Health and uniformity are both time-proven value drivers in the feeder calf market, simple and powerful as a trusty flyswatter. But they're as useless as flippers on a pig unless health can be verified and uniformity exists in load lots.
"We've always believed in the value of weaning and commingling (for uniformity). Now technology allows us to do that," says Ken Jordan of Jordan Cattle Auction (JCA), which includes markets in three Texas towns and a volume of 160,000-170,000 head each year. He's talking about the electronic eartags that will allow participants in JCA's first Premium Stocker and Feeder Sale (PSFS) this month at San Saba to sell and buy process-verified weaned and preconditioned calves assembled into uniform 50,000-lb. loads of cattle.
The unique bovine social security number in each tamper-proof electronic tag means that each calf can be identified and tracked individually through marketing, feeding and harvest. Information gathered along the way can be shared quickly and easily between each segment that owns the animal via the AgInfoLink system.
"Everyone in the chain can see exactly what happens to the cattle," explains Jordan. From the ranch, that means buyers will be able to see exactly what animal health product each calf received when and how. Health guidelines for PSFS cattle include strict weaning vaccinations, along with a minimum of 45 days weaning prior to the sale.
What's more, the feedlots, veterinarians and universities Jordan enlisted to devise the health protocol also specified animal health products that must be used.
More Consistency "The feeding industry has major problems with quality and consistency. The narrower the range of raw product going in, the narrower the consistency coming out," says Jordan.
Plus, he explains manufacturers of the animal health products used in the program are helping underwrite the cost of the electronic tags. Producers can buy tags in the PSFS program for a buck a head, less than half what the tags currently run in other systems.
Incidentally, tags are the only extra program cost; there is no enrollment fee or added commission.
Beyond the pasture, individual identification means feedlots and packers can share performance data with each other and with the producers of the cattle if they choose to.
"It's process verification," says Jordan. "If we can verify to buyers the cattle have received their vaccinations, it will help sell the program." As it is, he points out more buyers are already paying a premium for weaning and pre-conditioning. As an example, one set of calves following the PSFS health guidelines sold during a regular Jordan auction in August, bringing $6-10/cwt. over the market that day. "There is more demand for these kind of calves than there is supply today," says Jordan.
Of course, health comes at a price. Jordan estimates the cost of the PSFS health program is $5.50-6.50/head, plus the cost of managing calves through weaning, be it on pasture or with supplemental feed. But he explains 1.25-2.00 lbs. of gain per day during the weaning period should more than offset the cost.
"Overall, I think you need a minimum of $4/cwt. equivalent (including gain and less shrink) to get reimbursed for what you're investing in weaning," says Myron Mays of Mays Ranching Co. at Richland Springs, TX. His family began weaning calves in 1983 in the name of more market power. Depending on the rain, he's planning to wean another 150 head to send through the PSFS.
"The biggest advantage I can see is that I can get more for weaning because they will have some uniformity. They will be shaped and sorted," says Mays. In fact, he believes this is the only way producers can get paid for weaning if they don't have enough cattle to fill a load. It also helps larger producers who usually have weight stragglers top and bottom. That may be why Jordan already had 2,300 calves signed up for the program after the first meeting. Soon after, he had 4,500 consigned, and more folks wanting to send calves through the program.
Moving Toward Individual I.D. Besides health and uniform load lots Bob Tabb believes individual identification could become more attractive. He is general manager of Farwell Feeders at Farwell, TX, a 30,000-head yard that is part of AzTx Cattle Co. They've been offering customers electronic individual cattle identification for over a year.
"The thing that grabs your attention when you track cattle individually is the difference in performance of cattle that look pretty much the same. You can't tell by looking at them," says Tabb. As an example, he says in one pen of cattle some might gain 5 lbs. and some 2 lbs., but there is no way to know without individual performance.
Really, Mays says it all boils down to what buyers can't pay when they know nothing about the calves. He explains, "When cattle go through the chain, the dead ones, the sick ones, the economically unpredictable ones are figured into the price of all calves, and it comes back to haunt you."