“We understand that in the grow yard we get cattle at the most vulnerable time in their lives; they live or die in that first 30 days. But it’s also our job to put pounds on those animals,” Trever emphasizes.

“The biggest challenge we face in conditioning cattle and in the stocker business is health, gearing our program to minimize input cost by reducing morbidity and death loss,” Lance explains.

“If you get in a wreck on the front end, it’s an uphill battle from there to make the money work,” Kirk adds.

“I’m a believer in trying to figure out how not to have to pull and treat cattle,” Lance says, adding that it starts with nutrition. In fact, he says hiring a consulting nutritionist two years ago has returned more to the Masons’ grower operation than any other management practice adopted or changed in that same period.

Another key is the health of the arriving cattle, which has plenty to do with whether the calves received appropriate vaccinations at the proper time, and administered correctly. The Masons encourage customers to shop for vaccinated calves out of mama cows that are also vaccinated.

In addition, the Masons are meticulous about what animal health products they use. Consider ionophores. Lance explains they utilize Rumensin® on every head possible because it yields visible performance gains and is effective in controlling Coccidia.

“Rumensin is one of those products where I can guarantee you’re going to get results,” he says.

Similarly, Lance says they use Component® TE-G implants with Tylan® on a majority of the cattle they graze. That includes heifers they know fall short of replacement quality.

“It’s a longer-lasting implant that we like to use on the grazing cattle. With the Tylan we don’t have problems with knots or sores on the ears,” Lance says. “Anytime cattle are worth what they are now for a pound of gain, we look for anything that can give us an advantage. Even if it’s just a fraction of 1 lb./day, that early investment will pay.”

These are the closest things you’ll find to standard protocols here. The Masons receive cattle from a variety of customers, from across the U.S., from about 250-800 lbs. The stress levels and needs vary with every group of cattle. So, Lance says they evaluate and craft protocols to each individual group. As mainly a custom business, they’ll make recommendations to customers; but if a customer wants a particular protocol or product outside the recommendation, that’s what they’ll do.

Incidentally, Kirk says one of the key changes he’s seen in the stocker business over the last 20 years in this neck of the woods has been the transition from lots of wheat farmers who would buy and graze calves to more corporate stocker entities owning the cattle and looking for a place to add pounds.

“It used to be that you’d have 25-40 order buyers at a sale; now you have four or five,” Kirk says.

Reality magnifies challenges and opportunities

All these details are magnified by current market forces that include high costs overall and gut-wrenching price volatility. They’re compounded further by structural flux resulting in fewer cattle and fewer cattle operations.

When the Masons and their group were offered the chance to buy the sale barn, they were already looking into building one. Trever explains one thing their business plan couldn’t account for was the historic drought in the Southern Plains that accelerated long-term liquidation.

“Conventional wisdom no longer works. We’re going to have to develop relationships we probably never would have thought about before,” Trever says. Here, he’s referring to cattle producers in general, as much as he is to the Masons’ enterprises.

For instance, where independent stocker operators and cattle feeders are the reason the Masons started Northwest Cattle Feeders to begin with, Trever explains, “The future for us is going to be also partnering with feedyards in order to provide them a constant supply of cattle.”

Another example comes with the alliance forged between Northwest Cattle Feeders, Northwest Stockyards and 74-51 Cattle Co. based at Oklahoma City. The latter is a seedstock operation owned by Darvin Knapp and Ken Davidson, and also one of the partners in Northwest Stockyards.

Trever explains the partnership helps 74-51 provide customers with broader marketing and management options. On the other end, 74-51 customers represent a pool of top-quality calves for both the sale barn and Northwest Cattle Feeders.

“In the cattle business, we all have a tendency to react,” Lance says. “We have to plan ahead. That way we can at least minimize our financial exposure, and at these prices, we’re starting to talk about a lot of exposure.”

Anytime you’re producing beef at prices as high as they are today, there is opportunity,” Kirk says. “I’d a lot rather put feed into something bringing $1.50/lb. than 80¢.”