If the beef business never changed, cattle feeders wouldn’t need consultants like Dave McClellan.

The Nebraska-based nutritionist works primarily with small to mid-sized, privately owned feedyards, but in these operations, small does not mean old-fashioned or behind the times. McClellan says his clients tend to be progressive producers, looking for ways to improve production efficiency and beef quality. Feedyards in this size range — between 5,000- and 15,000-head capacity — often have more flexibility than the largest yards and are better able to adopt new technology.

McClellan notes that cattle feeders face on-going challenges to adapt to changes in the industry such as feeding distillers’ grains or modifying their structures and facilities to comply with environmental regulations. “My clients are acutely aware of issues such as animal welfare and environmental protection — things like dust, odor and noise that can affect what people think when they drive past a feedlot. We try to do whatever we can to minimize them.”

These feeders also are pulling quite a few calves into “natural-beef” programs. Immunity is critical, he says, because the feeders and their veterinarians will use antibiotics if cattle get sick, but they fall out of the natural program and lose considerable value. With this in mind, as well as general performance and profitability, McClellan says his clients absolutely prefer calves that are preconditioned and weaned for 35 or 40 days, or even longer, and pay premium prices for them. The further they are from weaning when they come to the feedlot, the better they do in terms of health and performance.

Most of these Corn Belt cattle feeders also farm row crops, but McClellan doesn’t describe them as “farmer-feeders.” Instead, he refers to them as “feeder-farmers,” explaining that feeding cattle is their passion and their primary business, with grain farming a means of supplying feed. 

These feeders recognize that packers and consumers are becoming more demanding, so they increasingly need more information from suppliers. “For cow-calf producers who want to trade with my clients,” McClellan says, “I recommend they collect and provide as much information as they can on their calves, including birth dates, vaccination history and genetic profiles to help us target specific markets.

“As a group, we’re big on building relationships,” he adds. “We like to buy calves from suppliers we know, and even when purchasing through auctions, we try to get as much information as possible about the source.”

Verification is becoming the norm with progressive cattle feeders. Last year McClellan says about 60 percent of his clients wanted source and age verification on cattle they purchased. Now he says 75 to 80 percent want it because verification increases their marketing options. He expects the value of verification to increase, but as with preconditioning, market premiums for verification will evolve toward discounts for undocumented cattle as the practice becomes expected.

Detailed vaccination histories, including which products were used and when, help feeders design appropriate health protocols in the feedyard, McClellan says.

If a group of cattle performs well in the feedyard and provides good value to the packer, McClellan says he and his clients will let the rancher who supplied them know, and will begin talking about feeding next-year’s calf crop. “Also, if we have a wreck with a set of calves, we’ll go back to the rancher, not to point fingers, but to try to solve the problem.” More often than not, the cause is not a vaccine failure, but an immune system failure due to nutrition, particularly deficiencies in key minerals such as copper, selenium or zinc. “We feel good about working with ranchers, even when we have a wreck. If we feel comfortable they are making efforts to resolve the problem, we’ll go back for their calves again.”

Communication works both ways, he adds, saying his clients share as much performance and carcass data as they can with suppliers.

This kind of communication up and down the beef production chain is critical for the long-term success of cow-calf producers and cattle feeders, McClellan believes. That message came to the forefront in a client meeting he held this summer at a Colorado guest ranch. For 18 years, he has invited his clients to the annual event for education and relationship building.

This year, the conference focused on communication between sectors of the beef industry, with presenters from around the industry discussing production efficiency, beef quality and consumer satisfaction. Cattle feeders spent two days hearing about new technology and production trends, and interacting with industry stakeholders ranging from animal scientists to a retailer and a professional chef.