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Dollars For Pennies

Data, no matter the volume, can't make you a better manager. Distilled with common sense, though, enough of the right kinds of data can serve up more opportunity to manage more effectively. That's especially true in the stocker industry, where speculation and tradition usually win because industry-wide data is tougher to come by than a Hillary Clinton bumper sticker at a cattlemen's convention. Spun

Data, no matter the volume, can't make you a better manager. Distilled with common sense, though, enough of the right kinds of data can serve up more opportunity to manage more effectively.

That's especially true in the stocker industry, where speculation and tradition usually win because industry-wide data is tougher to come by than a Hillary Clinton bumper sticker at a cattlemen's convention.

Spun differently, Ryan Staerkel of Staerkel Veterinary Services, Enid, OK, knows from his own experiences, “Our perceptions in this business are usually wrong.”

How could it be otherwise?

Pulling up some random groups of stocker cattle in the CattleData database (more later), per-head average profits by group (150 days), adjusted for selling at similar weights and time, range from a positive $79/head to a negative $47/head. That's the variation across six loads.

Pull up another handful of stockers, based on state of origin and the group pull-rate ranges from 8% to 69%, with first-treatment success on those same calves running from 47% to 95%; second treatment success 64% to 100%; and mortality ranging from zero to 6%.

Bottom line, if you think you're treating more cattle this year than last, or a particular product or health management strategy is more effective on a particular class of cattle, Staerkel cautions it's easy to mislead yourself without data.

Data and standardization

This belief, coupled with the over-treatment of stocker cattle Staerkel encountered when he returned to Enid to practice five years ago, is at the heart of CattleData. CattleData is a unique stocker cattle information and management system Staerkel developed with the help of information technology friend Chris Blanton of Blanton IT, Enid.

For perspective, this part of the world is sprawling, intensive wheat pasture country, meaning there's plenty of opportunity for stocker wrecks. As the new veterinarian in the county, Staerkel was often the first one called to fix things when the wreck had grown beyond intervention. Invariably, Staerkel found part of the problem was an overuse of antibiotics and the lack of a management relationship between the stocker operator and the veterinarian.

As for pharmaceutical overuse, Staerkel explains the cost in most instances was excessive because treatment had begun too late, the wrong product had been used at the wrong time, or the stocker operator had refused to raise the white flag on a calf when the number of treatments had already grown past any hope for a reasonable loss.

As for the stocker-veterinarian relationship, it was fractured at best. Stocker operators in the area were most likely to call on a veterinarian only to write scripts or to try to fix the unfixable.

Long story short, Staerkel convinced a handful of stockers that he could shave $8-$15/head off their average health costs by following a standardized health management protocol, and limiting treatments to three per animal. More importantly, he wanted to ID cattle individually, record weights and treatments, and then pool the data anonymously for benchmarking and analysis.

“In the stocker industry, we will always manage cattle coming in as a group,” Staerkel says. “But the way we manage the group changes based on the individual performance information. Plus, with ID and individual data, the opportunity exists to segregate individuals into separate management populations.”

While many stocker operators have recorded data on the cattle they manage — some have an extensive hard copy or electronic database — CattleData gives stockers the opportunity for comparative analysis and benchmarking.

Slashing health costs

The results of this approach were immediate and amazing.

Mark and Anna Irwin, CattleData clients at Enid, figure the system has enabled them to slash as much as half the cost of health management from stocker cattle, compared to how they were managing before. Mark grew up in the stocker business. He was more likely to sort through health strategies on his own and with family, rather than consult with a veterinarian. Only reluctantly did he give the new system a chance, based on the potential health savings.

“If you can manage the health, you can manage the weight, and that's where the money is,” Anna says. “The beauty of this (CattleData) is that we can tweak something small and make a huge economic difference… It gives you the ability to control the things that can be controlled. Before this, we could lose 10 head in a group and could never tell why.”

