If you want to develop a close relationship with your customers, says Robby Kirkland, just have them send you a load of high-risk calves.

Not that Kirkland doesn’t enjoy communicating with his customers. “But sometimes it’s not all that much fun if things weren’t as good as they hoped it would be.”

And that’s why Kirkland, manager of Kirkland Feedyard, a family-owned, custom-feeding operation at Vega, TX, jumps at the chance to help his customers understand the value of preparing calves at the ranch to meet the challenges they’ll face in a feedyard.

Last fall, he says, was like cranking a valve all the way to the left. After years of high calf prices and a dearth of retained ownership customers, ranchers began once again to send retained-ownership calves. While customers hail from many parts of the country, the feedyard’s core customer base is in the Southeast.

“At the end of the day, when those calves hit a feedyard, that’s when they’re going to get a challenge,” Kirkland says. “You’ve got pens and sometimes dust and there’s weather and you’re putting a high concentrate diet in front of them. That’s when you’re going to see what the cattle are made of, what the animal health program is made of and how these cattle can withstand that challenge.”

Kirkland says when he goes back and looks at the wrecks they’ve had with cattle, it’s usually a combination of factors. “Some of the biggest problems I’ve seen were cattle with an outstanding genetic base, but weren’t weaned and didn’t have a good vaccination and nutritional program.”

Unfortunately, calves that don’t handle the challenge well provide Kirkland with ample opportunity to talk to customers. But that can also be the beginning of a conversation that will benefit everyone.

It starts with health

Typically, Kirkland says, the conversation begins with a discussion of the ranch’s herd health program.
“We focus on vaccines,” he says. “We really believe some of the best programs use modified-live vaccines, like a five-way or seven-way,” for their calf crop. Ideally, it’s best to give it twice, and he strongly recommends a vaccine that protects against Mannheimia haemolytica, as well as Pasteurella multocida and somnus, and contains a leukotoxin. “And, of course, a clostridial and a deworming program of some sort.”

Kirkland says many customers ask him about implanting their calves before sending them to the feedyard. His response is, it depends.

“If you’re going to retain ownership, I wouldn’t implant the cattle. A lot of times we see cattle grade better and get more pop, more initial response, when implanted at the feedyard, if they haven’t been implanted at the ranch.” If you’re selling your calves, he says absolutely. “Implants make money over the cost of the implant. So get some growth.”

Next come the cows. Kirkland recommends ranchers vaccinate their cows and heifers, as well as the calves. “I think it plays a big part in helping the immune system of that calf later on.”

In addition, he says it pays to have a good mineral and vitamin regimen. First, it teaches the calves to eat feed from a trough or bunk. “Plus, vitamins and trace minerals play a big part in the immunity response when you vaccinate them. If a calf doesn’t have a balanced vitamin-mineral package, it won’t build the titers and the immune response it will need when challenged at the feedyard.”

He also recommends a test for persistent infection (PI) with bovine viral diarrhea (BVD). Kirkland says they PI-test some calves at the feedyard, but it’s best to do it at the ranch. After all, if you can keep BVD and PI out of your cowherd, you’ll have clean calves every year, he says.

What about weaning?

Ideally, Kirkland says a good herd health program, combined with a calf that’s been weaned for 45 days or longer, is the best situation. “Anytime you can wean that calf and take that stress out of play while he’s on the ranch, nine times out of 10, that’s going to be a big part of helping the health of that calf.”

But a good weaning program won’t overcome a poor vaccination program, he believes. “I’ve seen weaning programs with less-than-adequate vaccine programs, and I’ve seen an extremely good vaccine program with no weaning program. The vaccine program beat the weaning program; those cattle are nearly bulletproof when they get here.”

Having that information, resulting from a good working relationship with the customer, is important when the calves arrive at the feedyard. “We have four different processing regimes,” he says, if you don’t count growth enhancers. “We’ve got a low-risk, a moderate-risk, a moderately high-risk and a high-risk processing program. What those cattle have had, what background they’re from and what information we have on the cattle will dictate where they fall in our processing.”

That also influences the cost of the initial processing. “Take a five-weight calf, for example,” he says. “The processing cost could run from $7-8/head to $30. On the low end are customers where I know what the calves have had; we’ve dealt with that customer and feel confident in what he has sent us. On the other end is a calf where we don’t have a clue. He came out of a sale barn and we treat it as high risk.”

Even if you don’t plan to retain ownership, Kirkland believes there’s added value in a good health and nutritional program on the ranch. First, more live calves born, and you’ll likely have a higher weaning percentage.

But beyond that is the ability to build a reputation for your calves with potential buyers.
“I do believe, through Internet auctions, private treaty and video auctions, you’ll find people who have built a reputation for their herd. If they sell on one of those Internet or video auctions, year in and year out, and people buy their calves and see that they’re healthy, they’re going to have stronger bidders.”

And that’s true for smaller-sized operations as well. “Even if you’ve got a small herd, if you can put together load lots (to fill a semi), you can build a reputation for your cattle and they’ll bring more money.”

In fact, he says he has some customers who fit that profile. “We’ve had the opportunity to work with guys where maybe three neighbors put 20 head apiece together and split a truck. We were able to track the carcass quality on some of those cattle, and we tracked animal health and performance in the feedyard.”
And that gave those ranchers the information to make decisions on their end. “Whether they’re going to be a long-term feeder or not, it gave them an opportunity to make decisions on animal health, breeding and weaning issues.”

Not all customers will open that door, and Kirkland says he can’t force a door open that the customer wants to keep closed. “But there are a lot of people, I believe, who are progressive and willing to change. They want to know what we see on this end, because at the end of the day, this is where it makes a difference. This is where you see the fruits of the labor.”