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Stronger Together

By Katrina Huffstutler

One group of Hill Country Cattlemen work together to produce profitable load lots they otherwise couldn't.

It's a common complaint — the small producer just can't sell his cattle the same way the large producer can, leaving him without the opportunity to reap the same benefits. It's also harder for him to get paid for participating in programs like VAC-45 or age- and source-verification.

But what if it weren't?

Robert Cowan, Llano, had already made the switch to forward contracting his cattle
about 15 years ago when he had an idea. He and a buddy would pool their (similar) calves together and sellthem as a load lot.

He traveled to the Panhandle of Texas, toured several feedlots and talked to operators along the way about what types of calves they wanted. He also started asking if they'd be interested in pools of calves from 2 or more producers, as long as they were of similar genetics, health programs and age.

The idea — and the number of participants — grew from there. Five to 7 area producers now follow Cowan's guidelines and, under his leadership, pool their calves annually, marketing 600 to 800 calves every summer and gaining an advantage once available only to their larger counterparts.

The formula for consistency

After doing his research, Cowan put together a set of guidelines that any participants in the program would agree to follow, thus creating the most similar set of high-demand calves possible.

He started by choosing a genetic profile: All calves would be English-sired, with no preference over Angus or Hereford.

Cowan says all of the producers use a fall calving season, and steers are weaned at about 700 to 750 pounds. The heifers generally fall about 60 pounds behind them.

In the 15 years he's been doing this, he hasn't made any changes to the health program. All producers' cows must be current on their vaccinations and on good IBR, BVD programs, he says, and the calves are vaccinated during the first working and branding. They are vaccinated again prior to shipping.

"Every producer does the exact same thing," he says.

A few years ago, he added age- and source-verification to the list of criteria, and they haven't looked back.

Cowan says a program like this relies heavily on working with people you can trust to follow the guidelines you've set forth.

"I just tell them, ‘You know, when I give my word, it's given.' And I've been selling cattle like this now for the last several years and everything has been going sight unseen off my word," he says, adding that he's rarely had any problems.

"I'm working with good people — people who want to do the best they can and try to sell a good quality product," he says, "and it makes all the difference."

A well-oiled machine

Cowan is in contact with the participating producers throughout the year, ensuring everyone knows what to do and when. It also helps him keep a tentative head count.

"The guys who think they want to go in it that year, they'll call and I'll say, ‘This is when we're going to do branding and this is a list of [the vaccinations] we're going to use this year and this is how we're going to do it," he says. "And until I start turning in head counts to the feedyards, they can pull out anytime they want."

He says when it comes time to ship cattle, it's a lot easier than one might think.

"It's basically a very simple format," Cowan says. "It just takes cooperation and a lot of planning."

Cattle come out of Llano, Gillespie and San Saba counties to a central shipping point. It's designed so that no one has to haul their cattle more than about 20 miles.

The group usually ships about the third week of July, during a time pre-arranged with the buyers.

"We will basically have everything worked out ahead of time and we try to ship somewhere between 2 and 3 loads of cattle every day," Cowan explains, adding that some producers contribute only 40 to 50 calves per year, while the largest producer brings about 200 head.

"I've been doing this long enough that I can pretty well figure them into truckload lots. And it works out well. Let's say we have a producer who just has about 100 head of calves. We can get 70 of those on one truck, but we have 30 left over. The remaining calves will go on a truck the next day. We just balance them out like that."

He keeps track of each producer's head count, and sells those as a lot. Some buyers list Cowan as the seller on the contact, while others list "multiple sellers." The buyer then provides Cowan with checks broken down for each producer in the group.

Keys to success

Cowan has had such success with the program that he's quick to encourage others to consider it.

"I think in the future, this is what it's going to," he says. "We have a lot of good cattle down here but many are from 40- and 50-head producers who can't produce a load lot. I think a lot of people are in the same boat, and could benefit."

He admits some are a little intimidated by the guidelines he's set forth.

"I hear, ‘Oh, I can't do that,' or ‘I can't do this,'" he says. "But they can — and it's not that hard. We work the cattle 3 times per year, no different than if you were going to take them to a sale barn."

He says the No. 1 key to success is having a group of like-minded people, adding that none of those people can come into the program with an ego.

"If you've got an ego, you may as well just leave it parked off to the side and do your own thing," he says.

The group also needs a leader, Cowan says.

"Someone has to be the center point. A cattle buyer doesn't want to be talking to 5 or 6 or more people — he wants to talk to 1," he says.

That leader has to be someone the other producers can trust or it will never work, Cowan adds.

"When buyers shoot me a price, I tell them, ‘OK, but before I agree, I am going to call my people and let them know what it is.' Of course, we've been doing this long enough now, many of the sellers will say, ‘Hey, you don't need to call me until you're telling me when to deliver them,'" he says.

The leader also has to be willing to take risk — risk that someone will pull out after the head counts are turned in, or risk that the cattle won't be as promised.

But, for Cowan, it's been worth it. "As with anything, there are bugs you have to work out. And while we may have never sold at the top of the market, we've never lost any money," he says. "We've always come out ahead."