Driving over 1,800 miles roundtrip into Kansas to find out where their calves go, what happens to them and how they can make better management decisions on the farm was the goal of these Missouri Verified Beef producers and their veterinarians (pictured here at Pratt Feeders, Pratt, Kan.).
It was a shame the group didn't have time to see the World's Largest Hand-Dug Well in the small town of Greensburg, but what they did see while in western Kansas was undoubtedly more interesting and unquestionably more valuable.
In July, a group of Missouri cow-calf veterinarians and producers, led by Brad White, DVM, Perry County Veterinary Hospital, Perryville, Mo. (and more recently with Mississippi State University School of Veterinary Medicine), and Bob Larson, DVM, PhD, University of Missouri, traveled on a bus to western Kansas to tour feedlots where some of their calves in the Missouri Verified Beef program (MVB) are fed. Most of the group had never been to western Kansas or to a feedlot.
White, the organizer of the tour and originator of MVB (see sidebar), thought it was important that cow-calf producers and their veterinarians get a first-hand look at what happens to their calves when they reach the feedlot. "The goal is to improve the type of cattle that we produce for the MVB program, and to do that we have to have relationships with people on the feeding side of the industry," he explains. "We came out to learn and to find people with similar philosophies with whom we can feed our cattle."
The four-day, 1,800-mile trip, sponsored in part by Pfizer, Bayer and Intervet, included seven veterinarians and 26 producers who have calves in the MVB program. The group visited three feedlots and an Angus seedstock ranch.
Ultrasound was one of the technologies offered by Decatur County Feed Yard that was shown to the group.
The underlying purpose of the trip was education. "People in the beef business need to have a much better knowledge of the industry, whether it's western feedlot owners understanding Southeast calf production or Missouri calf producers understanding feedlots better," says Larson. "We all must have a better understanding of the beef industry throughout the country and throughout the chain from birth to harvest."
Steve Strubberg, DVM, Hermann Veterinary Clinic, Hermann, Mo., brought six of his clients on the trip. "The most important thing these producers saw is that there are differences between feedlots. When you've never seen one or maybe have had a relationship with only one, you assume they are all basically the same. Some suit our type of program better than others and that's something we need to realize."
Craig Payne, DVM, Sedalia Veterinary Center, Sedalia, Mo., doesn't yet have clients in the program, but he came on the trip to gather information so he can go back and introduce it to some of his clients. "The MVB program may not be for everyone, but I am searching for the producer who wants to take the marketing of his cattle to the next level the one who wants to improve and stand above the rest of the crowd."
Feedlots were eye-opening
Weren't you a little awed the first time you saw 40,000 head of cattle in one place? This group was no different. "I believe it's overwhelming for those producers and veterinarians who have never been to a feedlot to actually see 40,000 head of cattle standing in a confined area," notes Dan Goehl, DVM, Canton Veterinary Clinic, Canton, Mo. "I think it's humbling when you see that number of cattle and realize what your proportion of the market is." Goehl has about 15 producers in the program, and brought eight of them on the trip.
With cow-calf herd sizes ranging from 30 to 200+, seeing thousands of confined cattle and the intensive management
required to feed and keep them healthy reinforced why MVB producers need to send the healthiest calves they can for the best return on their retained-ownership investment. White explains that MVB calves currently are fed at about six different feedlots, and each load may have zero to 50 percent retained ownership.
The first stop for the group was Decatur County Feed Yard in Oberlin, Kan. Owner Warren Weibert met with them to explain Decatur's philosophy and management style, then the group toured the feedlot and got up close and personal to some of their own calves that were being fed there.
Henry Gardiner of Gardiner Angus Ranch describes his program to producers Mary Jo and Mike Jackson
Weibert and Dan Dorn, customer relations manager, began visiting with White over a year ago about the MVB program. "He and other veterinarians were working to find a better way to either sell their calves in groups or find a way to add value to their calves by retaining ownership," says Weibert. "It's amazing and heartening to see what they have done. They are on the forefront of this type of program, and so far we've had favorable close-outs with these cattle." Of interest to the group was the technology Decatur uses on cattle, such as video imaging frame sizes and carcass ultrasound. Decatur is able to give back data on cattle performance to White, who then analyzes it and shares it with veterinarians and producers in the MVB program.
The Decatur feedlot receives cattle from 23 states. Weibert says because they do not buy calves from salebarns, they had dealt mainly with large western ranchers and producers. "My frustration before this was that because of the way we operated, we couldn't tap into the large market of Missouri calves," says Weibert. "Because there are so many small producers in the United States, whether it's Missouri or elsewhere, combining similar groups of quality calves is a wonderful concept for our industry to improve the quality of the eating experience and the value and health of the animal."
Traveling south from Oberlin, the bus took the group to Ulysess, Kan., and a visit to Cactus Feeders" Ulysses feedlot. After a stop in the hills of Ashland at Gardiner Angus Ranch, it was on to Pratt, Kan., and Pratt Feeders. The one visit White had tentatively arranged, but the group was unable to tour, was a packing plant, but White says he'll try to arrange that the next time he organizes a tour.
