Seedstock Plus signals another step in the evolution of bull-buyer and supplier expectations.
Chalk up one more reality imposed by the forces of industry consolidation: Bull buyers expect more bang for the buck, and seedstock suppliers are scrambling to either get bigger or at least play big in order to provide it.
"It's getting harder all of the time for seedstock producers to compete. A lot of smaller producers have just dwindled away," explains Cordell Sheridan of the Sheridan Ranch at Almo, ID. He's a fourth-generation commercial cattleman who started raising and selling seedstock in the '80s.
"I see a lot of bull buyers from Oregon and Nevada drive right by here to go where there are larger numbers of bulls," says Sheridan. Keep in mind, since 1995 Sheridan and his family have hosted an annual production sale and market about 70 bulls each year.
On the other side of the fence is Dean Booth of Broken B Farms at Milan, MO, another fourth-generation commercial cattleman.
"There are lots of buying opportunities available with all of the seedstock producers around, but there is so much variability among them that one stop doesn't take care of all of your needs," Booth says. "If you have seven different bulls from seven different suppliers, you will have a lot of variation in the females standing in your fields five years from now."
Plus, as hard as they may try, Booth says many seedstock suppliers can't provide the one-on-one customer service he and other commercial producers need to thrive in this information age of specification beef.
"You go to a purebred operation and talk to them about what you need, they relate to what they have to sell and try to sway you toward that. They don't know and can't know my cowherd, where I've been and where I need to go," says Sheridan.
Some seedstock suppliers are frustrated by this dilemma, too. Bill Wilkinson and his family run the Wilkinson GV Ranch at Model, CO, a long-time seedstock operation. "Our attitude is that when you're dealing with a bull buyer, you're there to develop a relationship," says Wilkinson.
Unfortunately, Wilkinson says he and other small to mid-sized suppliers are finding themselves in a Catch-22 conundrum that makes building relationships difficult. He explains, "You're too big to do it all yourself, but you're not big enough to hire someone else to help."
Cooperative Genetic Service With that in mind, both Sheridan and Wilkinson signed on as charter members of Seedstock Plus (S+) in order to provide their customers with services they can't make available on their own. Launched last summer, S+ is an innovative company that helps its members pool resources to provide quality-controlled genetics in volume and comprehensive customer service, while maintaining their own identity.
"We have very successful breeders involved who have genetics identified at the top end of their respective breeds, people who have been able to market their cattle very well," explains John Burbank, CEO of S+. "But, because of the changing industry, it's becoming difficult for individual seedstock programs to stay on top genetically, tap technology and provide the customer service demanded."
Burbank is a veteran seedstock producer. Before helping found and then assume leadership of the member-owned S+, his Burbank Cattle Co., at St. Catharine, MO, was marketing about 100 bulls each year, providing plenty of customer follow-up and even helping customers market their calves. The customers loved it, but Burbank realized he didn't operate on sufficient scale to take the next step in customer service that he believes is crucial to a seedstock operation's survival.
"The race is on to identify the better genetics, and there seems to be a widening gap between the larger seedstock producers and the smaller ones," says Burbank. "Even at our size, I was concerned about whether I could afford the technology coming down the road, be it DNA or cloning. You look at some of these alliances that include a genetic component, and the suppliers they're looking at don't tend to be the smaller ones."
The concept behind S+ is a new twist on the growing notion of satellite or cooperator herds. This is where a seedstock supplier contracts other producers to use his genetics in multiplying cattle for his production and marketing system.
In this case, S+ exploits the diversity and collective volume of its members - currently 65 members who own 10,000 registered cows - but develops and markets the bulls as a single entity. Beneath a larger single umbrella, S+ members can provide customers with services that range from an unconditional guarantee for the first breeding season to guaranteed competitive bids for their calves.
"It will enable our current customers to have things we couldn't previously make available to them as individual operations," says Wilkinson.
"Our goal is to provide the commercial industry with bulls in volume, bulls that have come through a comprehensive, unbiased development program adapted to the unique needs of the region," Burbank says. "These bulls are culled vigorously using actual and adjusted performance, Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs), ultrasound and carcass measurements, visual appraisal, pelvic and scrotal evaluation."
Members make their entire weaned bull crop available for evaluation. Bulls that make this first cut are moved to one of eight regional performance-testing facilities, where they're developed and evaluated to a year of age. All told, S+ will market approximately 800 bulls at regional auctions this year out of 1,100 developed.
Wilkinson believes this evaluation model will allow the organization and its members to identify and evaluate genetics faster and more accurately than they otherwise could. Plus, he believes they can make the process of sifting through reams of performance data easier for commercial producers.
"You have all this data you can give to a bull buyer, but because he can't compare the data across breeds, he walks away confused," says Wilkinson.
Booth is all for having the seedstock industry help him sort out what it is they actually have.
"We need a place we can go to talk to people about what genetics will work for us and a place to go for people who don't have a lot of time to spend going to lots of sales," he says.
So far, S+ is offering Angus, Gelbvieh, Red Angus and Balancer (Angus x Gelbvieh) hybrid genetics. In addition, commercial producers can contract for bulls that meet specific breed and performance criteria through the organization's Design-a-Bull custom genetic program.
Service First, Second And Last Indeed, S+ is betting on the fact that making bull selection more convenient, while providing commercial producers one-on-one help in charting their unique genetic paths, will ultimately prove as valuable as the genetics they are providing.
"It's going to come down to the fact that everyone will be able to come up with the genetics that work, so success will depend on the services you can provide your customers," says Burbank.
"Our success will stem from being able to get out and look at customers' cattle, build a relationship with them, recommend bulls, help them get their genetics squared away, then help them market their calves," Burbank says.
Consequently, volume and genetic variety are keys to providing customer solutions.
"I don't think that we're unique in the fact that we use a variety of different bulls for a variety of different reasons," says Booth. "It seems that someone like Seedstock Plus will be able to provide a known genetic base where even if the calves are different colors, genetically, they will perform at the end point the same way. So, whether you need one bull, five or 20, they should be available."