Jerry Wulf from Morris, MN, wears many hats in the cattle business. The Wulf operation encompasses three different entities: Leonard Wulf & Sons, Inc., a crop and seedstock enterprise with 900 registered Limousin and Lim-Flex cows; Wulf Cattle Co. LLP, feeding 22,000 head annually; and Golden Hills Ranch, a 3,000-head stocker operation in western South Dakota.

Speaking at the 2008 BEEF Quality Summit, Wulf shared his thoughts on how producers can get more money for their cattle. Simply put: marketing.

“We strive to help our bull customers be more than just calf raisers,” Wulf explains. “We like them to think about where their calves are going to end up by looking at the total system and breeding cattle for specific markets.”

He refers to this concept as a “total integrated production system,” which focuses on the end point and develops cattle for that market.

It begins at Wulf's bull sale, where they've developed indexes to assist commercial customers in sorting through tremendous amounts of data. Here's a breakdown:

  • First-calf heifer index for customers looking for bulls to use on heifers.

  • Commodity cattle (or mainstream), which emphasize growth, muscling and marbling equally.

  • Laura's Lean index, which is a USDA Yield Grade (YG) index built on muscle and growth with very little emphasis on marbling.

  • Natural USDA Choice cattle, with emphasis on marbling and growth and little emphasis on muscling.

“The beauty of doing four different indexes is it re-ranks the bulls, and we've got to sell all the bulls, not just 10-20%,” Wulf says.

Feeding for the market

While Wulf's initial step is getting bull customers to think about raising cattle for the end market, the balance of the work is procuring calves to meet those markets.

To do that, the Wulfs seek out customers' calves — by bidding on calves in the country, sitting in the salebarn or via video auction.

“If those guys top the auction that day, they feel they're on the right track, (which is) more than anything we can do for them,” Wulf says.

Most calves come in bawling during the fall calf run, which is why, as much as possible, the Wulfs start calves from one ranch in one pen. “The least amount of commingling we can do at starting time, the more we can keep those cattle healthy, and in our situation, natural,” he says.

Once calves have been weaned 50-60 days, the Wulfs sort calves by size and kind. Bigger calves go to the feedyard. Medium calves go on a backgrounding ration to gain 1.75 lbs./day. Lighter calves go on a slower grower ration (1.5-1.75 lbs./day) and become stockers the following summer.

The advantage of this process, Wulf explains, is it allows them to market cattle 12 months/year.

“It's the best risk-management strategy we've ever had. It doesn't cost us a dime in hedging; we buy and sell in every market,” he says. The other benefit to year-round supply is the Wulfs become a preferred supplier to beef programs.

At 800-900 lbs., calves are sorted for the end market. The first sort is non-natural calves (either because the rancher wouldn't sign a natural affidavit at purchase, or the calves fell out of the program due to health treatment). These cattle are implanted and fed as commodity cattle.

Heavier-muscled calves are sorted into the Laura's Lean Beef end market, while heavier Angus-influenced cattle are fed for Natural Choice programs. Choice-targeted cattle are fed to heavier carcass weights and Laura's Lean cattle are targeted to YG 1-2 carcasses grading Select.

What's the benefit of sorting to an end market? Wulf shares two examples:

  • A steer marketed to Laura's Lean weighed 1,203 lbs., with a 759-lb. carcass, and graded Select with a 14.8-in. ribeye, YG 1.4. After premiums and discounts, it brought $1,351. That same animal and specs on the PM Beef (Choice) grid would have brought $1,237 — a $114 difference.

  • A steer fed for the Choice market was harvested at 1,330 lbs. and produced an 850-lb. Choice, YG 3 carcass. It sold on the PM Beef grid for $1,447. That same animal and specs on the Laura's Lean grid would have brought $1,212 — a $232 difference.

“That's why it's important to get the right cattle on the right grid,” Wulf says.

Lastly the Wulfs encourage cattlemen to capture more dollars by source and age verification, which offers a $2-$3/cwt. premium. The Wulfs have earned $20-$50/head. “If you want more money for your cattle, we highly recommend you source and age verify,” Wulf says.

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Pros and cons of natural

With more than 20 years of experience feeding natural cattle, Jerry Wulf is often asked what production efficiencies are given up between natural and commodity cattle feeding? After summarizing closeouts of like-kind cattle on like rations, he figures natural cattle have:

  • 0.3 lb. less average daily gain,

  • 1 lb. more in feed-to-gain conversion,

  • 8-10¢/lb. cost of gain increase,

  • An $80-$90/head premium to breakeven.

Wulf says other natural advantages are a higher percent of Choice, no implant costs, fewer bullers and quieter cattle.

The disadvantages are poorer carcass yields and the inability to use preventive antibiotics. “It does make a case for having hybrid vigor because you can sure minimize the Yield Grade 4s,” Wulf says.

Focus on the customer

What's the role of a seedstock producer? For Jerry Wulf, Morris, MN, the answer is simple: to serve the commercial cattleman.

The Wulf family accomplishes this by providing a quality product and backing that product with service that's second to none.

For example, they:

  • Publish four different indexes on bulls they sell to help commercial cattlemen sort through more than 300 bulls and raise cattle with the end target in mind.

  • Distribute a newsletter to customers two months before their annual bull sale to keep them abreast of what the ranch is doing and how they can better their programs.

  • Host an educational seminar for customers the night before the sale. In 2008, three beef-buying representatives were on hand for the event. “It was great to get ranchers and cattle buyers selling beef to consumers in the same room,” Wulf remarks.

  • Provide carcass data on bull customers' calves, along with averages of all Wulf-influenced cattle, to assist producers in making future bull purchases.

Wulf remembers his late father and founder of the family operation, Leonard, say, “You can get everything in life you want if you help others get what they want.” And when Leonard wasn't saying it, he was living it.