Dennis Winters, a producer from New Haven, Mo., says because he had cattle at these feedlots, he was interested in comparing how the operations took care of the cattle, what the death loss and cost of gain was, and whether they sorted pens or sold them on the grid, etc. "I also want to determine if my cattle are the type of cattle that will work in each of these feedlots or if I need to change genetics or management programs. It was really nice to see the different feedlots and what they were doing." Winters has had about 150 calves go through the MVB program so far.
Weibert notes that until the producers saw the feedlot firsthand, what their veterinarians told them was more theory than reality. "But when they actually step on the feedlot, they can visualize, see and even smell what it is that we're trying to accomplish. Now the things their veterinarians have said are real."
Strubberg agrees and says one of the eye-opening concepts for the producers was that how calves are fed in the backgrounding phase affected quality grade. "I don't think many of them realized that that had such an influence, but it was an important point."
Payne adds that it's nice to get reassurance from the feedlots that the producers are doing the right things as far as how they are managing their calves before they come to the feedlot. "Hearing these feedlots say that the group is on the right track gives me the encouragement to go ahead and recommend this program to my clients."
With a lot of industry changes occuring, now is the time that producers need to look for ways to market their calves in the future and consider alliances, says Goehl. "It's better to be on the front end of change rather than the back end."
Information back to the ranch
Feedlots where MVB cattle are fed are selected, in part, for their ability to return data to the producers. If producers precondition, vaccinate and wean their calves, the feedlot gets a lot more benefit out of those animals, says White. Many of White's clients were preconditioning calves before joining the program, but they weren't getting information back. "So when we have a relationship with the feedlot, we can get carcass data back to the people who are making the breeding and management decisions. It's a win-win situation. One of the major problems with why the cattle industry is having trouble progressing genetically at a rapid rate is because we can't communicate between sectors."
Winters believes getting the carcass data back will help improve his cattle. "It makes you want to keep evaluating what direction you should take with your genetics and management practices, such as what time of year you want to calve and what markets you want to hit," he says. "The feedlots were open to us being there and learning about their management of cattle, as well as discussing with us the challenges they face."
Weibert agrees that information back to producers enables them to supply the type of cattle that do well in his feedlot. "Having veterinarians help the local producers wean their calves, take back the flow of information that we can generate here and have dialogue with our veterinarians to share what makes these calves perform will make more money for the producers."
White believes producers should understand what happens to their calves when they leave the farm. "In Missouri, we have a fairly limited perspective because there are stockers and backgrounders there but not many feedlots. It really brings it home when we find that our preconditioning program results in less feedlot morbidity and helps with performance through the feeding phase."
But data collected must be utilized, adds White. "We can recover feeding/carcass data, but if we don't use it for positive change, then it doesn't hold much value. With the amount of data now available, the challenge is turning the data into information that can be utilized and trends that can be analyzed." White gives the example of sorting a farm's performance data by sire. By doing this, he's been able to find $100/head difference in profitability between sires from the same farm and same cow base. "Performance history is inherently valuable, but to capture the value, producers should be given the information in a manner to induce positive change on-farm."
Producers precondition their calves according to the Missouri Veterinary Medical Association's Stocker-Feeder Program (Red Tag level). Through this program, producers are not tied to a specific brand of products but must meet a minimum set of criteria and have their veterinarian verify that each producer has been properly educated on the immunization process.
Same thing, different way
Not only were the feedlots an education, but so were the rolling plains of Kansas and how cow-calf producers in that part of the country are trying to do the same thing, on a different scale, than the Missouri producers. This summer has been a dry one in western Kansas like many parts of the Midwest, and cow-calf producers were struggling to feed cattle. "I don't think any of us have ever seen hay laying on the ground for two-and-a-half weeks because it's been too dry to bale it," notes Strubberg. "Waiting for moisture so you can bale hay is something new to us."
The scale of cow-calf production in a different location also puts things into perspective, adds Goehl. "It's interesting to see how these producers are doing the same thing as our producers, but out there it may be a stocking rate of 50 acres per cow versus our stocking rate of 2 acres per cow."
"We have a tendency to get set in our ways, but by getting out and experiencing how the rest of the world operates, we become better producers and veterinarians," says Payne. "Since our operations are generally smaller in the East, we sometimes feel that the methods used by western producers and veterinarians are not applicable to our situation. However, if you spend time with them, you will find out just the opposite."
Anytime you can see a different production system, whether they're at the same or different level than you are, you can take home ideas and practices to apply to your own operation, adds Strubberg. "Gaining knowledge and opening the lines of communication with these different people develops a symbolic vertical integration," he says. "You really need to understand different sectors of the business."
It's common for people in the business to break down the industry into segments cow-calf, stocker and feedlot. "Unfortunately, that gets us into the mindset that what we do in our segment stays there and doesn't affect anyone else," adds Payne. "But when you get an opportunity to get into the feedlots and talk to the managers, personnel and consultants, you begin to realize that what we are doing at the cow-calf level can have a significant impact, positive or negative, on the entire beef industry."
