About 150 miles west of Washington, D.C., near the headwaters of the Potomac River, is some pretty mountainous country, varying in elevation from about 1,500 to 3,000 feet, which produces, according to residents, some of the best grass in the East. 

That’s the advantage for the small cow-calf producers who operate in Pendleton County, W.V. The disadvantage comes when it’s time for them to market their calves; there are not many buyers around, and trucking is a challenge because they’re far off the interstate. The Pendleton County Calf Pool came into being to address those challenges.

The idea grew, in part, from educational meetings at the local Extension office on subjects such as animal health, marketing and buyer selection. It was spurred on by the feeling among some producers that they needed to broaden their markets. “They were using superior genetics, and they did an outstanding job of management, but when they were taking them to the local sale barn, they were not getting the premiums they should have gotten,” says Dave Seymour, county Extension agent.

Building uniform load lots

Given their geographic location, marketing trailer-load lots was clearly the way to go for the producers involved; the smallest has 15 head and the largest, 250 head. Following some initial meetings about nine years ago to plan their strategy and get the ball rolling, the group decided to market weaned, preconditioned calves in uniform 50,000-pound load lots.

They worked with their Pfizer Animal Health representative to determine which vaccines would need to be standard. They chose to deworm for both internal and external parasites. Calves would be weaned for at least 45 days and source and age verified. They made genetic similarity a goal, but that is not really the most important thing, says Carl Hevener, the pool president. They do all use moderate-frame, predominantly Black Angus bulls, along with the occasional composite; calves are 95 percent black. “We want bulls of known genetics and above breed average for weaning weight EPDs. We mainly try to keep them black hided, but color now is not really a big issue. Quality is more of an issue,” Hevener says. “We want cattle that will grow.” He says that the pool is now starting to turn its focus more toward carcass traits, especially marbling and intra-muscular fat.

Calves weigh from 500 to 900 pounds, but each trailer load won’t have more than a 75-pound weight spread.

The pool uses EID tags and MS Access database software developed for calf pools. The database integrates all identification and pooling activities: producer enrollment, tag allocation, premise of origin and birth date for process verification and shipment-day activities. When calves are shipped, the database can create the invoices, load manifests, producer statements and pay sheets.

Get buy-in from all participants

The process of building a pool takes time, says Harry Walker, a field rep with Southern States Cooperative, who works with the pool on their animal-health needs  —   so producers should not expect immediate results. Building some level of genetic similarity can take several years. Syncing health and nutrition programs takes coordination. Then the pool needs to establish a reputation with buyers who recognize the value the program adds. So the program requires a lot of co-operation  —  from the producers involved, seedstock suppliers, veterinarians, nutrition and animal-health suppliers, cattle buyers and Extension services.

With the Pendleton County Calf Pool, the local Extension office is deeply involved. Extension agents visit individual producers, inspect calves, set up and organize tours of feedlots, develop sale sheets and project sale weights. They also provide educational opportunities and keep members informed of market conditions and new marketing opportunities. And they organize, promote and conduct the annual sale.

That sale happens by teleauction: Cattle are described on a piece of paper that is faxed to buyers and posted on  a Web site. Their buyers, almost all of them repeat customers, are primarily farmer-feeders in Pennsylvania and  Ohio. Last year they marketed 990 head; the average added value for the pooled calves was $63.84.

Hevener has found that it’s with six- and seven-weight cattle that the financial advantage is most clear; it tends to be in the $70 to $100 per head range over similar cattle. But there’s even more to the financial advantage than that. “You can’t put a dollar amount on getting calves weaned by Labor Day and getting cows in better condition by winter,” he says. “And that’s worth even more this year with the drought.”        

The organizational challenges are making sure everybody is able to adapt his way of thinking  —  not always easy with independent-minded producers  —   to stay coordinated, using the same brand of vaccines, following the same nutritional program and weaning at the same time. Because cattle have to be handled frequently in this program, producers needed to have good working facilities, and some have had to make upgrades. “But they are receiving the financial rewards for it,” Seymour says.

The pool, which meets six times a year, is looking to expand. “You have to do it in a systematic approach,” Seymour says. “You have to make sure the cattle match and keep marketing in trailer-load lots.” There will probably be four or five new producers coming in; they are now going into the next county to look for cattle that match the ones currently in the pool.

There’s no concern about growing too big, Hevener says; he points to another pool in West Virginia that sells over 9,000 head in a single day. “Numbers are not the issue. We’re not looking at numbers; we’re looking at quality.”

Reputation is key

Some buyers have been with the pool all nine years; more than 80 percent of their buyers are repeat customers. “They want healthy cattle that will sell at a premium at harvest,” Seymour says. “These are reputable cattle  —  they know they’ll perform.”

Beyond the quality of the calves, Hevener thinks it is important to build strong relationships with buyers. He contacts them shortly after the sale to help arrange trucking, then calls again a week later for a progress report. In fact, he tries to keep in contact all the way up to slaughter. In the spring, he makes an effort to go in-person to see the calves, both to build on that personal relationship with the buyer and to see how his calves developed.

“Your best calf here at home might not be the best calf at slaughter,” he says. “You can get ideas on whether your genetics are where they need to be. And it’s kind of a pleasure to see what you started with and what they did with it. It’s not like taking them to the stock sale and you get your check three days later and you never know what happened after that. This way you put your reputation on the line all down the road.”

That requires a high level of commitment from pool members and is one reason not everybody is cut out for a marketing pool. “You’ve got to be committed to producing a better product,” Walker says. “Once they make that commitment, they find out that it pays. That makes it easier to make the commitment. But you can’t take shortcuts.” In one case where shortcuts were taken and calves became sick later in the feedyard, a producer who hadn’t given all the vaccines the program requires was asked to leave the pool.

“You need to have people who are willing to work together and take criticism,” Hevener says. “You’ve got to realize not every calf you raise will be sold through this program. I’m not going to sell something I wouldn’t want to feed myself.”

That careful attention to detail is what helped solidify the pool’s reputation, which is truly the bottom line. “Most important is to build a reputation for your cattle  —  that’s what the whole deal is about,” Seymour says. “The only way to do that is by doing the thing the buyer expects and wants  —  and doing it year after year.”