Kentucky is the largest cow-calf producing state east of the Mississippi River. Despite boasting 1.1 million beef cows, Kentucky's average herd size is just 29 head. As a result, calves typically sell in smaller groups.

But the 13 members of the Barren Beef Group have given up their independence for the bigger payouts that come with pooling their calves to build bigger, more uniform lots.

“It's just makes financial sense,” says Robert Wilcoxson, group member and feeder for the group. “Even with 170 head of cows, I can't put uniform groups together like I can through this program.”

Wilcoxson, of Center, KY, says, on average, he's seeing a 5-7¢ premium/lb. on his pooled calves compared to calves traditionally marketed to the nearest sale barn.

Aside from making money, there are plenty of other benefits in huddling up production, he adds. Members can access better genetics and improved breeding programs, or benefit from nutrition consultation. Other members cite the sharing of information between new operators and their more experienced counterparts via the program.

The pooling program began when Park City neighbors Jerry Greer and Richard Brown, with only 30-40 cows each, decided to combine their calves. They sorted them by sex; Greer fed the heifers, and Brown the steers.

“We discovered we weren't doing any good because we didn't have enough cattle to make a uniform, truckload lot of either steers or heifers,” Greer says.

So the pair began talking to neighbors they considered “progressive” in hopes of forming a larger cooperative marketing program.

As it turned out, finding progressive cattle producers wasn't too hard. Over the course of nine years, two men pooling 75 calves has evolved into 13 producers pooling 650 calves annually. The result is the cohesive Barren Beef Group.

Cooperative marketing

Members meet several times annually. But around marketing time, the group gets together at a local steakhouse to devise marketing plans. Cattle are fed to gain roughly 2-2.5 lbs./day, enabling the group to determine marketing dates when cattle reach a target weight of 700-750 lbs.

“We sell the calves 40-60 days ahead of time, knowing we'll hit that target weight at delivery date,” says Greg Ritter, a producer from Glasgow, KY, who has 75 head of mother cows. He's also president of the Kentucky Cattlemen's Association.

For the past three years, the majority of Barren Beef Group calves have been forward-contracted through Internet sales at the Bluegrass Stockyards in Lexington, KY.

“If we don't like the way they sell, we can reject that sale and put them on another sale for immediate, or 30-day, delivery,” Ritter cites. He says one of the challenges of working with a group can be getting everyone on the same page for marketing.

Jim Gibson, Internet and CPH45 coordinator for Bluegrass Stockyards compares selling over the Internet like buying an insurance policy. “It spreads the risk between you and the buyer,” he says.

In six years, Bluegrass Stockyards has marketed more than 150,000 head through Internet sales, Gibson says. Cattle selling over the Internet generally bring a $1- to $2-premium, depending on the market.

Each co-op member owns his own cattle all the way through the program, “until he gets paid,” Ritter explains.

“The result is top market price with premiums for truckload commingled source- and age-verified Angus and Angus-cross feeders,” says Roger Williamson, a group member with a 115-head cowherd.

For example, take two similar groups of heifers the Barren Beef Group video-marketed last year. The process-verified program cattle brought $3/cwt. more than the non-program heifers. Multiplied by the truckload, “it was enough to buy groceries for a while,” Ritter says.

It starts at the beginning

The Barren Beef Group cooperative effort begins well before the first calf hits the ground. Cattle genetics are standardized; members even utilize a single source for bulls.

The genetic focus is growth traits coupled with carcass traits ribeye area, muscling and intramuscular fat, with Angus bulls relied on to achieve those traits.

Aside from shared genetics, members operate from a synchronized calendar to create a uniform calf crop. This includes everything from a shared breeding season to weaning and commingling dates.

“We're all on the exact same vaccination program,” says Larry Watson, Bowling Green, KY, who brings his nutritionist background to the table, along with 85 head of cattle. All the Barren Beef Group's cattle are on Merial's SureHealth® vaccination program, which gives buyers a 21-day guarantee that purchased calves will remain healthy.