Again, data has replaced speculation. “We realized the more data we could get, the more we could help our clients,” says Alan Chastain, a veterinarian at Washington, OK, who began utilizing CattleData for his stocker clients. As he and Staerkel share veterinary expertise back and forth they've established a stocker consulting group of sorts.

“Ryan has trained us up to realize there are a lot more factors to account for than price,” Anna says.

Before using CattleData, she says purchase decisions, as with many stockers, was driven by price. Now, with the data and knowledge they've acquired, the Irwins base procurement decisions on price, relative to pneumonia probability. While they still purchase stockers year-round, this approach means they've found cycles based on time, weather and distance that offer more opportunity to buy lower risk calves.

“Since I've gotten involved with clients, when you get one thing nailed down, you start looking at other ways to help them,” Staerkel says. And, those clients start finding other ways for you to help them.

The nutrition side

As an example, seeing how much difference standardized health made in their operations, along with the power of data-based management decisions, Staerkel's clients got to wondering about the nutrition side of the equation. Working with a nutritionist, he and Chastain developed a supplement that shaved $70/ton off the average cost of what his clients were spending. The secret in this case was removing magnesium from the ration for much of the year. They also developed a standardized starter ration — based on the lowest cost available by-products — which trims feed costs more.

With the help of Blanton and data management expert Brody Schmidt, the two veterinarians recently launched an interactive platform for CattleData. It automates data collection, transfer and analysis, replacing the index cards and spreadsheets CattleData clients were using to record and transfer data.

Before, Chastain explains, the electronic CattleData format basically aggregated key performance data points for analysis and provided clients a history of performance and health management for each individual. With CattleData, among other things, clients will be able to utilize system-wide benchmark analysis on the fly, record health management graphically and transfer information more quickly and easily. Ultimately, the platform may also incorporate weather patterns and provide an ongoing barometer of the breakeven probability for individuals and groups.

“This wouldn't have been possible even two years ago because a lot of the technology driving this platform has just now become available,” Schmidt says.

Blanton says the industry-standard, non-proprietary components used in developing the platform means they'll be able to easily modify the system to fit the industry's changing needs.

Though some are surprised to hear it, Staerkel points out CattleData clients would rather use a computer these days than a pencil and paper.

The next point of attack, based on client requests, will be adding data management and standardization to procurement and then eventually to marketing.

None of this is to say every stocker operator in America is ready for such a system. For one thing, you have to be willing to share information, something some folks are reluctant to do. For another, you have to relinquish some management control, agreeing to standardized protocols.

Perhaps most daunting for some, you have to be ready to see the performance and profit facts in black and white and be prepared to accept some of your perceptions as being dead wrong. And, while clients are finding the returns outweigh the costs, there's a per-head fee for the consulting service.

“It's working for us, so we're more than willing to make changes,” Anna says.

Knowledge begets knowledge

Woven throughout the opportunities in key management areas, CattleData clients are uncovering a host of other insights that are adding to the economic efficiency of their operations. For instance, the data makes it possible for them to figure out how much more they could justify paying for top-end, preconditioned video calves vs. what Staerkel terms “opportunity cattle.”

Likewise, clients have documented performance data for buyers, including substantiation of health value. Staerkel says they're finding the truth to the results of a trial conducted by Elanco several years ago in which 100% of the stocker cattle that got sick ended up getting sick later in life; 100% of the stockers that were healthy and untreated never got sick in the next production phases.

Staerkel and Chastain are also tinkering with a pull-index of sorts, based on 10-day weight gain in tandem with rectal temperature. Made possible by the data, they believe this index can help them further reduce re-treatment cost.

More generally, Anna says the process and the data have underscored the holistic nature of stocker management; that you can't really separate health management from nutrition.

“It's a tight-margin business, and you have to have every aspect of the operation running the best it can,” Staerkel says.

For more information about CattleData visit or call 580/242-4499.