Bringing top dollar: Panel reveals tips to garner more value for calves

Cattle buyers, a salebarn owner and a feed company owner—each have their own thoughts on what makes the best kind of cattle to go on to the feedyard and eventually be on consumers’ plates. A few of them opened up during the Bringing Top Dollar panel at the Cattle U event Aug. 1 at the United Wireless Arena in Dodge City, Kansas. High Plains Journal sponsored the event.

Included on the Bringing Top Dollar panel was Jay Nordhausen of Ogallala Livestock in Ogallala, Nebraska; Delbert Waggoner of Primetime Livestock Video Auction and Joplin Regional Sale; Brian Winter of Winter Livestock, Dodge City, Kansas; and Dusty Turner, Edmond, Oklahoma, of Master Hand Milling, Lexington, Nebraska.

Nordhausen has been around Ogallala Livestock nearly his entire life. He judged livestock at Colby Community College and the University of Nebraska, where he also coached. By chance, things lined up and he made his way back to Ogallala. Ogallala Livestock, Nordahusen said, sells about 180,000 head each year. They also utilize a video auction to sell cattle. In addition, they have a small feedlot, stocker cattle and a cow-calf operation.

Waggoner, who hails from northwest Arkansas, followed the cattle to western Kansas, and eventually landed in Ashland, Kansas. He works for Prime Time Livestock Video, a division of Joplin Regional Stockyards. Waggoner has been in the cattle marketing business for the last 25 years and has learned by doing. Joplin has their regular Monday sale and a once-a-month video sale on Prime Time.

“All of you know the video market has kind of taken a new step here,” Waggoner said. “It gives the producer an option of when and how to market their cattle.”

Winter literally has the sale barn business in his blood. He currently operates Winter Livestock, with barns in Dodge City and Pratt, Kansas; La Junta, Colorado; and Riverton, Wyoming.

“I like the fact that you can really smell them, see them (the cattle),” Winter said of the live auction. “And these guys know, same cattle, different programs, makes a lot of difference. But when they go to the feed yard and go to perform, and one thing with the video that you see is it’s a reputation deal.”

The final panelist, Dusty Turner, grew up in the Oklahoma panhandle and lived in southwest Kansas for a number of years. He recently moved to Edmond, Oklahoma, with his family. Turner is now COO for Conestoga Energy, with locations in Garden City and Liberal, Kansas, and Levelland, Texas. He also owns Master Hand Milling, a DDG feed mill in Lexington, Nebraska.

When to start?

First question posed to the panel was should calves be pre-weaned or marketed directly off the cow?

Waggoner said he personally believes it depends on the operation, but in the end it does pay producers to do so.

“If you’ve got the facilities and the place then, yes, wean your calves,” he said. “But if you’re like me, and you’re running on leased pastures that don’t have a set of pens, much less facilities (it’s more difficult).”

Turner agrees. His pellet plant is in the Sand Hills of Nebraska and not a lot of places have facilities to wean in. Another reason, they’re fearful of how the calves are going to handle it.

“I’m a big fan of nutrition,” Turner said. “If you get those cattle to eat and you can prevent a lot of shots.”

If a producer is able to get calves nutritionally sound after weaning—whether it takes a week, 45 days or somewhere in between—it helps. Many have gone to a Value Added Calf program or VAC 45. Calves are vaccinated at branding or 2 to 4 weeks prior weaning and given a booster at weaning or at weaning and booster to label instructions. Calves must be home raised and weaned a minimum of 45 days prior to delivery.

“One of the key things is having a nutrition program that goes along with these weaning programs,” Turner said. “Most everybody’s focused on these VAC 45. I think now producers need to really be focused on the nutritional side of weaning as much as the vaccination.” 

Options available

Winter said one of the beautiful things about a cow-calf operator is the options they have available to them. If they have a good vet at their disposal, they can get ahead of the curve with vaccinations and nutrition. A producer who’s prepared has the option to sell off the cow or to wean them and put them out on wheat pasture or in a pen and then sell.

