“I'm a firm believer that if we have problems in the preconditioning phase, 95% of the time it's because of management, because of a decision we made,” says Brad Etheridge, managing partner of Thomas Cattle Buying Services (TCBS) at Williston, FL.

Whether it's the cattle purchased, the price paid or the health protocol applied, Etheridge emphasizes that it ultimately goes back to management decisions.

And there's plenty of opportunity to make wrong decisions here.

TCBS is one of the oldest and largest cattle-buying services in the state. Besides buying and preconditioning calves for a long list of customers across the U.S., the firm also buys and manages its own cattle that are backgrounded here and then marketed sometime between preconditioning and the last day of finishing at a Kansas feedlot.

Originally, Etheridge hired on here in February 1997 to learn the business from his mentor, Ronnie Thomas, who began the operation. Thomas's untimely death six months later put Etheridge on a steep learning curve. Etheridge and his family purchased the operation in January 1999.

Overall, the basic program has remained the same. Etheridge and three other order buyers who work exclusively for TCBS purchase two-thirds of their calves direct and the other third from 11 Florida sale barns. These folks not only know their customers personally, they've been to their operations and return at least every couple of years.

Once calves arrive and are processed, they're placed on a starter ration for 14 days. Ultimately, they'll receive 3% of their body weight.

“Our cleanup time for the bunks is around midnight, so calves will be ready for feed and aggressive getting to the bunks the next morning,” Etheridge says. He explains this practice also makes it easier to identify sick cattle.

“There are so many variables that change every week, but one thing we won't do, don't do, is change the receiving protocol or starting feed, because nutrition and health protocol must remain consistent,” Etheridge says.

That's also why they use metaphylaxis for calves received from sale barns. “It gives us consistency on the front end,” Etheridge says.

Cattle are held as long as customers want, or until TCBS is ready to move its own calves on to the next phase of production.

Leveraging with diversity

Though the TCBS core business remains the same, Etheridge believes in diversification. TCBS has leveraged its preconditioning business with diversified, complementary enterprises. They've added farm ground — primarily corn, peanuts and watermelon — as well as pharmaceutical distribution and custom seed harvesting.

TCBS is also building its own feed mill to manage feed costs. The firm already buys corn as far as six months out to ensure customers receive the price quoted to them.

“I don't watch daily price trends or make market charts,” Etheridge says. “We do a lot of reading, studying and listening to our customers scattered across the U.S.”

View contest information and stories on past winners of the BEEF National Stocker Award at www.nationalstockeraward.com.