Three years ago a busload of Missouri veterinarians and their cow-calf producers made one long trip across and around Kansas (see Bovine Veterinarian, November-December 2003). Their goal wasn’t to see the world’s largest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kan., but instead to visit the feedlots -- for the first time -- where they were sending their calves that were enrolled in the Missouri Verified Beef program. This face-to-face communication with the people who were feeding their calves left a lasting impression.
Fast-forward three years to the Oak Glenn Winery perched high on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River in Hermann, Mo., and a barbecue for MVB producers, veterinarians, their backgrounding yard and a western Kansas feedlot this summer. The 6-year-old MVB program, which focuses on mid-sized, progressive cow-calf producers who want to market their cattle together in larger, more consistent lots, strives to keep communication open between the various parties who are involved in the program, and these types of events help make it happen.
MVB isn’t a typical alliance that is just focused on producers. Veterinary involvement is key to its success, and it is administered by veterinarians. Brad White, DVM, and Dan Goehl, DVM, manage the MVB program and encourage local veterinarians to get involved in it with their clients.
“MVB has given moderate-sized producers an opportunity to participate in multiple stages of the industry and get information back on their individual calves from each stage,” says Goehl of the Canton Veterinary Clinic, Canton, Mo. “This is important in that it allows them to see why some of the factors affecting the sale of their cattle are in place, and at times it has been very eye-opening. Veterinarian involvement gives the participants in the feedlot an assurance that the calves are managed correctly before arrival.”
The veterinarian offers health input and also helps ensure that the data received back from the program is used to make good decisions on the farm. “All calves in the program have a health protocol designed and implemented by the veterinarian who works with that client; thus, from a management standpoint, we have a third party who can help verify that everything was done correctly,” adds White of Kansas State University. “However, the most important part may be working with the client to take program feedback and make a better calf. There are so many variables that affect final performance that this can only be achieved by someone such as the herd’s veterinarian, who has an intimate understanding of the farm-management scheme. The veterinarian can provide the ‘outside eye’ than can help see problems that are difficult to identify if you are too close to them.”
Make no mistake; becoming involved in the Missouri Verified Beef program with clients involves some work, but the ends definitely justify the means. “Some of the veterinarians who have approached us want to participate but don’t think their clients are willing,” says White. “From within the same geographic region we often get producers who call and want to participate but don’t feel their veterinarian wants to participate. Veterinarians who want to become involved need to begin by visiting with their clients about the aspects of the beef industry that a program such as this can help align.”
MVB isn’t right for all clients, but the goal is to be sure that clients are aware of options for programs like this. Getting involved in these types of programs puts the veterinarian in a position to be a part of management decisions. “This is the only way to truly influence long- term changes and improvements,” states White. “To get involved in a program with clients, one big step is identifying client goals. If you can gather individuals with similar goals, they can work together to produce a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship.”
Not only is communication with veterinarians paramount, but so is communication with the feedlots who handle the calves. One person who was present at both MVB events is Warren Weibert, owner of Decatur County Feed Yard, Oberlin, Kan. “We appreciate our relationship with MVB, its producers and veterinarians because we all are acting in a partnership way to enhance the profitability of
everyone in the alliance,” says Weibert. “We have open communication between all parties; we know what works best in the program, and each one adapts to make all pieces in the puzzle better.”
Steve Strubberg, DVM, Hermann, Mo., has been involved with the program since 2001. “We have learned about the other sectors of the beef industry,” he says. “Most Missouri cow-calf producers have no idea how backgrounders, feedlots and packers operate. We have gained an understanding on these sectors and are able to work with them better.”
Any program will benefit if all of the players know each other. This is why the bus trip to the feedlots and the barbecue at the winery were important events to have. The bus trip into Kansas allowed the producers to see aspects of the beef industry that they had not seen before, explains Goehl. “It helped them to understand issues such as marketing in pen-size groups.” The events also serve to help make a connection between the entities of MVB. “When the cow-calf producer can sit across the table from the person backgrounding his calves and recognize that he is a real person trying to benefit his client -- the MVB producer -- it gives them some assurance,” he adds.
White agrees. “The program is a cooperative: cooperatives are based on relationships between participants. We feel that one of the great advantages of this program is working with like-minded individuals to achieve common goals.” This means that although participants live in varied parts of the state, they can still communicate, get together and maintain relationships between other members who feed cattle together.
The picture wouldn’t be complete without involvement from the backgrounder, as well. “We send the cattle from home farms to a central backgrounder for feeding,” explains White. “Producers still own 100% of the calves through the backgrounding phase; therefore, they have to trust the bckgrounder to do a good job with the cattle.”
Part of that trust was built by having the backgrounders present at the recent event to talk to the producers and veterinarians. Terrill Lane and Galen Switzer, Brookfield, Mo., background MVB’s calves and have also been involved in providing feedback to help improve how the calves are managed prior to shipping to the backgrounding yard. “We are very pleased with the health and performance of our cattle during the backgrounding phase, and it is nice for everyone to get to know the people who are taking care of their cattle during both the backgrounding and feeding phase,” says White. “Interacting with other segments of the beef production system allows us to expand our perspective beyond the area we work in.”
