By working together, Iowa farmer-feeders and suppliers find they all benefit.

Its 15 members call themselves "The Beef Team." Together, they've pooled cattle, services and expertise to carve out a unique niche feeding lightweight calves, and they give larger commercial lots in the Midwest a run for their money, to boot.

They do it by capitalizing on low-cost rations, implementing aggressive health and nutrition programs, utilizing their unique facility features and making mutually beneficial business decisions. The results: 2.5-3.25 lbs./day weight gains, 38-43›/lb. of gain costs and death losses less than 2%.

The team, all from Iowa, which holds periodic meetings to share information and learn from each other, includes:

- Horizon Beef, Sanborn, IA, which serves as the management company. It's owned by Dean and Maureen Freed, and it supplies cattle for all Beef Team feedlots. The firm also handles record-keeping, billing and related management work.

- The Farmers Co-op Society, Sioux Center, IA, which provides nutritional knowledge, offers financing, contracts for feed by-products on a volume basis and offers Farmland feed products.

- A group of independent farmer-feeders in and near Sioux County who care for and feed the cattle. These farmer-feeders include nine father-son teams and have a combined annual capacity of 65,000 head.

The producer members include Sylvan Byker or Ireton; Wayne and Scott Dekkers of Hawarden; Robert, Kevin and Brian Eisma of Ireton; Larry Feddersen of Anthon; Art and Arlin Franken of Sioux Center; Howard and Glen Bomaars of Maurice; Willard and Pete Haverhals of Sioux Center; Norbert and Marvin Klein of Sanborn; Gywen Hoogendoorn of Sheldon; Rob Van Voorst of Sioux Center; and Duane and Randy Winterfeld of Sioux Center.

Calves From Midwest, Southeast The majority of calves the Beef Team feeds are put-together calves from Midwest and Southeast sale barns. Others arrive from Western ranches.

The first days and weeks in the feedlot heavily influence their overall performance. For this reason, the temperature of all commingled calves is taken upon receipt. Calves with health concerns receive immediate, aggressive treatment.

Explains Dean Freed, president of Horizon Beef: "We want to know each pen of calves within 48 hours of receipt. We want to find calves running a fever because it's easy to break a temperature when it's spiking. A temperature caught on the way down, too, often leads to a chronic non-performer."

That said, though, the team believes 70% of health is nutrition.

"The syringe can be used to help prevent health problems and aid in their elimination," notes Paul Smit, Farmers Co-op Society. "But, for optimal results, the nutrition needs to be right."

In order for calves to fully benefit from the nutrients in feedstuffs and maintain a strong immune system, they must have a fully functioning digestive system, says Larry Cheney, Farmland Industries cattle specialist, Storm Lake. The team relies on antibiotics friendlier to the digestive system. They also nurture rumen microflora with the inclusion of fermentation-fortified yeast culture in all starter rations.

Starter calves receive ample water and a highly palatable 50-51 Mcal/cwt. starter ration for the first 14 days. It consists of corn, ground alfalfa hay, wet corn gluten feed and Farmland Stress-Care liquid with fermentation-fortified yeast culture. Then they may move to an intermediate starter ration for five days before going onto a grower ration or a finishing ration.

They use locally available by-products to cut feed costs. This includes wet corn gluten feed, which helps palatability while the moisture content helps reduce dust. Other by-products include oat and sunflower screenings, corn syrup from ethanol production and steep liquor.

"On lighter calves, we'll grow them for 100 days cheaper on by-products than if we were running them on grass," says farmer-feeder Wayne Dekkers. "It's a lot less hassle for the owner, and they respond well when we start pushing corn."

Within four or five days, most calves are up and eating, says Bernie Punt, Sioux Center confinement manager, Farmers Co-op Society. The team works toward having the calves eating 2-3% of their body weight.

Small Operators Offer Benefits Also contributing to the Beef Team's ability to efficiently feed lightweight and stressed calves are its members' smaller feedlots - 500 to 4,000 head each - and the extra attention they can give these calves.

The Beef Team is not a contractual alliance but a gentleman's agreement, says Freed. Members say the relationship has been beneficial. Among the attributes cited by the farmer-feeders were:

- They keep their lots full more consistently.

- They spend less time on "busy" work. (Horizon Beef handles much of the paper work.)

- Some have grown the size of their facilities and, on occasion, have partnered with clients on cattle. Some have been able to return sons to the farmer-feedlot operation.

- A consistent supply of cattle allows them to add more value to the corn they produce.

The charges to customers vary by the facility - confinement versus sheds, etc. Generally, however, yardage charges run 16›/head/day with a $4/ton markup on feed and a $1/head processing charge.