“You own stocker cattle long enough and the market generally gives you a chance to come out on them,” says Jay O’Brien of Amarillo, who owns a ranch northeast of Clarendon, TX, with his children and grandkids. He also manages ranches in Texas and Colorado.

“Yearlings have been really good to us over a lot of years,” O’Brien explains. “The stocker business has been the most profitable sector during my time.”

The game has changed, though.

“We used to buy large numbers of cattle weighing less than 350 lbs.,” O’Brien says. “There were weeks we could bring in 1,000-2,000 head. I’m not sure you could find that many light calves in a week now, even if price wasn’t a factor.

“Our job then was to double their weight or more, and do it cheaply enough to make money. We do the same thing now, except we can’t double the weight.”

Another major difference, according to O’Brien, is the health of the cattle.

“In my arrogant youth, I thought we were buying higher-risk cattle cheap enough that we were getting a better return, because our management system and effort mitigated the risk,” O’Brien explains. “In the last decade, I’ve had that arrogance absolutely knocked out of me.”

Jay O BrienReferring to put-together cattle gathered in the Southeast and then making the long haul to the Texas Panhandle, O’Brien says, “I can’t do a good enough job keeping them alive like we used to. We don’t have the tools to handle the health on the calves we used to. The medications aren’t as effective as they were.”

It could be the heavier cattle at younger ages, genetics, different bugs, the pharmaceuticals used, a combination of these and other factors. All O’Brien knows for sure is that he’d like to go back to the days when a 3% death loss on high-risk calves was considered a wreck.

Longer-acting medicines have changed O’Brien’s management, too.

“How we handle our health programs has changed substantially and made our job more difficult,” O’Brien says. “The old theory was you’d get calves in, they’d go through the sweats and break in 10 days. In 21 days, they were ready to go to pasture. With the newer, longer-acting drugs, a lot of times the cattle won’t break until 21 days. It changes how you manage them, and it costs more.”

Plus, cattle are on a receiving ration longer, and they remain in receiving traps longer, meaning fewer head can be handled in the same period of time.

But changes bring opportunity, too. “The health challenge has added value to the role of the stocker operator,” O’Brien explains. “It’s harder for feedlots to straighten out calves, so that adds some value back.”

One way O’Brien is addressing the health challenge is buying calves in the Southeast and putting them on a 45-day preconditioning program before shipping them to his ranches.

Focusing on cattle handling helps, too. Years ago, O’Brien built catch pens in the corner of receiving traps so that sick cattle could be pulled with less stress, loaded onto a trailer, and taken to a sick pen.

“It helps us with death loss, sickness and gain, not stressing the entire group by roping calves to doctor like we did years ago. We didn’t know it at the time, but less stress in handling also helps us on grade,” O’Brien explains. He knows because he and his partners feed many of the calves they stocker.

“In the last 10 years, we’re absolutely looking for one-brand calves,” O’Brien says. “We don’t buy as many high-risk calves. We won’t hit a ranch with as many in a week as we used to, and we won’t mix sources. We’ve got enough cows that we don’t need to buy as many calves as we used to.”