In the cattle business as elsewhere, the old adage is true: Size matters.
The big boys of beef — those who can fill a tractor-trailer load of steers ready for market — get top dollar for their sale. The rest… well, they settle for less.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. For the past four decades, tucked away among the rolling pastures of clustered around Chester County, a group of South Carolina cattle producers has beaten the odds. Their secret? Cooperation.
“This year is the 40th consecutive year producers in the Tri-County Cattle Marketing Cooperative have sold truckload lots of quality feeder calves as a group effort to increase their profits,” said Clemson Extension agent Brian Beer in Lancaster County.
“We actually still have a farmer selling calves today who placed cattle on the first load in 1977,” Beer said. “When new cattle producers join now, they can see a long record of others who’ve built their business with this marketing approach.”
Most big cattle buyers seek out large cow-calf operators. However, roughly two-thirds of American cattle producers — and likely even more in the southeastern states where smaller farms are more prevalent — don’t have large enough herds to market calves in a truckload lot.
Pooling their cattle allows the members of the Tri-County Cattle Marketing Cooperative, which now reaches well beyond its original three counties, not only to fill full trailer loads at a time but also to supply beef cattle of uniform age, size and weight. That’s enticing to buyers and helps boost prices.
“Our producers are seeing prices an average of 10 to 12 cents per pound higher on these load lots than they would see if they sold their calves themselves,” Beer said. “On a 700-pound calf, that’s $70 to $80 a head. That’s a pretty good incentive for smaller operations to work together.”
The cooperative was born of necessity, the old-timers say. Beef markets can be finicky about breeds, and buyers in the 1970s were offering lower prices on some of cattle that performed best on South Carolina pastures.
“(Former county Extension agent) Robert Vaughn started it. He was getting good Santa Gertrudis bulls in here, but the markets didn’t like the breed much back then. So they needed a special way to sell it,” said Rusty Thompson, also a former county agent and now a cattleman himself.
“It wasn’t only a hassle to sell them but also a big financial responsibility, so they decided on an established marketing group to handle the financial end,” Thomson said.
“Robert Vaughn could see 40 years ago that truckload lots were going to be the future of the business,” said Allen Beer, a lifetime cattleman who joined the original co-op in 1977 and is Extension agent Brian Beer’s dad. “We were just looking for ways to increase the value of our herds. It lead not only to cooperative marketing, but cooperative purchasing. So by working together we’re able to make bulk purchases of supplies to save us money as well.
“For those in our area it has meant a significant increase in people’s income,” he said. “It wasn’t something you had to beat people over the head for to get them to sign up.”
The elder Beer partnered with another local cattleman so the two could put together a full trailer load of cattle with very similar traits.
“That’s what the market is looking for,” he said. “We have similar breeding programs. We buy similar bulls. We have similar management practices. Over time we’ve established a reputation with cattle buyers that we couldn’t have done without cooperative marketing.”
By 1989, the cooperative put together a retained ownership program that allows cattle producers to receive feedback on important carcass data — such as grade, rate of gain and marbling — that they can use to improve the quality of future calves.
Also in the ’80s, they began marketing “preconditioned” loads rather than just recently weaned calves. Preconditioning prepares calves to enter feedlots not only by weaning them from their mothers, but by introducing them to dry feeds and putting them through a health program of different vaccinations. The goal is to enhance the calves’ immune systems and minimizing stress when they are sold to feedlots.
“We sold for years green — straight off the cow — until preconditioning started in 1984,” Thomson recalled. “It’s more effort for the cattleman, that’s for sure. It’s much easier to get cattlemen to fill a load of freshly weaned calves than to manage preconditioning. But a uniform trailer load of preconditioned calves will bring you a premium.”
The idea caught on. When Thomson retired from Clemson Extension, he said, “the marketing co-op’s spreadsheet covered Brian Beer’s floor.” In 2017, the co-op’s 40th anniversary, 19 cattlemen were contributing to the effort. They hail not only from its original tri-county area, but from farms stretching from Plum Branch near the Georgia state line all the way up to North Carolina.
Cattle marketing cooperative - Thomson and Beer
It was the first year for local cattleman Paul Kicidis, who switched from raising horses to cattle in 1995. “Everybody said I’ll make more money in the co-op,” Kicidis said. “I figured I’d give it a shot.”
That’s been the story since the co-op began, Thomson said. “It really hasn’t changed much over the years,” he said. “Cattle producers have always had to adapt as the beef industry has changed. When they find something that works, they’ll stick with it.”
For Allen Beer, whatever the future of cattle marketing holds, he believes cooperation will remain the key.
“We have the kind of cooperative spirit where we can sit down and talk about our differences and work things out,” he said. “That’s helped us provide a very consistent and predictable level of quality that buyers like. Some of the same buyers come back to us year after year because they know what to expect.
“It makes us better able to handle changes, too,” Beer said. “I think production changes will probably be more of an issue than marketing changes in the future. When you look at the progress that’s been made in cattle production just in the last 15 to 20 years, it’s amazing. As a group, if we keep working together, we’ll be able to adapt.”