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“That’s what gives you the option and then you’re not behind the curve fighting the health,” Winter said. “But if you are prepared, and you get yourself ready to do something, then you have the options to evaluate.”

Winter has watched producers who are going to do the same thing they’ve always done or do what their dad did, or there’s those who are innovators, but in the end, a producer has to know what their options are.

“So you might not have the wheat pasture, you might be forced into doing something that you weren’t planning on,” he said. “But if you’ve done the preparation of nutrition and vaccinations and visited with your marketing help, it gets you that far ahead of the next guy.”

Rugged territory

Nordhausen has more of a northern perspective, he said. The winter was rough. Calving season was rough.

“I’m a huge believer in disciplined marketing,” Nordhausen said. “Being disciplined in what your program is.”

It’s been tough for a lot of the calves with the weather challenges, and with a year like this, Nordhausen sees it as a time to really promote health protocols.

“Last year talking to buyers, there’s been some that had some health problems on bawling calves right off the cow last year,” Nordhausen said. “You start talking over 5% death loss that sticks in the guy’s head for quite a while.”

In Nordhausen’s area last year, the cow-calf program was exceptional.

“It met and exceeded our expectations on what those calves were off the cow,” he said. “It didn’t really pay to wean for us last year, until we got into the new year.”

In his area, typically the first big run of weaned calves comes in November and December, with the last week of November being the most popular. It “doesn’t pay” when producers get into December and calves are hard weaned and just getting hay and cake.

“They’re very sought after and then you get into January, it gets even better,” Nordhausen said.

There are things producers need to tackle—like having a marketing program and repeatedly producing the best calves for buyers.

“Be disciplined in what you do,” Nordhausen said. “Having a marketing program is essential. That’s going to pay dividends for you.”

Stay with your plan

But trying to outsmart the market is not wise.

“Usually, when you try and out smart the market, the market is gonna bite you,” Nordhausen said. “It’ll just get you if you’re changing every year trying to be on top of it. More likely, it’ll probably get you and that’s just the nature of the beast.”

The next question was about vaccinations and protocols.

Typically winter sees a couple of things regarding vaccinations.

“The industry standard’s the VAC 45,” Winter said. “You’re going to give them two rounds. Sometimes they’ll give them a third after they wean. That depends on your program, obviously. But if you can, get a first and second round.”

Nordhausen agrees—two rounds of vaccines and precondition calves. When buyers want calves, they expect that type of calf to be there consistently.

“For us, we probably sell them just spring shot calves in line with the precondition calves,” he said. “Those same buyers aren’t probably going to be there the next year. So us as marketers are going out trying to solicit new takers for those calves, and the rope gets pretty tight and it gets pretty short. It will catch up with you sooner rather than later.”

Winter said feed yard guys and wheat pasture guys are two different people. If a buyer for feed yard cattle likes what he’s buying, “he’ll just call more trucks.” While the wheat pasture guy is limited to what he can buy. That buyer is going to look and compare programs and evaluate weaning statuses.

“He’s gonna buy the best available genetics, vaccination program in everything that fits his deal, and then he’s done,” Winter said. “So why not try and be in that list? Get on the top of his list and help yourself, is my perspective on that.”

Fewer groups today

Waggoner said he’s trying to market cattle to a smaller group of people now. There’s just not as many players as there once was—25 or 30 years ago.

“You’ve taken out little farmer feeders that used to sit at local barns, and absolutely make your market that day. We’re dealing now with corporate,” he said. “You got to be able to backup your product, and then we can sell those cattle.”

Waggoner said cattle now need to be managed appropriately and taken care of accordingly to get top dollar.

“But if you’re taking your time and got a good program that gives us guys in this marketing deal something to work with. We can go to these guys and say, hey, these are good cattle, and they will be here every year,” he said.

What about implants?

Turner believes cattlemen have discussed the use and importance of implants for years, but he thinks if they implant too aggressively, it’s a waste if the nutrition is not there.

“So when you go to implant—it’s all about making money, right? At the end of the day, that’s what we’re talking about is how do we improve our bottom line?” Turner said. “What you’ve got to do is you’ve got to base your entire program on a consistent basis every year.”

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].