Learning From the Best…

Author’s note: In The Meat Racket, Chris Leonard argued that the cattle industry was quickly becoming “chickenized” with a vertically integrated business system.  I believe that this is inaccurate.  The next group of posts will explain how cattle are marketed throughout their life-cycle with their beef eventually ending up on your dinner table!

CAB steer picture

The majority of cattle in the United States are marketed (sold) multiple times during their lives.  They begin their life-cycle on a cow/calf ranch where they spend 6-18 months.  About 1/3 of all heifer calves born each year in the United States remain on the home ranch to become mama cows and are not sold with the remainder of the calf crop.  Depending on the size and diversity of resources on the home ranch, the remaining calves can be sold at a variety of times throughout the year.

  • Some calves are sold at 6-8 months of age right after being weaned from the mama cow.
  • Some calves are weaned on the home ranch and either graze grass or are fed a supplemental diet of corn products and forage until they are sold at 10-12 months of age.
  • Some calves are weaned and remain on the ranch receiving supplemental feed and grazing grass pastures until approximately 18 months of age when they are sold to a feed yard.
  • A very small percentage of calves are kept approximately 24 months of age and harvested as grass fed beef.

    A bovine's life begin on a ranch...

    A bovine’s life begin on a ranch…

Depending on the age of the animal at the time of sale, it may be purchased by another ranch to continue its growth on grass/wheat/a variety of forage pastures or transported to a feed yard like mine.  Cattle can be sold at a Livestock Market Auction or through a private treaty deal direct to a purchaser.

More than ¾ of the cattle at my feed yard ship directly from the home ranch in a private treaty arrangement.  Over the years, I have learned to be my own cattle buyer as I searched for ways to improve the quality and efficiency of my farm.  I like to establish relationships and do business with the same ranchers year after year.  Together we can share animal performance and health information, limit stress (improve welfare) for our animals, and collaborate to ensure continual improvement in the beef that we grow.

Cattle gathered in corrals ready to ship from the home ranch to my feed yard...

8 month old cattle gathered in corrals ready to ship from the home ranch to my feed yard…

I learned how to be a cattle buyer from a gentleman named Willard Wilson.  I met Willard shortly after I went to work at the feed yard because he worked as a cattle buyer for my father-in-law.  Willard is a man of tremendous integrity and introduced me to the concept of doing business with the bond of a handshake.

Willard with my favorite teenager a few years before she grew to be several inches taller than her Mama!

Willard with my favorite teenager who is now several inches taller than her Mama!

Willard mentored me for almost five years before I began to act as my own cattle buyer looking for native Nebraska cattle to purchase from ranches that were closer to my farm.  While I lack Willard’s naturally outgoing personality and people savvy, I have been successful in slowly building up a group of ranchers who want to work with me tracing their animals from birth to harvest.

With each handshake deal that purchases cattle to ship to my farm, I smile as I think of Willard and his natural ability to bring people together for a common goal.  My goal of collaboration with ranchers in procuring cattle for my feed yard started with this savvy retired Wyoming state senator who introduced me to the art of cattle buying.

The combination of private treaty sales and Livestock Market Auctions provides a vibrant market for these feeder cattle as they are sold off of the home ranch to another farm in the journey of beef production.

Cattle buying is an important component as we put together the pieces of the puzzle in raising high quality and great tasting beef.

2 Comments

Filed under A Farmer's View on Foodie Thoughts..., General

2 responses to “Learning From the Best…

  1. Cattle buying truly is an art, and a science. I learned it from the side of grading fat cattle for Stockyard / Auction market reports here in the East and did that for many years as editor of the Livestock Reporter. Like you, I learned from an old timer who patiently answered my questions and told me what to look for, while also doing carcass correlations to test those skills. As I view it, the concern I hear expressed is more about vertical integration in the beef industry arising from the side of reduced competition in buying the fed cattle from feedlots due to beef processor consolidation. When I used to do weekly market reports in the 90’s, it seemed that “captive supply” could manipulate markets — but only to a point. There is still a strong foundation of competition to set a baseline for the pricing grids each day. Plus, as you mention in working with cow/calf ranchers to place cattle on feed, the follow through or traceback helps communicate good information back to the breeding decisions to produce high quality beef that is a uniform and consistent product. Somewhere in all of this there is the need to preserve market competition without interfering in the farmers’ and ranchers’ ability to engage in free enterprise and to work with strategic alliances to better their product and their connection to their consumers. As a feedlot operator, how do you feel about the selling side? I would love to visit your feedlot and do a story when I’m out that way this spring!

    • I love this statement that you made: “Somewhere in all of this there is the need to preserve market competition without interfering in the farmers’ and ranchers’ ability to engage in free enterprise and to work with strategic alliances to better their product and their connection to their consumers.” Yes Yes Yes!

      I am planning to move to the selling side next and hope to answer your question in that blog post. I wanted to start with the “feeder cattle” and cow/calf side so that readers could get the picture of how the entire beef industry works. The cattle life cycle (as you know) is long and fairly complicated related to other protein sources.

      I would love to host you for a visit so please let me know when you head west! Thanks so much for reading and commenting — I agree so much with what you stated in your comment.

      I look forwarding to meeting you.
      Best,
      Anne

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