The beef stocker/backgrounding segment traditionally handles the middle period of a calf's life. This segment treats, grows and assembles calves into similar contemporary groups before they go to a feedlot.

The beef industry's increasing focus on meeting consumer demands, however, will heighten the responsibilities of cow/calf/stocker operators to improve their calves' conformance and document the use of pre-harvest health and management strategies and health products that are food safe and profitable.

Many stocker operators view consolidation and coordination with uneasiness. While there's no question the trends will present challenges, they also offer tremendous opportunities. Producers who can document and successfully market the contributions they provide toward meeting consumers' demands for tasty, safe and nutritious beef products will be indispensable for a variety of reasons.

For example, while calves from larger herds have been highly courted by entities seeking numbers and certain value attributes, don't forget the population demographics of the U.S. beef herd. Almost 80% of U.S. herds (653,550) have fewer than 50 cows — an average of 15 head/herd).

This implies that stocker producers will have to work even closer with the suppliers of calves from smaller herds. Beginning with the end in mind, they will ally themselves with grid programs whose desired targets are consistent with the type of cattle they're able to purchase.

The demand for truckload lots of calves with consistent attributes will increase. This will force operations to either manage greater numbers in order to pare down to load groups that meet minimum variance tolerances, or force them to purchase (at a higher price) uniform groups of lightweight calves.

Another potential issue is the possible restriction or ban on sub-therapeutic antibiotic treatment of livestock. Due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria concerns in humans, such a move by the Food and Drug Administration would severely impact animal production costs. The reality, however, is that consumer pressure may force the industry to do it anyway.

That said, preconditioning and enhanced nutrition programs will become more important as a means of controlling bovine respiratory disease and other common ailments such as pinkeye and foot rot. These are diseases normally encountered in stockers.

Here's my checklist of stocker/backgrounder survival points.

  • Seek to build a broad base of calves from alternative sources to ensure a constant, consistent supply.

  • Define your market. Where are the potential market outlets for your purchased calves and what process-verified procedures and products are required to participate? Keep your options open.

  • Know your production costs. Successful operators must have a firm grip on production costs and be able to quickly exploit their resources for maximized stocker efficiency.

  • Sharpen your recordkeeping skills and explore new technologies that allow you to do a better job. The need for records will increase as the beef industry accepts additional accountability to its consumers. An individual animal ID system is coming and will require producers to maintain detailed records that include treatments and process activities.

  • Mine the data. Numbers must be converted to information in order to help evaluate, identify and incorporate management practices and products that will enhance the value of your cattle as they move further into the value chain. Several companies are gearing up to help individual operations evaluate their performance targets.

  • Know the capabilities of your resources (land, equipment, labor). Leverage them for your benefit. For example, can you grow calves in dry lot with cheap grains and by-product sources that are plentiful in your area? Alternatively, there may be opportunities to care for thin cows that originate from drought-stricken areas.

  • Be realistic about your capabilities. Would you be better off starting calves for a feedlot and charging a fair (and bankable) price for your resources and labor as opposed to bearing the entire risk of a typical 100- to 150-day growing period? A lot of producers want to maintain independence, but are you willing to sacrifice your existing equity for the one year in 10 that might clean your clock?

  • Make it your business to know your business better. Participate in continuing education. Network with fellow operators at professional meetings to learn about new technologies, trends and regulations that might jeopardize your livelihood. Build strong alliances/relationships with university faculty and allied industry.

  • Be customer-oriented. Find out what your clientele wants that you aren't already doing.

  • Build a sound relationship with an established veterinarian in your area. This professional can help you develop receiving and treatment protocols to ensure you're doing the best job you can. Your veterinarian also may be able to help source calves for your operation by coordinated marketing with their small beef herd clients.

Dale Blasi, PhD, is an Extension beef specialist in stockers and forages, nutrition and management in Kansas State University's Department of Animal Sciences and Industry in Manhattan.