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Grass is worth too much to waste on a second-rate animal. As the value of forage increases, so does the need for a herd health professional in stocker operations.
As we continue to see stocker operations get more business minded, I think there can be a growing role for veterinarians,” says Shaun Sweiger, DVM of Sweiger Enterprises, LLC based in Oklahoma City.
There’s a certain hesitancy in his observation. Unlike the cattle feeding sector, consulting veterinarians are still a rarity in the stocker world. Some veterinarians have little understanding of this specialized sector. The number of operations devoted to stocker production appears to be dwindling in tandem with declining cattle numbers, drought conditions and increased concentration.
On the other hand, even if corn prices retreat to the $4-$5/bushel range, that’s still at least twice the price that served as the foundation to modern day commercial cattle feeding. Since forage cost of gain closely mirrors feedlot cost of gain, out of economic necessity, forage continues to have more value in historical terms. Push come to shove, for the same cost or close to it, many feedlots would just as soon buy the pounds and have someone else straighten out the calves.
“I know we can put gain on cattle with grass cheaper than with any other feedstuff. Because of the stress of commingling and other health challenges, there is plenty of opportunity for stockers who can provide calves more TLC than a large, rigidly run feedyard concerned about labor,” Dr. Sweiger says.
For stocker producers willing to color beyond the proverbial lines of convention, the opportunities are richer yet.
Driving Change With Data
“I want to challenge their practices and what they think, and I want them to challenge my practices and what I think,” Dr. Sweiger says.
Dr. Sweiger is talking about the clients he serves in general terms, but specifically about the stocker operations he works with.
Consider the Gallery Ranch at Dewey, OK.
“Grass is worth too much to waste on a second-rate animal. Gain is worth too much,” says Tom Gallery, who manages the operation with his brother, Bill, and their dad, Dan.
Consequently, this was the third summer that the Gallerys shipped rather than grazed any calf treated more than once in their backgrounding program. Identifying the net economic benefit associated with the decision was enabled by the intensive real-time records and analysis system that Dr. Sweiger helped the Gallerys build.
“If we have a problem, there is no way to solve it if we don’t have the information recorded,” Gallery says. “With records, a record system and information in a format both Shaun and I can evaluate, we know what’s happening in real time rather than 90 days after the fact.”
Before Dr. Sweiger started working with them, the Gallerys recorded information on note cards. “It wasn’t until after the cattle were gone that we could tally up what had happened,” Gallery emphasizes.
These days, the Gallerys use feedlot-based software to track cost as well as cattle health and performance.
“It’s mostly for ourselves, but if you wanted to partner on a set of cattle tomorrow, I could send you a feed bill and a breakeven,” Gallery says. “The only way to know if you’re making money is if you keep track of the costs. It’s our only way to identify the ones that make us money.”
Ask Dr. Sweiger what skills a veterinarian needs to serve stocker clients that are different than those needed to serve cow-calf clients and he responds immediately, “It’s records and data management.When a stocker operation gets to a certain size, I don’t care how good their memory is, you need to help them keep records and analyze the data.”
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Dr. Sweiger points out collecting real-time data doesn’t have to be complicated. While the system is more sophisticated and automated with Gallery Ranch, for other clients, Dr. Sweiger provides hard copy templates for clients. They fill in the blanks and fax the sheets to Dr. Sweiger’s clinic where data is entered for analysis and stored.
On the other end of it, Dr. Sweiger carves out more time to interpret results by sending raw data to others who run the statistical analysis.
“When we became computerized and started using management software, we could finally pay attention to the results we were getting because we had captured all of this data in a systematic way,” Gallery says. If there’s a question about how any one head of cattle or management variable is affecting another, they have the wherewithal to ferret out the information.