Narrowing margins are challenging enough when you own stockers; they’re a killer when folks pay you to start theirs.

“The biggest challenge these days is overcoming increasing operating costs without increasing our client fees,” says Brock Karges of Wanette, OK, who owns and operates Triple Heart Ranch with his wife Shelia.
“As margins shrink, you have to run more cattle,” Brock says. That’s why they began running some of their own cattle this year, a drastic shift in their risk philosophy.

When the Kargeses opened their doors in 1998, they decided to own the land but let customers stand the cattle risk. These days, they put about 20,000 head through their backgrounding/preconditioning system, besides annually grazing 7,000-9,000 head on summer grass.

“Our primary goal is to generate as many dollars per head for our customers while the calves are under our control,” Brock says. “But you have no control over what the cattle are, what the weather is when they’re marketed and trucked here, or what happened to them before marketing.”

That’s why Brock and Shelia created another business five years ago called Grass Roots Beef (GRB). Briefly, the program works like this:

Trained, regional GRB reps provide manpower, equipment, expertise and products to vaccinate calves before they leave the ranch. Deciding to wean and get another round of shots into the calves is the GRB member’s choice. But to receive GRB services and benefits – including discounted feed, minerals, drugs and pasture chemicals – members must let GRB put at least one round of vaccinations into the calves.

Those calves are then eligible to be sold at designated auctions where grassroots calves are marketed in a single section and preferred time slot of the regular sale.

“Our goal is to help put preconditioned calves into the marketplace so wherever they end up, they have an opportunity to make a profit on the market side because we’re taking risk out of the health side,” he says.

Nutrition equals health
This focus on health is also behind their emphasis on calf nutrition and patience.

“We’ve learned good nutrition is the most important aspect of preconditioning,” Shelia says. “Getting a calf on feed quickly is better than any antibiotic or vaccine.”

“It may take two hours to get new calves settled on the feed bunk that first day, but it’s the most valuable time we spend,” Brock adds.

Moreover, they say nutrition is all about specifics. Though it ran counter to Brock’s least-cost philosophy of feeding commodities, they discovered several years ago they and their customers were money ahead by feeding a total mixed ration.

“It changed everything. Sickness and death loss is much less and the performance is there,” Brock says.

With hay, mineral and water, new calves rest for 12-24 hours. After processing, Brock and Shelia won’t jump the gun pulling and treating calves, either.

“It’s proven to me over and over that the calf just needs time. I’m adamant that, as an industry, we over-doctor cattle,” Shelia says.

That notion is backed by extensive documentation borne out of frustration with trying to control the unknowns.

Early on, Shelia explains, a customer sent some long-haul, lightweight calves stressed by drought. These calves required extensive doctoring.

“Then we were accused of not administrating the antibiotics we were billing for,” says Shelia. “So we started to document everything.”

Literally starting with Big Chief tablets, Shelia recorded every aspect of a calf’s time at Triple Heart. Today, with the benefit of computer programs, new Triple Heart customers receive a weekly calf-health report; existing customers receive a monthly report with their invoice.

“Customers can deal with information, good or bad; it’s the surprises they can’t handle,” Brock says.

Incidentally, the report on any mortality includes results of a necropsy performed by Shelia. “It really opens your – and your customers’ – eyes to what’s going on,” she says.

The Triple Heart focus remains straightforward. “You just have to continue to evolve and look for ways to improve,” says Shelia.