With branding complete and his cow-calf pairs turned out to pasture, Carl Sanders directs his production focus to ensuring his calves put on weight. Since his calves are already marketed, this Black Hills cow-calf producer's primary focus is their performance.

Each fall since 2001, Sanders, 31, has sold his 750-lb. feeder calves to Jay Bakken, 31, a feedlot operator near Garretson, SD.

“It's nice having a game plan in place — it's price protection more than anything,” says Sanders, a fifth-generation rancher from Oral, SD. “Going into fall, I know what I'll get for my calves. The only variable is weight; I have a ballpark estimate of what that will be.”

An SDSU connection

Sanders met Bakken when both were students working at the South Dakota State University research feedlot in Brookings. When Bakken partnered with his brother to take over his family's feedlot operation in 2001, he knew Sanders was the kind of cow-calf manager he'd like to buy feeder calves from. Each year, the two men sit down in late July and agree on a sale price.

“Most of the cattle in our feedlot come directly from the ranch or a backgrounding operation,” says Bakken of his 2,500-head feedlot. “After working with Carl and seeing him manage cattle at the feedlot, I knew he was on the right track and a good manager.”

Health and predictable performance are the reasons Bakken says he buys calves direct.

“We've seen health benefits buying direct from the ranch,” says Bakken, who also custom feeds. “I get paid on performance. What impresses me about Carl's cattle is their consistency and performance — they put on weight efficiently. Since I have all the production and market risk, I know his cattle will stay healthy, I know what they will weigh, and what the yield and carcass quality will be.”

Ever since they started working together eight years ago, Sanders has asked Bakken for feedback on his calves' feed efficiency and carcass data.

“Feedback is nice. It's a scorecard on what I'm doing. A lot of guys send their calves to the sale barn and that's the last they hear about them,” says Sanders, who calved 380 cows this spring. “They don't know if what they're doing is working or not.”

Sanders says he and Bakken touch base throughout the year — when deciding on his vaccine program each spring and before he makes large management changes. In 2008, Sanders began age and source verifying his calves. He and Bakken split the cost of the program on the front side — about $6/head — and the premium on the backside — which ranges from $20-$40/head.

“It's important that we move in the same direction. If there are new products or new ideas, we bounce them off each other and decide what we'll do,” Sanders says. “That way we can use both our resources and compare notes to make the best decision.”

Genetics are key

Sanders understands Bakken's yield goals and manages his herd's genetics to produce uniform, high-yielding calves. To achieve his genetic goals, Sanders runs a strict culling program and depends on seedstock producer Ross Varilek and his family.

“When I first started selling calves to Jay, he said they needed to be heavier to fit his program, so it's been my ultimate goal to increase weaning weights, which I've done with Varilek bulls,” says Sanders, whose weaning weights have increased from 580 lbs. to 750 lbs. over the last eight years. “Ross knows what my cows look like and he'll point me in the right direction of a certain sire group that will be a good fit for my cows.”

Understanding industry demand and their customers' genetic goals is key to the Varileks' registered Black Angus operation.

“We stay in contact with our customers so that we know what they need, and we produce what they need,” says Ross Varilek, 31, who operates Varilek Angus with his parents, Mick and Lynn, and brother, Scott. “When I go out and help Carl with branding, I'm amazed by his calves. He has an exceptional herd. We know what kind of bulls he has and exactly what he wants. We know his herd.”

Ross's grandpa Elvern bought the rangeland his cattle graze today, located on the banks of the Missouri River, and began raising registered Black Angus in the early 1950s. Mick, 56, says his dad originally went with the breed because they didn't have horns. He says he stuck with the breed because of its carcass quality.

“Trends don't change a lot. After many years of rigid culling, our genetics keep improving,” Mick says. “We look at carcass evaluation, how the cattle perform in the feedlot, what our customers need for performance and, for those keeping replacement heifers, the maternal traits.”

They ultrasound their bulls and heifers, evaluating the ribeye area and marbling. Ross says this ensures the genetics they produce have the carcass yield and quality their customers need to meet consumer demand.

“We use it as one more selection tool for what to keep and what to cull,” says Ross, who met Sanders and Bakken when he was also a student at SDSU. “Ultrasounding gives our customers more to go by when selecting bulls.”

After seeing the improvement in Sanders' calves' weaning weights, Bakken began buying bulls from the Varileks for his and his brother's cow-calf herd.

“We were looking for a new source of Angus genetics — I liked how the Varilek genetics performed in the feedlot,” Bakken says. “They are well balanced, have good carcass quality, good gain and are very efficient on feed. They are able to efficiently put on pounds.”

Mick says observing his son Ross, Sanders and Bakken work together is encouraging.

“These three guys' families were successful in what they did. This is the next generation taking over where we left off — it really shows promise and hope for the next generation of cattle producers,” Mick says.

Lura Roti is a freelance writer based in Sioux Falls, SD.