Historically, producers have done their own thing, raising whatever they wanted. The biggest difference between what any two producers got for their calf crop often had more to do with timing than product.

Today, we're moving toward multi-tiered marketing channels where calves will be qualified into these various channels. It will require effort to learn how to meet specific protocols. While it will take time, ultimately the reward will be there; you will add real value to your calf crop.

As veterinarians, we quickly learn that all the drugs at our disposal are of little consequence compared to what a functional immune system can do for itself. That's why health issues involving your calves after leaving the ranch are critical:

  • The next step

    Colostrum is unbelievably important. Anything less than optimum adversely affects calves for their lifetime.

  • Chronic disease in the cowherd puts a variety of stress factors on the cow and calf, as does chronic parasitism.

  • Mineral deficiencies in the soil, or excesses in the water, can have serious effects on the immune system.

  • The future

    Genetics. We've all seen the cow that consistently raises a weak, poor-doing calf.

  • Stress can be the most important factor of all. It suppresses the immune system, is accumulative, and might be the last “feather” that triggers a complete collapse. Sources of stress, other than those already listed, include environment (heat or cold), hunger, traveling long distances to water, drought, processing and shipping. Be cognizant of how long calves are held off water prior to loading, especially if it's going to be a long trip.

  • Proper vaccinations. The reason preconditioned calves don't consistently bring the money they should is because too many producers do a poor job of it. Selection, management and administration of critical vaccines are paramount.

Beyond the basics of calf health, other ways to add value and position yourself as part of a multi-tiered market is source verification under a USDA-accredited Process Verification Program. Source verification is the basis of chain traceability and will be the information train to which other important sources of information will be added. It's an accredited and auditable timeline of information.

Further, differentiated beef products are the fastest-growing segment in the marketplace. Though beef consumers in each marketplace segment have their own priorities, every segment wants food safety. Our consumers want “safe” not just “safer,” and they want documentation to prove it.

Why is all this important? Today at the feedyard, calves that have minimal health issues and are source verified can make the difference between red and black ink.

Here's an overview of what our future might look like:

For producers willing to embrace them, there will be premium marketing channels. Generally, all calves will have to be source verified just to get on the train (enter the marketplace). The first stop (market) might be for calves that meet the no-hormone (ever) requirement. The second might be for calves (carcasses actually) that never received hormones or antibiotics for a specified period. The third stop might be for cattle meeting criteria that include a maximum age requirement (export). The fourth might involve cattle (carcasses) meeting certain grade or tenderness criteria. The fifth stop is for calves meeting minimal pasture and/or confined feeding timelines. A sixth could be calves meeting documented animal-welfare standards.

This isn't all-inclusive. The requirements at any given stop could be any combination of the above or additional specifications required by the individual program.

All stops (markets) will be economically driven. Consumers will decide what they're willing to pay for. Regarding exports, each receiving country will have requirements; it is up to our side of the economic equation to determine if we are a fit or not.

We'll always have markets for wholesome beef that don't meet any premium market requirements. However, we don't know what economic variance there might be between prepared and non-prepared calves. Any local livestock market provides a clue, however — find a calf with a lump, bump or bruise and notice how that animal is discounted.

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I ask you to consider this:

  • We'll see more change in the next 3-5 years than we've seen in the last 30-50. To accommodate these changes, we must be open-minded and willing to meet the desires of our consumers — foreign and domestic. Trouble is, their desires are a moving target — we'll have to be flexible and adaptive to be successful.

    If you're resistant to change, or have the attitude of “I'm not doing anything until someone pays me,” your opportunity for success is limited.

  • Don't get hung up on specific issues you disagree with. Look at the big picture. Grasp the realm of change that's coming.

  • Change, particularly big change, is rarely a smooth transition. The incentive for change is primarily money, though regulations will be involved. Don't get frustrated when you go to a lot of effort and no one comes to your party. You made the right effort; you just didn't get paid for it this time. You will and it was the right thing to do.

  • Opportunities abound but fewer people may be able to take advantage of them. A progressive, adaptable and flexible attitude may be the key ingredient for success in the future. Find someone or a group to work with or create one.

  • The final decision is yours. Leaving your comfort zone to venture into the unknown isn't easy. But it's hard today to add real value to your calf crop without being a part of at least a limited supply chain.

Do you remember your first thoughts concerning computers? Opportunity is out there but it's not likely to come to your door without some effort on your part.

You don't have to be first, but you do need to start. Find your starting place and join us as we attempt to meet the challenges of the future and accommodate the desires of our consumers.

John Peirce, DVM, is a feedyard veterinary consultant with AzTx Cattle Company, Hereford, TX, on the company's branded beef program.

Read more about Peirce's suggestions for vaccinating at: beefmagazine.com/health/vaccinating_calves/index.html.