge trenches, or strips, through the rolling hills to get at the coal, literally turning all of the ground upside-down in the process.
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When finished, Young explains, “They’d fill in the strips with the soil they’d removed and try to put back the topsoil as best they could.”
Some ground was reclaimed more efficiently than other ground, but none of it was what you would term ultra-productive. Obviously, the ground was cheaper for a reason.
Though some folks had tried to graze the land the Youngs had purchased, Rick explains, “It was bare, vacant land that was getting depleted of what productivity it had. We fenced off 2,500 acres [including leased ground] for grazing and started using bio-solids from surrounding municipalities."
Bio-solids used to be known as sewage sludge — the solids from sewage flowing through municipal treatment plants. This sludge is the nutrient-rich organic material left after treatment and tested every way from Sunday before proven safe for land application. Like strip-mining, many consider the process and product to be ugly.
“I had some reservations at first, until I talked to others who had used it and understood how much testing is done before and after application,” Rick says. His neighbors didn’t have an issue with it, either. It was activists who weren’t from the area who would show up in the beginning.
“We apply 240 tons of bio-solids daily two or three days each week during the summer,” Rick explains. “We went from having plain old fescue to where we now have seven different kinds of grass, including white clover, red clover, timothy and birdsfoot trefoil.”
Rather than reseed, the Youngs rely on clipping pastures and a meticulous and disciplined rotational grazing system using 57 paddocks.
“This year, the grass was so good that we cut and wrapped haylage from a lot of the pasture before we ever turned cattle out to graze,” Rick says. “We didn’t have to clip the grass, plus we got the extra hay.”
“It’s one of the most productive farms in the tri-state area, which includes Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania,” says Beverly Riddle. She first got acquainted with the Youngs as program administrator of the Belmont Soil and Water Conservation District.
In fact, Young Cattle Company was named the Region I Environmental Stewardship Award winner in 2009.
“We cleared a lot of ground and built a lot of fence when we came here, and we work hard at keeping it clean,” Rick says simply. That holds true for the ground they lease, too.
“We take care of it like it was our own,” Rick explains. “Our leased ground gets the same attention as our own property, and that has built relationships with our landlords.”
The same can be said for cattle producers in this region.
The Youngs have sponsored several opportunities for local producers to learn more about how they can add value to their calves. They’ve arranged for pharmaceutical representatives to provide training in Beef Quality Assurance, and hosted the Ohio State Cattlemen’s Association summer field day where Rick shared the family’s health protocols.
Taking care of relationships extends to the Youngs’ customers, of course.
“You’ve got to be fair with people,” Rick says. “If I can’t deal with someone on a handshake, then I don’t want to deal with them.”
And current customers are the top priority. “I could sell more cattle, but I’ve got to be able to fulfill orders to all of our current customers first,” Rick explains. “I call all of my customers first when we have cattle available. So, any expansion we do will be based on the needs of our current customers.”
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