Bob Larson, DVM, PhD, says the role of the veterinarian as a highly trained biologist, expert in animal husbandry and beef industry leader is important for information integration.
Brad White, DVM, says the only way to accomplish a program like this is with a group of veterinarians with the same goals who are working together.
Producer Dennis Winters says talking to the various feedlots will help him evaluate his own management program and how his calves will fit into it.
Veterinarians are vital
One of the most important aspects of a trip like this was to show how critical veterinary involvement is. The veterinarians on the trip not only were seen as knowledgeable leaders to their clients, but they also got to know their clients on a different level (see sidebar). As the beef industry becomes more sophisticated and more technology- and data-driven, the role of the veterinarian as a highly trained biologist, expert in animal husbandry and leader in the beef industry becomes increasingly important for information integration, says Larson.
"Veterinarians in different segments of the beef industry need to know each other personally, know what each other dose, and develop these kinds of relationships to aid their respective clients," Larson adds. "Veterinarians are a small enough group of people that through our similar training and experiences, we're logical players in our local communities to be involved in programs like this."
There are several important areas for veterinary involvement in these types of programs, notes White. One is helping interpret information that comes back from feedlots. Others are nutrition management, health, preconditioning programs and genetic consultation on the ranch. "Interpretation of performance statistics is an opportunity for veterinary involvement because each veterinarian has knowledge about the farms he/she works with and can apply the information to provide meaningful advice."
Payne believes working through veterinarians can keep the program more organized. "The person who has the most contact within the producer community is the veterinarian. As long as the veterinarians are on the same page, you'll be able to produce more consistent results with a program like this."
If you're interested in getting clients into this type of program, White suggests not going it alone. "There's no way any one practicing veterinarian has the time to put something like this together. The only way we accomplished this is with a group of practicing veterinarians in the state who are working together. It's very similar to what the producers are doing on the cooperative side."
A trip like this for anyone who is serious in this business is invaluable, says feedlot owner Weibert. "We're in the same business, and it seems smart that we would try to work together to try to understand each other's business better and how we can both be more profitable. I'm impressed with the people of Missouri for doing this and this group in particular. They took a great idea and put it into action."
MVB program in a nutshell
The Missouri Verified Beef program was created by cow-calf producers in cooperation with local veterinarians throughout the state of Missouri.
The program goals are to:
Receive individual animal performance and carcass data on enrolled calves
Interpret this information to make decisions to improve farm profitability
Increase each participating farm's marketing powern Be paid for calves based on their value
Critical evaluation of data and reports provided to producers allow them to utilize the information collected. Marketing power is increased for each farm by pooling calves from multiple farms and marketing them in 50,000-pound lots.
Producer consignors wean their calves at home, then all calves are sent to one backgrounder. All calves must be immunized and verified by local veterinarians prior to commingling. Calves are backgrounded for 45-70 days, then marketed directly to a feedlot in uniform sale lots. All billing and payments are performed on an individual calf basis, therefore, each producer is compensated for the calves from his farm.
Consignors receive individual animal performance data and utilize information to make knowledgeable management and genetic decisions. An average profit of $40 per head has been attained compared to marketing calves through traditional methods prior to commingling.
MVB is unique because it has the infrastructure in place to take performance numbers and utilize them to influence farm profitability, says Brad White, DVM. "Through the system of veterinarians with inherent knowledge of farm structure and management systems, we can apply what we learn from performance data and tailor it to a specific farm's needs."
Producer trips lead to bonding with clients
Most food animal veterinarians know their clients well. They know their operations, animals, employees and families. Yet, they don't often get a chance just to sit and visit without one or the other keeping an eye on the clock.
A trip like the Missouri Verified Beef group took that involved veterinarians and their clients, however, was perfect for spending time with clients and getting to know their goals and objectives, and for the producers, getting some undivided attention from their veterinarians to answer questions.
"When we're on the farm, we're busy and they're busy and we don't have time to stay and visit about a lot of these things," says Brad White, DVM. "As a practice builder, this kind of bonding with your clients is one of the greatest things you can do."
"While on this four-day bus trip, practitioners are talking with their clients about heifer development, bull selection, breeding problems and solutions," says Bob Larson, DVM, PhD. "Strategies are being plotted and new services are being planned, because the veterinarians are spending time with their producers showing them that we are the information source and that we have a lot of knowledge and solutions for them."
Dan Goehl, DVM, thinks you can't underestimate importance of spending quality time with your producers. "On this trip we were actually funding and donating some of our time," he says. "We were able to spend quality time with our producers without ‘being on the clock." The time and financial commitment the producers made to be on this trip was a good investment as far as contacts in the industry and getting to know other producers in the MVB program."
Another benefit is helping clients realize not only the knowledge but also the connections you have. "The veterinarians are taking them places where they may not be able to go by themselves," adds White. "That's one of the big advantages to working with other veterinarians in the industry who can help you set up visits and make contacts."