After a conversation with Wally Olson about buying and backgrounding cattle, I was asked to write about my experience with the subject. My first thought was that this shouldn’t be too hard. Then I started gathering my thoughts and experiences over the subject as both a Veterinarian and Rancher. Backgrounding is such a wide topic with so many variables. Variables included, but not limited to, source, size, breed, climate, and backgrounders knowledge and abilities. These variables are constantly changing with new research, new vaccines/medications, and in my opinion the changing of our national cattle herd. As a veterinarian, my experience had primarily been backgrounding 350-550 pound salebarn calves for clients as well as designing protocols for clients. A more recent undertaking happened when my son took up calf roping. That meant the more daunting task of straightening out 125-150 pound “ropers.” I believe a 125 pound Holstein cross calf is a coccidia factory in the waiting. My initial writing on the subject started as a rumination of the college classes, cattle magazine articles and Extension publications already available. These are all important sources of information but I realized I was just re-inventing the wheel. The following may be ramblings of a sarcastic and jaded individual. None the less, this is the installment of my gained wisdom or my closely held fallacies. You can be the judge.
Know Thyself. Backgrounding and operating a stocker operation is not for the faint of heart. It’s a high-risk and high reward occupation. As a Texas cattle buyer and stocker operator told me when I asked him for advise he learned through his decades of experience, he replied, “ Don’t start, its easier that way.” Then he smiled. I don’t think he has any regrets. But, I think there is some wisdom in that statement. It takes a certain attitude and mind-set to be successful in this segment of the beef industry. Its not any easy thing to do. If your new to it, I think there are some points you need to pay attention to before you start. If your experienced, there are some points to keep learning about. The most important investment you can make in this, or any segment of the industry, is you and your knowledge. Good experience, or at least learning from bad experience, is invaluable.
“What’s the secret of success? Right decisions. How do you make right decisions? Experience. How do you get experience? Wrong decisions.” – John Wayne
I spent time riding pens in feedlots and wheat fields, alongside very good Cowboys, learning a lot of subtleties in watching cattle. A lot of this was never taught in Vet School or at Extension meetings. Having a good mentor early on is an invaluable idea. It can ward off some of those wrong decisions. Learning about animals is a never ending endeavor. Working knowledge about health, behavior and nutrition is a must. Having access to experts, such as a Veterinarian and Nutritionist is a big help. If you are going to own the animals, buying/selling and managing them and finances is just as important as the running of the cattle. Marketing schools such as Wally Olson’s Livestock Marketing school and the Texas Ag Extension Master Marketers program, are good places to start. Know how to analyse the markets, to evaluate risk and risk protection strategies. I used to think as long as I kept’em alive and growing, I was on the right track. Management education, such as Ranching for Profit, is invaluable to help you know your true financial numbers and performance. Just having a little money left over, after last calf is shipped and all the bills paid, isn’t good enough to survive in this industry today. Commit yourself to learning, today as well as tomorrow.
Ol’ Ben Franklin said, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Well, maybe not always. I’ve always considered myself quite frugal. Sometimes to a fault, as I have learned (and been told). Being financially efficient has to be financially effective. Be careful not to get carried away too much cutting away the fat or you might find all you have left is the bone. I tended to focus too much on getting the job done cheap. In my mind, that would leave more profit. I eventually realized that this mentality had to be tempered with other factors in the stocker business such as performance, market timing, and residual affects in the next segment. They say you can’t starve a profit into a cow. It goes the same with her calf you just weaned. I try to constantly question different practices I have done. Learn how to analyze the returns on every investment or practice you do or are considering. What good is something new if it costs more than it makes. Now in defense of my thrifty mindset, I’ve often seen people go too far the other way. They spend money on every product that claims it will help your bottom line or every piece of equipment with a new shiny coat of paint. Who wouldn’t like a new pickup and new trailer backing up to a huge, fancy set of pipe pens? But not if it forces you to work more overtime at a job in town because your losing your backside on the cattle your grazing.
My Stocker Top 5. Enough with my philosophical ramblings, it’s time for a few actual tips.
1. Buy from the country when you can. I first tried this on the flip side, as the cow-calf guy. I had a agent that bought my calves every year. The first year I sold them to him, I provided a list of what vaccines were given, where and when given, with a statement they were given by BQA certified individual. Since I ran my cows on small, 1 bull to the group leases, I also provided EPD and genetics of the bull that sired the group. I received the general info feedback that they fed well and graded well. I didn’t get a premium the first year, but I did each year after. To do this successfully depends on knowing what your getting and what it is worth. You also need to decide as an individual, what’s it worth to have healthier calves to turn out. The idea of roping and doctoring in the pasture used to be romantic and adventuresome but now it’s just work, especially in the rain and cold. If you have small cow-calf guys you know, work a deal out. You can base your price on a nearby livestock market report, 5 state average or Superior Weekly. You are getting lower stressed cattle. You may can get information on health and genetics. You may be able to come in and get a round of vaccines in before weaning if not already vaccinated.
