You often hear of someone “wearing more than one hat” in reference to their work. Mark Harmon stretches that description. If he had a hat for every job, he’d need one heck of a hat rack.

Harmon serves as marketing manager at southern Missouri’s Joplin Regional Stockyards, one of the largest livestock auction facilities in the country. JRS, which features more than 300,000 square feet under roof, outside traps to hold 3,000 to 4,000 head and an arena that seats 300 and has capacity for up to 10,000 cattle, serves a primary market area consisting of 33 counties in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. In this market, Harmon says, there are 2,000,000 total head of cattle and 900,000 beef cows. The area features beef operations of all sizes, but many of them are small. Harmon says those 33 counties are home to 50,000 beef cattle operations, with an average cow herd size of 32 head. “On a normal feeder-cattle sale,” Harmon says, “we will have approximately 500 consignors with an average head count of 12 animals.” In 2008, the facility sold more than 395,000 cattle, and it’s on target to sell 425,000 in 2009.

“Working in a livestock auction of this size, you don’t really have a job description. You do whatever it takes to make the customers’ and buyers’ time here a good experience — whether it’s helping with marketing sale dates, farm visits, arranging trucking or helping them understand their marketing options.”

Harmon, along with Troy Watson, also helps manage Joplin’s value-added sales and Process Verification Program. Joplin, he says, offers producers the opportunity to market their cattle in value-added sales, helping them earn top dollar for cattle with certified weaning, preconditioning and nutrition programs backed up with animal identification.

Animal health tops the list of what order buyers want in cattle, Harmon says. They have become less willing to take chances on risky cattle and will pay more for those from documented health programs. Next on the list, he says, age and source verification make cattle more marketable to buyers looking for premiums at harvest. As feeders and stocker operators face high costs and tough economic times, these verification programs make cattle easier to market.

“Buyers understand the requirements that go into a value-added program,” Harmon says. “Whether it is a preconditioning program or an age and source program, the buyer knows there is certification behind the product he’s purchasing.

“Value-added sales work for the producers who understand how to achieve value and measure it,” he says. “Probably the most important thing is to understand how to avoid discounts and offer a product that is in high demand when you offer your product for sale.”

Constant communication

Much of what Harmon does, he says, is to communicate with producers to help them market their cattle most effectively. “Interaction with producers is a daily event, whether it’s phone calls on market updates or trends, or helping them manage their risk via video sale with forward contracting,” he says.

In addition to its regular Monday feeder auction, Joplin offers a weekly video sale, which helps producers manage risk by allowing producers to forward contract calves for later delivery. The facility also offers a cow and bull sale on Wednesdays, along with special cow and replacement heifer sales during the year.

Since September 2001, Joplin has conducted weekly commingled sales to help producers get the best value for small lots of cattle. Joplin crews sort the cattle through their processing facility to group calves from multiple owners into larger lots based on weight, shape, color and sex. These larger, more uniform lots, Harmon says, are attractive to more buyers, and for an extra $3.50 per head cost, smaller producers can earn significant premiums compared with selling their calves together in small groups.

At any of the sales, Harmon says, auctioneers work to provide as much information as possible, such as management practices and vaccination history in hopes of making cattle more marketable. And after the sale, the stockyards staff often acts as a go-between, passing information from buyers back to the sellers when possible, on how their calves performed though later production stages.

In his day-to-day work with cow-calf producers, Harmon says he sees several key challenges that often limit their profitability in today’s cattle business. These include:

  • Not staying current on market trends.
  • Not staying on top of modern, efficient management practices.
  • Unwillingness to pay that little extra for a better bull.
  • Failure to measure and understand their production costs.
  • Missing the opportunity to use rotational grazing to get the most from their forage resources.

In case he doesn’t wear enough hats, Harmon also manages the company’s advertising, with a network of radio stations and print media, and serves as publisher of JRS’s Cattlemen’s News magazine. He says the publication, which he says is dedicated to helping area cattle producers add value to their operations, is an excellent tool for producer communications.