October finds six semi-loads of Salers-Angus range calves winding through Wyoming mountains, over the pancake-flat plains of Eastern Colorado and past the white sentinel-like wind turbines of Kansas to lush living at the Knight Feedyard.
It’s a path that’s been well worn by many loads of calves making the trek between Jim and Terry Wilson’s V Ranch in Thermopolis, Wyo., and Kenny Knight and his son, Mark’s, backgrounding and feedyard operation in Lyons, Kan. They’ve been trading livestock for 5 years. But more than just the Wilsons’ calves make the trip.
Wilson has developed long-standing personal relationships that span the beef supply chain from pasture to plate. Those bonds afford him the trust needed to gather and market-at a premium-more than 4,000 head annually of quality, uniform cattle to the Knights through his brokerage business, Wilson Livestock.
“The ranches we ship from have been in business a long time and have uniform, consistent cow herds that share genetics from our original Salers-Angus composite herd. That gives consistency in the loads and there’s an advantage to that at the feedyard,” Wilson says. “Different breeds of cattle and different groups of cattle feed differently. We’re able to take away some of that variability with these cattle that share genetics and management styles.”
Trust and reputation are other commodities that Wilson trades in mass quantities.
“I’ve been working with Jim directly and indirectly for 15 years,” Kenny Knight says. “I had met his father, Willard, through NCBA (National Cattlemen’s Beef Association) and known of them and their reputation for a long time. It’s important to me to be working with someone I don’t have to worry about. When he ships cattle to me they’re always exactly like he says. I like that.”
A friendly smile, a true love for the business and a bustling work ethic have earned Wilson countless friends at all levels of the beef industry. He got his start by watching his father merchandizing calves for his Hereford bull customers. Jim continued this tradition as he and Terry transitioned to selling Salers-Angus composite seedstock. And the strong support system he has in Terry and their daughter, Billie Jo, keeps the cogs spinning at the ranch, allowing Jim to pursue his marketing ventures and even take a sick day here and there.
What makes Wilson unique in the brokerage world is that he doesn’t market the cattle and then drop the rope. Just like his father before him, Wilson has long tracked the performance of the cattle he markets in the feedyard and beyond. He then uses that information to manipulate the seedstock herd-and therefore the commercial herds-to continually build performance.
“Kill records showed us which bulls were producing calves that weren’t grading well enough, and we were able to improve that with the Angus cross in the Salers-Angus composite,” Wilson says. “We were able to increase the ribeye quicker through the Salers breed. We worked on those issues in our herd and with our bull customers that are now our brokerage customers.”
Despite selling most of his seedstock herd to Jim and Sherry Doubet in 2006, Jim still works with them and his old customers. Most of the calves he markets to the Knights carry the genetics the Wilsons molded over the years and he still offers advice on genetics. Add in some like-minded management from one herd to the next and the calves in Wilson’s thousands-strong marketing group almost seem to come all from one ranch.
“We’ve followed those genetics for 30 years,” Wilson says. “We know how they gain, how they grade, what kind of ribeye they produce, what their death loss is, all of those things. It takes a lot of guesswork out of the process for everyone.”
Knight liked the genetics so well he even bought a load of bred heifers sight unseen from Wilson to try and improve the frame size in his personal cow-calf herd.
Wilson continues to truck information back and forth between the feedyard and pastures. When he’s not tending his own herd, he spends a lot of time visiting the ranchers and the Knights in person. He lays eyes on the cattle at all stages of production and collects valuable data that all parties can use to evaluate what’s going right, what’s going wrong and what can be done to improve everyone’s bottom line.
Feeders aren’t always keen to give up their data. But, once again, a personal relationship with Wilson goes a long way.
“It’s a two-edged sword because if the seller knows their cattle are doing well and how well we like them it’s harder to buy them. But, Jim has always been fair. He appreciates getting the information and we’re willing to share it with him and the other ranchers to improve the end product,” Knight says.
And Wilson’s experience earns him willing ears with his brokerage customers when it comes to management changes, such breeding, vaccination protocols and age and source verification.
“Jim spends more time actually going out and talking to buyers, feeders and packers than most ranchers get a chance to, so we respect what information he can get back to us,” says Reg Phillips, manager of the Diamond D Cattle Company, Dubois, Wyo. Wilson facilitates the sale and delivery of around 800 head from the Diamond D each year. “He always makes sure we get treated fairly.”
For many of the producers Wilson works with, the process of marketing and delivering their calf crop has become like pressing the big red “Easy” button from the Staples commercials.
“He has created a situation where there is a consistent buyer that knows what our cattle are worth to them. We know what they’re worth to us. And we’re able to strike a deal in the middle that benefits everyone,” says Phillips, who has a 35-year strong relationship with Wilson. “It saves us time, effort and money. We don’t have to pay a commission at the sales yard and we have some marketing power when we sell our cattle.”
More knowledge on both ends of the deal results in some attractive offers. Like the bid Wilson brought to another long-time friend in the cattle industry, Dan Morris, manager of the Pitchfork Ranch at Meeteetse, Wyo. Wilson had worked with Morris and the Pitchfork herd for many years and offered to market the calves in 2009.
“We had a couple of buyers calling, but Jim was able to make us the better offer. He knew the cattle well enough and had a good enough relationship with the buyers in Kansas that he wasn’t afraid to purchase the cattle at a premium price and know the buyers would still make money,” Morris says. “He just has so much history with our cattle and with us. He knows the calves will be consistent and that the buyers know how to feed them right to perform.”
Simplicity on shipping day is yet another perk.
“We’re able to sell right off the ranch,” Morris says. “We don’t have to haul to the sales ring or mess with commissions. They line up the trucks and we just bring the cattle in, strip off the calves, weigh and load them. We’re in and out of the corrals by 10 a.m. The convenience is overwhelming.”
All in all, everyone working in this group comes out ahead. Jim’s cattlemen customers know he’s bringing them the best deal, and Kenny and Mark Knight know he’s bringing them quality cattle that will perform in their specific feeding program.
“We’ve worked with these producers for a long time. We know their herds and that the calves will be healthy and have the genetics to gain and produce a good carcass,” Wilson says. “We send the Knights the cream of the crop.”