2. Quickest way to a man’s heart…..is the same for a calf. Nutrition is paramount. I used to try to save a little money in this area. I now realize that this may be one of the few areas it pays to splurge early in the process. Good quality, long-stem grass hay should be waiting for the calves in the pen or trap when they arrive. In my part of the country, coastal Bermuda is very common. I used to get “pretty decent hay” to start ‘em off with. Now I’ll pay an extra $30-40/ ton for horse quality. May be one of, if not the biggest step forward on getting calves started ruminating. Especially the ropers size. I don’t skimp on minerals either. In general, I don’t use tubs very often on my grown cattle. If you dollar them out vs other supplement costs, they are expensive. New calves are my exception. As a personal preference, I use Vitaferm Stress Tubs. I’ll place at least 1 along the fence line to get fence walkers attention. I’ve also started sprinkling some of the starter ration on top of the tubs. I like the idea of these providing some minerals and energy in a very palatable source. I also like using this, or 1 of several other products out there, that have a Prebiotic/Probiotic to get the gut going during times of stress. I recommend going with a good starter ration. It should smell good and be highly palatable as well as nutrient dense. I’ll put a little hay in the bottom of the trough a sprinkle a small amount on the hay. Start off with small amounts so it stays fresh. Also, use a coccidiostat in the feed or water for 3 weeks (whether it’s a coccidia making dairy cross calf or not).
3. Vaccinations. I have become a bigger fan over the years of delayed vaccinations. It seems like we all used to load up the calves on day 1 with every vaccine imaginable because that’s the way its done. We now know that the stress these calves are going through can be compounded by aggressive vaccination programs. This is especially true in high-risk (aka Sale barn calves). Personally, on my sale barn calves, all they get on day 1 is a Multimin shot and a dewormer. I don’t have a set routine after that other than no vaccines within the first 72 hrs. I stagger my vaccines after that. I try to avoid giving too many Gram Negative Endotoxin vaccines at once due to the inflammatory response. This was partly responsible for giving what used to be called the sweats to vaccinated cattle. Its not as common on newer vaccines. These agents include Mannheimia haemolytica, Pasteurella, Histophilus, Moraxella, and Lepto. This can be made worse by mishandling the vaccine (Too high/low of temp, vigorous shaking, or sunlight exposure). It may mean an extra time or 2 thru the chute, but I believe it works better for the calves. Also, read the directions, booster as recommended, and use BQA standards.
4. To band, or not to band, that is the question. A sign of the times, maybe? One of the questions I used to rarely hear that became more common over the years is about castration. Banding vs cutting. Some of the answer is personal. I personally like cutting, especially in my cow-calf group and small stockers. Knock on wood, I have never had 1 bleed to death. As a Veterinarian, I have seen more cases of tetanus due to improper banding large calves than all other causes combined. My view point may be skewed due to this. That being said, in large cutter bulls I would band, slit the scrotum and come back 7-10 days later and finish the job with a knife. Make sure, if your banding bigger bull calves, to not roll in the skin at the band. I think in the long run, you have to get comfortable with your choice and do it correctly. Cutting causes higher immediate stress but is shorter term. Banding is lower stress but longer stress. One thing I have toyed around with and shows promise on the 350-450 pound calves I’ve tried it on is cutting them and giving a dose of Banamine Pour-on at that time. The next day, the treated are up and eating while untreated are moping around feeling sorry for themselves. The pain relief would also be considered more humane which is becoming a bigger deal these days as people are more concerned about how the animals are treated.
5. It’s all about the grass. Unless you are placing the weaned calves into a feedyard soon after weaning, your going to need good, plentiful forage. For years, whether with my stockers or cow-calf, I thought the secret to success was all in the cattle. Good quality cattle that gained well and were uniform. But without knowing how to manage the grass and soil, cattle are irrelevant. I fully believe you can make more with poor cattle on good grass than good cattle on poor grass (or certainly no grass). Learn how to manage grass thru good grazing practices. Pay attention to the soil and how to build it up and protect it. Have a drought plan to manage your cattle and protect the ground. You might as well get the most out of the land today, as well as all of your tomorrows. This may well have been my biggest learning curve as of late. In my part of the world, seems people are often afraid to lease their ground because of the fear of it being abused with overgrazing. There, unfortunately, is often a foundation for that fear. The proof is in your actions, not your promises.
There’s a lot more to all aspects of the cattle business than just “runnin’ some cows.” Today, to be successful, it takes a lot more than just checking pastures or feeding cattle. You have to work on the business. Treat it like a business. Evaluate, analyze, plan and improve. Be ok with looking outside your own box or paradigm. These are just some expressions of my years. But if you allow yourself, you can learn a lot over the years. Failure can be a great teacher but the tuition can be too high if your sitting in that class all the time. Take time to learn what to do, and sometimes what not to do, from others. Be a life-long learner.
“Choose a job that you Love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”- Origin unknown.
If your in the cattle industry for very long, it’s because your passionate about it. Might as well let your passion be profitable too!
Curtis Creach, DVM
Jones County Texas