Of course, it’s still hard to underestimate the value of such stocker basics as getting cattle bought right.

“My first profit is in the buy,” Bevers says. “If I get them bought right, the rest starts to fall into place.” If not, climbing from the economic hole toward breakeven seems, and often is, insurmountable.

Obviously, there’s usually only so much wiggle room on buying opportunities relative to when calves are needed.

“Is there value in one set of calves vs. another? Can I buy calves a little cheaper or of a little lesser quality and make them work in my operation compared to someone else?” Bevers asks. “Recognize there are people out there who buy cattle for a living and can help you identify those differences.”

Still, Bevers says, “Things have grown so dynamic, it almost comes down to whether or not there is moisture, whether you have somewhere to go with the calves, and whether or not calves are available for a decent price.”

Though more can be done to alter the sell price – the other bookend of gross margin – opportunities for control are also limited.

“Do I want to take a position? Does my banker tell me I need to? Do I short the board, buy puts or Livestock Risk Protection Insurance?” Bevers asks. “If you don’t do anything, you’re saying you expect the price (indicated by futures) will stay the same or go higher.”

That leaves the gross margin.

Here in the Rolling Plains surrounding Vernon, TX, the sprawling wheat pasture country where Bevers is headquartered, he says gross margins remain remarkably static at around $250-$300/head. That was true when calves were worth $500/head coming in, and is still true now that they’re worth $800 and more.

There’s not much that can be done about the sunk costs in the margin – things like cattle cost and interest. Likewise, around here, Bevers says you can count on pasture cost eating up about half of the margin. But he reckons that leaves 10-25% of the margin that producers can control.

“Once you get past the buy and sell, everything else is about gain, the things that comprise average daily gain and everything you do to promote that; adequate forage, implants and ionophores,” Bevers says. “What’s my gain and what can I do to enhance it? If cost enhances gain, that’s probably a dollar well spent.”

The same goes for time and resources spent to straighten out calves and keep them healthy.

“The stocker producer is selling pounds. The more pounds he can generate from his forage base, the more he increases profitability,” says Doug Hufstedler, Elanco Animal Health beef technical consultant. “We know healthy animals gain more. So, what proven technologies can I utilize to optimize gain, be it an implant, Rumensin®, or a well-designed and executed animal health program?”

“Death loss costs more than it did before. There’s just a higher level of risk in general,” Peel says. “Management is clearly worth more. VOG puts more emphasis on the productivity of animals. Because animals are more valuable, there are more dollars at risk. So there is a lot of value in minimizing death loss and anything that reduces productivity.”

Hufstedler believes tracking the performance of individual cattle is an underutilized opportunity that can help producers measure the relative worth of various management practices and technologies.

With that in mind, Hufstedler is an advocate of collecting and utilizing, at a minimum, group, and ideally, individual animal data rather than guessing. He explains the latter often leads to uninformed, profit-killing, kneejerk reactions. He emphasizes descriptive information and performance data can be a powerful decision-making tool.

Hufstedler adds that tracking individual cattle relative to such variables as order buyer, origin, sale barn, trucking company, transit time, etc., helps gauge potential risk level, which ensures proper health protocols are in place upon arrival. Subsequently, he explains performance pros and cons can be evaluated and leveraged using the same information.

“With the right information, you can identify warning signs in front of a wreck that help you stay ahead of the cattle rather than behind them,” Hufstedler says. “I think that’s something we’ve been missing out on and to me, that’s one of the biggest opportunities stocker producers can capitalize on.”

“The stocker business has always been defined by higher risk and higher return. Every dollar you spend is up for grabs. Add that to the dollars on the table and there is more emphasis on risk management,” Peel says.

Incidentally, Hufstedler also sees growing opportunity for some stocker producers to spread capital risk by growing calves in partnership with or for larger stocker and cattle feeding entities.

“Generally, they find you because you have developed a reputation for delivering well straightened out calves,” Hufstedler says.

High VOG Should Continue

“Fewer calves and high-priced corn says anything you can do to add weight with forage is a good thing. I don’t see that changing back fundamentally. The beef industry came from a forage basis and I think the market is telling us we need to return to more of it,” Peel says. “The only way we can change the amount of grain we use as an industry is by what we do to the cattle before they get to the feedlot. That’s why I think the stocker industry has to grow. That’s why I’m optimistic about the stocker business and the forage business.”

As always, though, Bevers explains, “It isn’t doing one big thing better that makes one stocker producer more profitable than another; it’s the accumulation of doing lots of little things better.”