When he talks about his business, Jackie Moore narrows his eyes and looks at you like a kid facing off against someone bullying his little brother.

“The way I see it, the big guys are taken care of. We're working to keep the little guys in business,” says Moore, the 46-year-old co-owner, along with his brother-in-law Steve Owens, of Joplin Regional Stockyards (JRS) in Carthage, MO.

And, look after the small commercial cow-calf operations typical in this corner of Missouri near its juncture with Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, Moore has.

“What's happened in the last 10 years in turning around the reputation of Missouri calves, I'd give most the credit to Jackie and JRS,” says Joe Day. He's an El Dorado, KS, cowman and order buyer who's bought cattle at JRS for western Kansas growers and feedlots for the past 25 years.

Folks like Cherry Warren of Exeter, MO, a commercial producer who's marketed his cattle through JRS for 25 years, and Mike John of Huntsville, MO, concur.

“Jackie Moore is an innovator in the livestock business. He has energy, enthusiasm and knowledge, and seems to always be on the cutting edge, willing to make changes. He's always looking at new ways to try to improve income for producers,” Warren says.

John adds: “Jackie is one of the most producer-oriented market managers I've ever run into. He honestly believes his mission is to keep small producers in business and to help them adapt to change. He invests and takes time to adapt and provide his customers with these opportunities. Something that isn't all that common among his peers.”

John is a 500-cow commercial producer and manager of the MFA Health Track value-added calf program. The program qualifies calves for USDA-certified Beef Export Verification (BEV) and Quality Systems Assessment (QSA) programs. He's also incoming president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

Changing perceptions

So what is it that Moore and JRS have accomplished in this corner of Missouri just a ringman's yip from Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas?

Order-buy Day says calves out of this corner, particularly fall calves, long had a reputation for high morbidity. Most came off small operations as bawling calves with little or no health preparation.

“Jackie beat the bushes to promote better calf programs,” Day says. “He recognized he needed to do that or there would be no calf market down there.

“Eventually he convinced more and more sellers that if they'd vaccinate their calves while still on the cow, the calves would do better and make them more money at sale time,” he adds.

From there, the JRS education effort moved to documented weaning, health and management programs. Soon, the calves were attracting buyers that had shied from buying in the area.

“Corporate feedyards and feeding entities looking for cattle that hit specialty-market targets are the biggest hitters at our value-added sales today,” Moore says. “They're willing to pay a premium for cattle they know will get along health wise; and that's not even considering the source verification aspect.”

Steady progress

With its steady march toward more value-added marketing wrinkles, JRS has become sort of an industry beta-testing site for progressive moves in the auction market sector. The value-added calf sale program that began in 1997 has evolved into a passel of program options for sellers, everything from health programs, optional feeding programs, weaning and individual ID, says Mark Harmon, head of the JRS public relations and marketing effort.

In 2001, JRS added $500,000 in automated commingling facilities. It allows automated sorting of small groups of cattle into load lots, a valuable feature for the smaller herds that make up the majority of JRS clientele.

“Cattle are one of the few commodities in the world that are worth more in load lots,” Moore says. “You can typically get a load of anything cheaper in load lots, but cattle bring more.”

At unloading, cattle are commingled by weight and process. Incoming cattle are measured for height to USDA standards of small, medium and large frame; weighed and tagged with radio-frequency ID (RFID) ear tags according to owner. The calves are then automatically commingled by computer into like groups up to 80 different ways by weight, shape, color, sex and process.

In 2003, JRS added video sales, a feature that's worked well for load lots of cattle located too far away to come to the JRS sale ring.

“It gives producers an opportunity to take advantage of a wider market window,” Harmon says, “selling them for December delivery on a high September market, for instance.”

More big changes came in 2004 on the heels of the discovery of the first U.S. case of BSE in December 2003.

“When that BSE cow was found in Washington, I knew national animal ID was coming,” Moore says. “We wanted to get our producers involved in learning how to do the program, work with the RFID tags, source and age verification, etc., because I knew there would be some extra benefit for them down the road.”

Thus began an intense outreach effort in March 2004. The first JRS sale of RFID program calves came just three months later.

“We thought it was a good time to get started with RFID. We already had our value-added programs, and basically it was easy for us to change those people over from the tags we were using to RFID tags,” Moore says.

Since that initial sale, more than 200,000 such cattle — source- and process-verified with RFID tags — have moved through the JRS sale ring. The tags are read upon entry into the JRS facility and again at loadout. JRS has partnered with a number of RFID equipment providers in testing and tweaking various formats.

“With the value-added programs we pioneered, we created a lot of business for other people in our industry,” JRS co-owner Owens says. “We knew it would take a lot of money to set up an RFID system, and we needed the help of people who knew what they were doing. We went to these suppliers and told them that if they wanted to participate, they'd have to ante up.”

The RFID testing effort has been costly in terms of staff time spent in outreach, planning, implementation and analysis, plus some retrofitting of existing facilities, but no dollars have been spent by JRS for actual RFID equipment as yet, Owens says.

Owens, by the way, serves as chairman of the NCBA's Livestock Marketing Council (LMC), which has 35 member firms.

“We've made a lot of strides in RFID but there's still a lot of work to do,” Moore adds. “That's the reason animal ID can't happen real quick. We don't have the knowledge and the other things in place to really make it work in the industry at this stage.”

A learning process

After running 200,000 RFID cattle through the system, Moore says JRS has learned it's very difficult to integrate RFID and maintain the speed of commerce.

The biggest issue isn't the cost, but the potential loss in extra shrink if the process places undue stress on cattle, Owens adds. It's something, however, both he and Owens believe can be overcome as the technology and process evolves.

All this previous groundwork in improved health, management and verification protocols has seemed to come just an opportune half-step or so ahead of the opportunity to capitalize on them. The latest occurred Oct. 13 when JRS was notified it had received USDA QSA certification under the umbrella of the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

The distinction — the first ever for a livestock auction market — means JRS program cattle will be eligible for export to Japan through USDA's BEV program. QSA verifies that specific claims made about the cattle are true meet with specific, internationally recognized standards — source and age verification, for example.

“Who knows when the Japan market will reopen to U.S. beef, but when it does there will be some money to be made,” Moore told a group of 150 or so JRS customers and their families during one of a series of customer appreciation dinners this fall. “JRS won't make any money or lose any money on the program, so it won't affect us if you participate or not. But if you're interested in making more money on your calves, we want to help you.”