Tom Wilburn doesn’t like the word “think.” Instead, he says you either know or you don’t. And if you ask Mr. Wilburn about his cow herd or the calves that go through his marketing group, he knows the answer or can look up the answer in his records without having to guess.
His recordkeeping method is simple and one that he finds helpful in tracking production efficiency in his cow herd. He uses a formula to rank calves from each of his 500 brood cows. The most probable producing ability (MPPA) data are based on a formula using parameters to compare production within a herd. A score of 100 is average, but Mr. Wilburn adjusts that formula to simplify it for himself. He says that a cow that consistently produces calves with a score of 1 or 2 is considered cream of the crop, while a cow that consistently produces a 6 calf might be one to consider culling.
“I don’t keep a cow just because she produces a calf,” says Mr. Wilburn. Instead, he looks at the calf rankings, which are partly based on the weight of the calf on a particular day of age, and not by weight alone at weaning.
A computer isn’t necessary to track the performance; instead, Mr. Wilburn relies on the tried-and-true paper-and-pencil method. However, it’s his organization and simplification of those records that make them useful. Each cow has a card listing the calves she’s had with the calf tag number, weights, production score and other notes. At culling time, Mr. Wilburn can pull the cards, and those cows that consistently produce a calf with an unsatisfactory score get culled.
The calf crop each year is divided up, and Mr. Wilburn keeps the top replacement females to go back into the breeding herd. The other steers and heifers belong to Scott Wesley, who now runs the farm once owned by Mr. Wilburn. Eventually, some of those animals are pulled into a marketing co-op in order to realize their true value.
Nearly eight years ago, Mr. Wilburn and some other cattle producer friends — with herd sizes from 30 head to 250 head — decided there must be a better way to market calves and keep more of that money in their own pockets. A marketing group was formed to provide enough quality, preconditioned cattle to fill a 50,000-pound truckload, making their calves more appealing to larger feedyard buyers. The idea seemed simple enough, but the logistics became a challenge when accurate weights were needed to fulfill the marketing obligations.
The group sells their cattle via Superior Livestock’s video auction. All calves are vaccinated and wormed twice and heifers get a bangs vaccination. About 25 to 30 days before delivery, each producer turns in individual-animal weights. As a rule of thumb, each animal is calculated to gain 2 pounds per day until delivery.
Mr. Wilburn then determines which animals will go on which truck — such as the heavy truck, light truck, etc. — and a cutoff weight for each truck is set. Since Mr. Wilburn has the sorting facilities, including a certified scale, each producer in the marketing group brings cattle to his facilities to make sure the cattle promised for delivery are accurately weighed and put on the right truck.
Mr. Wilburn serves as the adviser to the marketing group and helps them determine which management practices, such as preconditioning, are worthwhile. With his number crunching, he knows that preconditioning those calves does pay a premium of several cents per pound.
Whether it’s keeping records on the brood cows or marketing calves, Mr. Wilburn sees value in tracking the numbers, if they’re accurate. But he warns, “Misinformation gets you in trouble.”