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WHO'S BEEN PAYING ATTENTION?

Jay Nixon

Drive down any rural highway from Texas to Florida, and you're likely to see cattle grazing in the pastures and fields along the way. I notice them. I suppose it's my background as a trader and order buyer that makes me look, an unconscious reflex that I hope to find a set to buy or trade on. Those days are gone, but old habits die hard.

But if you do chance to look, you will, more often than not, see a set of sub-par cows with a bull on them that you know won't produce calves that will be worth very much. And I can't understand why this is.

The news is out across the industry that we are going to need a better kind of calf to satisfy our consumer customers, and the packers, and the order buyers and the feeders. It has been in all the magazines. It has been preached at the seminars and the cattlemen's meetings and by the county agents. These old-style sorry calves just won't do any more.

And yet, there they are. Not just a few but by the hundreds and the thousands across the southern U.S. which is where most of the cows in America live. Have these folks not heard the news? Have they not sold cattle at the local market and seen their calves get hammered by the buyers, while some neighbor sold his bigger, better heavier calves for far higher prices and for far more return?

What is it that compels these cattlemen, large and small, to pay for the upkeep of a bunch of little chicken-boned cows and put a sorry, no good, hump-backed auction-market special bull on them? Don't they know what kind of calves they are producing compared with their neighbors? Haven't they listened to anything in this business that has been said over the past five or six years?

At one time, I thought that these producers just couldn't look at a cow or a bull or a calf and tell whether it was good or not. I thought that perhaps they just weren't aware of what they had. But by now, they have to have compared their prices with those of the neighbor down the road, and they must surely realize that there is something wrong with their cattle, even if they can't just look and see the difference.

Then I thought that maybe they just couldn't afford to run better cattle. Maybe those sorry specimens were all they could afford to buy. After all, there is surely a difference in the price of a set of good females and a set of sorry ones. But you would think they would realize that it would be far more economical to run fewer cattle and sell them for more than more sorry ones that will sell for very little.

But they must not.

They must also realize that considering the cost of pasture, feed, vet expense, vehicles, equipment, interest and all the rest, that it costs just as much to run and to take care of a sorry cow as it does a good one. Or maybe they just haven't thought of it in that light.

This is true, not only of producers, but of backgrounders and stocker operators as well. I was traveling through East Texas recently, and ran across a stocker operation that must be one of the largest in that area. I was told that they were growing something like 28,000 steers on the lush grass of that place. I would have to tell you that those were the sorriest, most mixed up huge group of cattle I've ever seen. They were every size, every age, every color and they had only one thing in common -- they were sorry.

They were the calves off all those places you see with the sorry cow herds and the no-good bulls. Little chicken-boned, no meat kind of cattle was what they were -- everyone I looked at, and I stopped and looked them over pretty close.

Friends, 28,000 calves is lots of calves. That is a big operation in any man's description. Why, then would that size operator run that class of cattle? I was told that his philosophy was that he could afford to buy more of that kind than he could of the better kind. And that certainly would be true.

But this is a case of pay me, now, or pay me later. While he can certainly buy more sorry ones, he is putting his good grass and care into sorry ones, and his cost of gain is going to be more, because that kind of cattle are less efficient than better cattle would be. And even if the cost of gain was the same, he will be able to put more pounds on growthier, more muscular cattle, and when he sells them out at the end, his price per pound received is going to be substantially less on sorry cattle.

And we hear the experts talk about our loss of market share due to an inconsistent product. This is the kind of cattle that are causing that inconsistency. These will be the B-maturity cattle that will be tougher and less juicy. These will be the cattle that will dress out at 55 percent instead of 65 percent. These are the cattle that will be old enough to vote before they will grade.

Pardon me. I sometimes get carried away. But I can't understand the reasoning of either the producers or the growers of these cattle. But I was an order buyer long enough to know just how many of those operators are out there, and some of them are big operators in the top five or six percentile of cow operations and certainly of growers.

They, I have concluded, don't know, because they don't read. They don't take the trade magazines. They don't go to the meetings. They don't listen to the county agent or anyone else. They must simply keep their attention focused on what goes on between their fences and continue to operate as their fathers and grandfathers did.

They send their cattle to the sale, and the sale mails them a check. They don't attend and see what is selling and the prices it is bringing. It's the only explanation I can think of.

But the time is coming, mark my words, that they will not be able to get a bid on that kind of cattle. No one is going to want them at any price. In the meantime, more and more of them will come around or go out of business. There are fewer today than there were five years ago and five years from now there will be fewer, yet.

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