Strubberg coordinated this event with the aid of Bob Barron of Norbrook Labs, who also helped sponsor it. “The event was very important since we have participants from all corners of the state, and we rarely get a chance to meet face-to-face,” says Strubberg.
MVB participants also have interaction several times during the year over the Internet/phone when selling cattle. They also spend a fair amount of time discussing other topics including industry news, management strategies and other things of interest. “It is nice to get together in person at least once a year so that group members from different areas of the state can put faces with the names of people they have been talking with over the last year,” says White.
One reason feedlot owner Weibert attended the barbecue was to bring participants up-to-speed on what is going on from the feeding industry’s perspective. “I believe the beef industry is undergoing rapid change at the present time, and a lot of the change has to do with presentation of our product to the consumer,” says Weibert. His feedlot has been working toward value-based marketing for a long time. Now with all sorts of branded products, including natural and organic beef, the need for traceability and accountability is a high priority.
Weibert told the MVB participants that for producers of all sizes, at this time, if they have done a good job of raising their cattle and have good, auditable records, they can earn substantial premiums for their cattle, if they retain ownership or partial ownership through the feedlot. “When smaller producers combine their resources to form a larger unit and work with a feedlot which combines resources to form a larger unit, everyone benefits,” he says. “I also reiterated that this was a tough year in the cattle- feeding industry, and we sort and sell everyone’s cattle over a period of time, so it spreads marketing risk.”
The people at Decatur County Feed Yard are all about working for understanding with their feeders or partners and are always looking for opportunities to interrelate on a personal basis. “Spending a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Missouri wine country in the summer to visit with this group is a great way to do that,” notes Weibert.
The impact of Weibert’s visit wasn’t lost on the participants. “Some of the best comments I heard involved discussions producers had with Warren,” recalls Strubberg. “It was very kind of Warren to spend some of his valuable time with us.”
Education is a critical component of the MVB program. Producers and veterinarians who participate in the program are constantly trying to improve. “Without understanding what we’ve learned from data collection, the performance figures are just numbers and are not inherently valuable,” White explains. “We try to spend time communicating the meaning of some of the performance figures. Individual veterinarians work with their clients to discuss the implication of specific data for their farms.”
Not only does each producer receive data, each veterinarian gets a summary sheet with the data from all of his/her participating clients. All data is also benchmarked against the group for comparative analysis. The group communicates through e-mails and mailings to discuss findings that affect the group and how the cattle have performed. “It is not a program of just veterinarians educating clients on general guidelines, but rather a cooperative learning process where everyone is learning based on what is really happening on the individual farms,” adds White.
The method MVB uses to store data allows them to benchmark the producer, not only against the contemporary group but also against his farm in the past, using historical data. This allows tracking of individual areas that have changed over time. “We also analyze the data as a group to determine
specific areas we can learn from and improve,” notes White. “For example, right now we are in the process of evaluating vaccination programs on individual farms and the subsequent health status of animals from these management systems. Again, the education is not passive and everyone is learning as we go.”
Analyzing data isn’t the only education that is needed. Weibert highly recommends that individual producers visit several commercial feedlots before they decide where to feed their cattle. “The feedlots they visit don’t necessarily have to be the closest to them,” he suggests. “Personal, face-to-face communication and education is very important to broaden perspectives and gain understanding of what is entailed to produce wholesome food in an economic, environmentally and socially acceptable manner. ‘Field trips’ are expensive, but necessary to gain full understanding in the beef business.”
WHAT IS MVB?
The Missouri Verified Beef program began in 2000 as a way for mid-sized producers to take advantage of working as a cooperative to market and background calves. The producers can feed and market calves more efficiently as a group than they can as individuals. Working through their local veterinarians, MVB participants follow health parameters for their calves, as well as individually identifying the animals.
Owners also get feedback on individual animal performance and carcass data so they can evaluate breeding, management and health decisions. The data is sorted so they can evaluate differences between individual sires on their farms. “We have noted differences in profitability of an average of $100 per sire,” says MVB manager Brad White, DVM. “This data is very useful as it can be used to evaluate a management decision.”
Producers in the program have averaged making $45 per head over selling the calves at weaning. This does not count the value of the information received by the producers toward changing their herds for the better. “The information and subsequent herd improvements are the most valuable part of the program,” adds White. “Producers are able to use the information to more effectively modify their herds to produce their target product.”
The program has several comminglings of calves in the fall and usually one in the spring. Cattle are on feed throughout the year and in the backgrounding yard for about eight to nine months of the year.
“Economy of scale is a real cost driver in the beef industry, and this program allows producers to function as a large unit while still maintaining independence,” says White. Currently, there are 35-40 producers involved in the program annually and nine veterinarians.