The definition of marketing for some cow-calf producers could be “rounding up the calves, loading them into trailers and sending them to the local auction market.” While this method will put a cheque in the bank account, it’s not likely the optimum definition to tie the financial proficiency of an operation to.
Advertise herd genetics
Tom Brink, CEO of the Red Angus Association of America and founder of Top Dollar Angus, says there are some vital pillars of marketing superior calves. The first is to recognize the value of superior genetics.
“More people are beginning to understand if they upgrade their bull battery and really get a target on what they are doing genetically in their herd, they can get paid more,” Brink says. Top Dollar Angus, based in Colorado, is one of the first genetic certification providers for commercial feeder cattle, and the only one focused exclusively on Angus and Angus-based cattle/calves with the top 25 per cent growth and carcass traits.
Brink says more than ever before, there is a greater awareness of the importance of quality genetics by cattle feeders and packers. “It’s not necessarily something that has been there forever,” he says. “It’s a different response than you would have got a few years ago when they said, ‘we just kill cattle, we’re not trying to shape the future with better genetics.’”
One producer’s genetics will never be exactly like another’s. They must match the environment in which the animals are raised. Beyond that, they should suit the availability of inputs and provide superiority in other traits such as weaning and yearling weights, carcass, frame size, longevity and feed efficiency, to name a few. Ultimately, the genetics of the animal must match the sales options available.
Promoting calf health
Brink says calf health is another vital marketing consideration. Industry statistics show one out of every five pens of calves arriving in feedlots experiences “catastrophic” death losses of five per cent or more. “That should tell a person why buyers are extremely careful about paying a premium,” Brink says. “Health will always be a massive determinant.”
If weaning and shipping events could be separated by approximately 45 days, it would be a great help since the immunosuppressive impacts are not combined. By spacing out the major stressor events, the immune system is given time to mount a challenge to any bacterial or viral stressors.
Using preconditioning or other certified programs such as Top Dollar Angus can be a critical strategy to maintain the health of calves. “A ranch’s documented health program can be a marketing tool to capture additional value,” Brink says. “With a veterinarian’s signature showing the dates and specifics of vaccinations, a seller demonstrates their calves had what they needed. Just by doing this, their reputation goes up in the buyer’s mind.”
It comes down to numbers
In the latest Canadian Census of Agriculture in 2016, the average cow herd had 62 females. Brink believes most large feedlots are simply not interested in purchasing smaller groups of calves, as their needs are too great.
A less-than-optimal marketing situation bringing a lower return is usually the sad reality for smaller operators unable to fill a consistent transport load of same-sex cattle. “On the smaller cow-calf deal, there is no question it is harder to access the best markets,” Brink says. “Even if you have really good genetics, a reasonable health program and some verification… numbers matter.”
To Brink, the numbers — being able to assemble a nice uniform pen of cattle — can have a bigger impact on marketing than genetics and health. He says many smaller producers raise some of the best cattle. “It’s all about the numbers,” he says. “The challenge is to figure out a way to get to a single-load lot level. To me, the price of admission to the best markets in our business is the single-load lot.”
In his extensive experience, Brink believes there is plenty of demand for single loads of high-quality cattle that will fit a program. He adds even the bigger yards are happy to talk about a single consistent load if it matches the right weight, condition, genetics and health.
Brink encourages operators to address the problem by enlisting the aid of neighbours and contacts with similar genetics and programs. “Collaborate with other smaller producers to help yourself and others around you. When packers and buyers find a consistent group of cattle in usable numbers (single transport lots), they tend to remember and ask, ‘where can we get more of those cattle?’”
But he emphasizes the marketing of calves needs to begin long before they go under the auctioneer’s gavel. “We’ve got to think about it early on if we’re ever going to be successful in differentiating our product on sale day and get the attention of the right buyers at the right prices.”