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The beef industry may have had a commodity mindset in the good old days, but things are definitely different today. New markets dictate more progressive management and record keeping practices from producers, while they add opportunities for practitioners to engage with clients.
Sidebar: Firsthand Experience Adds Knowledge
The sky’s the limit when marketing feeder cattle in today’s value-added beef industry. The additional management of programs that can reap added returns may not be for all producers, but the question still becomes: How can bovine practitioners help make a difference with their producer-clients as well as for themselves in value-added approaches to marketing?
Both Drs. Tom Hill and Bill Shain agree that health management of the herd is one of the most likely ways for veterinarians to be involved with clients in value-added management at the cow-calf level. In fact, a recent Kansas State University study, which looked at the value-added steer calf premiums received on Superior Livestock Auction’s video format from 2004-2010, further confirmed that weaning and vaccination programs can significantly enhance revenue at marketing time versus commodity calves, especially for certified programs. (See Table A.)
“A herd health program is the biggest thing we’re involved with,” Hill relays. “We’re designing a more aggressive vaccination schedule than a typical rancher might have, because if an animal is treated, it’s out of a natural program.” Hill, a 37-year food animal practitioner and co-owner of Baker Veterinary Hospital, Baker City, Ore., relays that a number of his clients send cattle to the Painted Hills Natural Beef Program based out of Fossil, Ore., and Country Natural Beef (CNB), based in Vale, Ore. “There’s a
little difference between programs as far as what they’ll allow for treatments. It takes familiarity with the program to know what is allowed,” he says.
Aside from vaccination, other whole-herd management factors apply to client operations undertaking a natural marketing approach. “This time of year you think about calving and calf scours. Most are doing some kind of program to try to avoid calf scours, whether it is a Sandhills-type system or sorting pairs. It just takes a little bit more management to avoid any problems,” of which he weighs in on.
As a cattle producer too, Hill is very familiar with natural programs. He understands their management needs, and how documentation, record keeping, and verification requirements vary in stringency from one to another, so he can pass this information back to clients. For example, Country Natural requires that member-ranches are audited and certified by independent, third-parties to Global Animal Partnership’s 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards (www.globalanimalpartnership.org). Painted Hills, on the other hand, ensures program compliance with legal affidavits, a common industry practice.
Hill markets calves from his own commercial herd of black baldies as age-and-sourced natural feeder calves, all bred up from the reputation genetics of local client seedstock breeders. Last fall he offered them on Big Blue Sale Barn, an online marketing site that lists cattle for viewing and online bidding. Big Blue works with local representatives to specialize in marketing ranch-direct, value-added reputation cattle.
Practitioner Education Helps Tie Client
In southeastern Wyoming near Pine Bluffs is Bill Shain, the owner of Bluff’s Veterinary Clinic, a mixed rural practice. Like Hill, one of Shain’s primary goals is to educate himself so he can be of service to clients who pursue newer undertakings such as value-added marketing programs. He says, “In the beef market, it really comes down to managing a veterinary practice like a business. At least in my business model, my number one aim is client service. For a lot of practitioners, their best opportunity is to not be afraid to step outside of their comfort zone.”
Shain advises others to accept the responsibility of becoming educated about a program a client will participate in “so that you can continue visiting the farm and being part of their production team.” He adds, “The actual financial reward of those things can sometimes be hard to capture, but sometimes that becomes a cost of doing business.” He further points out, “An easy example that a lot of practitioners are already involved with is the preconditioning program; whichever one it may be. Obviously we can be more of an independent source to advise on the different preconditioning programs and what it takes to qualify for each.”
Pine Bluffs has established health protocols for feedlot cattle and cow-calf herds, tailored to the needs of individual operations, and offers consulting options for production records and financial analysis. Shain believes a lot of the financial reward happens when veterinarians are on-farm engaged in other work. It’s much easier to help, he says, when one better understands an operation. “While we’ve been asked to work on the health side of it, in order to do a proper job for the producer, there are more questions to ask, such as ‘will you enter a value-added program?’” He says veterinarians can then offer advice, especially on the cost versus benefit of all-natural programs, for example.
“That is what keeps you tied to the client,” he says, “knowing about their operation, what kind of management they’re doing, and then being involved in some of the decisions they make when they decide to change, whether it be calving season, genetics or looking at these programs. Hopefully you’re able to help them or at least be a resource for them. You at least need to be that or, in my opinion, it gets hard to be part of their production team.”
He continues, “For a cow-calf producer, or for any food animal producer, veterinary services should always be looked at as an investment or there’s something wrong either with the relationship or the thinking there. It is a business, so veterinarians themselves need to understand that and make sure that their services are actually adding to the value of the operation. “As all areas of animal medicine consolidate, it’s going to be harder and harder to make a living just thinking you’re James Herriot, and run up and down the road doing emergencies.”
Shain believes, “You really need something to tie yourself to the remaining producers so that you still keep your routine work—the preg checking, bull checking, that kind of thing—as well as helping them make these other decisions. If you’re not available for that, there’s certainly the chance that another practitioner will be.”