The Barren Beef Group collaboration also brings its members purchasing power for animal health products, feed and nutritional supplements and semen.

For instance, by ordering mineral in bulk, members save $2/50-lb. bag with two-ton minimum deliveries. Meanwhile, feed prices are contracted by bid, shaving $8- $10/ton.

All for one

The Barren Beef Group has no hierarchy; all have an equal say. Each producer brings his own strengths and ideas to the table.

“If we're interested in something, we just bring it up,” explains Charles Dale Embry, a former tobacco farmer from Cave City, KY, who reinvested his time into 64 head of beef cattle.

Last year, Watson broached the idea of testing cattle persistently infected (PI) with bovine viral diarrhea. At the time, it met with a big yawn from other members, but he continued to stress the importance of PI testing.

“PI became a concern when a lot of experts started talking about it at NCBA last year,” explains Monica Porter, sales rep for Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, which also works with the Barren Beef Group on herd health.

To help answer the group's questions, Porter brought in a veterinarian and a PI specialist. After hearing different viewpoints about PI testing, the group reassessed the situation and decided to PI-test all calves in spring 2007.

“PI will be one of the next hot topics, hot buttons, in the industry,” Ritter says.

Pooling together

As the calendar dictates, members wean their calves within a week of each other, collect weight, color, age, sex and ID/tag numbers, and submit that data to group member Roger Williamson. An EID tag and a color-specific visual tag identify each producer's calves.

It's up to individuals to provide supplemental calf data, such as dam and sire information, birth weight, and birth and weaning dates. Williamson, who compiles the data during the 30-day preconditioning period, sorts the cattle into 70-head lots based on sex, color and weight before assigning them to a feeder.

“None of us could do this on our own, as it requires 600-700 calves to sort uniformly,” Williamson says.

After looking at the pooled calves, Porter recalls how impressed she was. “You could put a ruler across their backs, they were that uniform,” she says.

“We've gotten to where our cattle are good enough, and alike enough, that we can really do it on the computer and 99.9% of them will match,” Greer says. Before computer technology was used, cattle were combined and visually sorted.

With computer database management, it's easy to see which calves rise to the top. This creates a natural environment for competition among members of the Barren Beef Group.

“Everybody wants to have the better calves,” acknowledges Wilcoxson.

Embry says he's seen significant progress in his calves. After only four years of Barren Beef Group involvement, he says his cattle have climbed significantly in performance. His last set of calves averaged 656 lbs. at weaning.

After 30 days of preconditioning, a commingle date is set where calves are hauled to eight different feeding locations. The goal is to put together uniform truckload-lots of 70 head weighing just under 50,000 lbs. after 45 days of commingling.

On commingling day, group members work from dusk to dawn between operations to get 650 head settled into their new feeding locations. But that's not the only time members work together.

“Anytime I go to work cattle, I call on these people rather than hire help,” Greer says. “And they do the same if they need help.”

In fact, seven years ago, Greer suffered a heart attack. Group members, however, worked his calves on schedule. Similar health issues have waylaid other members recently, but everyone pitches in.

“They are true friends and cattlemen,” Williamson says.

Members of the Barren Beef Group, all Kentuckians, and their special skills include:

  • David Billingsley, Glasgow, genetics and AI.

  • Sydney Bunnell, Cave City, facilities to sort, weigh and commingle; feeder.

  • Richard Brown, Park City, feeder.

  • Charles Dale Embry, Cave City, AI and genetics.

  • Charles Galloway, Smiths Grove, AI and feeder.

  • Jerry Greer, Park City, secretary/treasurer.

  • David Gordon, Edmonton, AI and working cattle.

  • Steve Pruitt, Glasgow, working cattle.

  • Greg Ritter, Glasgow, public relations and feeder.

  • Tim Shipley, Cave City, back-up feeder.

  • Larry Watson, Bowling Green, nutrition and feeder.

  • Robert Wilcoxson, Center, feeder.

  • Roger Williamson, Knob Lick, computer work and feeder.