"People aren't getting into the cattle business because they don't think you can make a living at it, and that's not true," says Doug Rogers, who owns and operates D&H Cattle Company, LLC at Collins, MS.

In fact, Rogers -- a West Point graduate and the holder of an MBA degree -- chose the stocker business because of the potential economic returns it offers.

"I don't compare my business to other stocker operations. I compare it to other industries in terms of rate of return and profitability," explains Rogers. "We shoot for about 20% return on investment. Sometimes it's higher, sometimes it's lower."

Though Rogers modestly explains it has as much to do with luck as skill, he's made money for the last 12 years (ever since he started). He's made at least $50/head for the past 10 years.

For perspective, Rogers basically buys three-weight heifers year-round to straighten out. Key advantages to the operation are the availability and price of these lightweight calves, as well as typically plentiful and affordable ryegrass. This part of central Mississippi averages about 65 in. of rainfall. Add that to cheap fertilizer in the form of poultry litter and there are usually plenty of groceries worth the money.

Risk Or Opportunity?
Lots of folks consider flyweight, put-together calves one of the riskiest investments in the cattle business; Rogers sees them as a strategic business hedge.

"I buy light, small cattle, which is in itself a hedge against the market. I have more opportunity to choose when to market... Buy them small and light enough and you can ride out a lot of things," Rogers says. "I buy the mismanaged cattle, those born at the wrong time of year, sired by the wrong bull, born on the wrong place."

Besides, Rogers says there are as many health problems with 400- and 500-lb. cattle as there are with the lighter calves, meaning he's gambling fewer dollars on the same level of risk.

Similarly, Rogers runs only heifers. Besides the fact Rogers likens the shelf life of steers to that of ripe bananas, he says simply, "Heifers give you more options." In his case, Rogers sorts off a jag of the heifers that will work as replacement heifers and markets them at an added premium to the stocker profit he already has in them. As well, he's found a way to moonlight by providing heifer calves to cutting-horse competitions in the area.

Rogers has a different view on risk and health management than some, too. Unlike those who shy from using modified-live vaccines for lighter calves when they're under the most stress, he prefers them.

"If I'm going to lose a calf, I want to lose her during the first two weeks of ownership rather than the last two weeks," Rogers says. This is also the period of time when calves are watched the closest anyway. "It always seems like death loss is the one thing no one wants to talk about," he says. But, it's a fact of life that must be managed.

For perspective, Rogers receives 100-200 head/week. Calves rest for 24 hours before being evaluated, turned out to small grass traps and given access to hay, water and grass (pelleted soybean hulls if grass is short). Cattle are wormed, branded, tagged and vaccinated. Over the next two weeks, calves will rotate through a series of traps on their way to another weaning and booster vaccinations; then they go out to pasture.

Risk is also why Rogers prefers to forego feeding cattle, though he does retain ownership in a portion of his calves. "There always comes a reckoning in the cattle feeding business," he says.

Rogers has grown his stocker business substantially during the past few years to his current level of about 6,000 head. Primarily, he says he grew the operation to generate the added income to purchase more property.

Rather than the proverbial tail of cash flow wagging the operation dog, property expansion in this case has plenty to do with adding predictability to his business over the long haul. As in other parts of the world, he explains leases are tougher and more costly to come by these days.

The potential to increase beef production per acre with the same number of acres also drew Rogers to the stocker business. In his operation he can turn is inventory at least twice each year. In other words, he explains, "There's lots of opportunity to turn money faster in this business."

That notion of turning money faster as both leverage and a hedge came as something of an epiphany to Rogers when he was in business school. But it was nothing compared to discovering what it is that he's really selling.

A buddy from West Point who went to work for one of the world's leading business consulting firms got to quizzing Rogers: why the cattle business, why the stocker business, why this and why that? Drill down deep enough and Rogers understood that his knowledge and experience in the stocker business was the true asset he was trading upon.

Rogers grew up in the family's seedstock and cow-calf operations. By high school, he was learning his way through identifying and doctoring stocker cattle running on some new ground his folks purchased. By the time he graduated from college and had to choose between the cattle business and some tempting corporate offers, his stocker knowledge was broad and deep enough that he saw the promise of the stocker business as just that, a profitable business opportunity.

"I just do what works for me," says Rogers. "The name of the game is making money. If I can make a dollar I move on and hope my customer can make two dollars...If I make it or break it, it's all on me."

The National Stocker Award (NSA) competition was divided into three categories: Backgrounding/drylot Stocker (feed-based); Fall/winter stockering (forage-based); and Summer stockering (forage-based). A single winner was chosen in each category, and then the overall NSA winner was selected from these.

Doug Rogers of Collins, MS was named winner of the fall/winter category. Triple Heart of Wanette, OK was named winner of the backgrounding/drylot category.

Each operation received a $2,500 cash prize from NSA sponsor, Elanco Animal Health. Overall NSA winner, Hughes Cattle Company of Bartlesville, OK (winner of the summer stockering category) received a $10,000 cash prize.

Profiles of each winner appears in the October issue of BEEF magazine.