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Trust in the Ring

By Martha Mintz

Rod and Christine Lewis waiting for their cattle to sell on video.
Rod and Christine Lewis waiting for their cattle to sell on video.

Rod and Christine Lewis situate themselves at Joplin Regional Stockyard in burgundy plastic stadium-style seats smudged liberally with dust kicked up by thousands of feet, both booted and hooved, that pass through the facility weekly. The Missouri cattle producers are a bit anxious, and who can blame them? Unlike those who negotiate their pay up front and have funds zapped directly into their bank accounts each pay period, the Lewises work for months without a dime coming in and are then left to the mercy of the market.

They don’t actually have cattle physically walking through the ring today. Instead their yearlings up for sale are 12 miles down the road, comfortable in their pastures. Buyers will rely on a video of the calves along with valuable information on herd health and past performance to guide their bids. The location of his cattle doesn’t matter to Rod on sale day, though, as he has a standing tradition. “Every time I sell a crop of calves I go to the market,” he says. “I’m sitting in the seats whether it’s a video or live auction; it’s what I’ve done my entire life. We only get paid two or three times per year and it’s an intense day. It’s important, and I want to make sure everything goes right.”

It’s not just convenience of location that landed the Lewises and their cattle at Joplin Regional Stockyard, though. As the Lewises have developed a reputation for the quality and health of their livestock, so too has the team at Joplin worked at building a reputation for helping producers take full advantage of markets both high and low. A reputation they’ve fostered for generations as a family business that has had a heavy hand in guiding the upward trajectory of cattle production in the region.

Information traders

“We sold an exceptional set of yearlings for Rod and Christine today,” says Jackie Moore, second-generation coowner of Joplin Regional Stockyards. And it’s doubtful this is the first or last time he’s made such a statement. “Our families have done a lot of business over the years tracing back to when Rod, Christine and I were just kids.”

Those lifelong ties to the industry and the customers are part of what drives Moore. “It’s my job as an auction market leader to get the producers the tools they need to get them to the forefront of the industry,” he says.

Moore trades in information as much as he does in cattle. Producers are busy people, with their main focus being caring for their livestock, he explains. So he sees it as his duty to attend informational meetings and seminars, get a feel for the latest health protocols, management techniques and marketing strategies and bring them back to his 10,000 cattle-producing customers.

Th at’s exactly what he did in 1997 when Joplin Regional Stockyard became one of the first livestock marketing facilities to organize producer meetings with the goal of getting their customers up to speed on value-added marketing programs such as source verified, preconditioning and vaccination programs.

“Most of the losses in the feedyard are to sickness, which is what makes preconditioning, in my opinion, the most important value-added program there is,” Moore says. “It doesn’t matter how great their genetics are if they’re dead.”

With vaccine programs and weaning protocols facilitated, not only did he have a marketing tool to help add dollars to the bid on sale day, but the cattle coming in were healthier, too.

“If a calf isn’t healthy, he’s not going to weigh as well. If a calf is 25 to 30 pounds lighter because he was sick, in today’s market that could cost $50 to $100 per head on sale day. That’s a big deal,” Moore says. Just as important is the calf will continue on to rob profits from all the stakeholders down the line, and the industry remembers. “A reputation, good or bad, means a lot in the industry. You don’t hear much back if your calves perform well, but it will come back to haunt you if they perform poorly.”

Joplin Regional Stockyards frequently holds value-added specific sale days, such as the day the Lewises went to market. Mike John, of MFA Inc., explains value added sales featuring cattle managed in such programs as MFA Health Track–a source, age and VAC 45 process verification program–attracts motivated buyers.

Calves in the Health Track program follow a strict health protocol that includes properly timed vaccination for 7-way blackleg; two doses of IBR, BVD, PI3; BRSV; Pasteurella hemolytica; that the calves be dewormed and treated for external parasites, castrated and be polled or dehorned completely. It also requires them to be weaned for 45 days prior to sale, which provides several benefits. Other programs–such as PrimeVAC from Merck Animal Health–provide recommendations for a three-pronged approach to preconditioning and include protocols for vaccinations, internal and external parasite control, as well as implants.

“When calves are weaned, vaccinated and backgrounded in some manner the buyers know they’re going to show up to the feedlot ready to get going. They’re not bawling babies so they go right to feed and water. Their transformation period is much shorter with a great reduction in death losses and pulls for health,” John says. The producers are able to hit the market at a time when prices are better, the buyer gets cattle that are more likely to perform and not need to be treated with antibiotics and the customer is more likely to get a top quality product.
In the old days, Moore says, the industry was disconnected, caring very little about the success or failure of the next person in the chain. “That’s old-school business. Things have changed and we realize that we’re all in this together. The next person down the line has to thrive, too, or there won’t be any money coming back in the other direction,” said Moore. By driving hard to get value-added programs to take hold in his region, Moore did more than his part to help strengthen not only his own business, but those on either side of him as well.

People business

Though Joplin Regional Stockyards sells cattle, they’re definitely in the people business as is evident by their employees’ commitment.

“My main goal in life is to help producers,” says Mark Harmon, Joplin Regional Stockyards marketing director. “We may sell more than a half million cattle each year, but it’s the people that are important. The cattle we sell for people helps them pay their tithing at church, feed their kids and make their farm payments. We have to get the most value for them.”

Harmon’s energy is infectious. He speaks with the passion of a man just starting out in the industry as opposed to the man with 35-plus years of experience. He spends his days immersed in marketing cattle, a job he clearly loves.

“We’re in the market daily. We’re talking to feedyards and backgrounders. We know what they’re looking for and what they have. We talk to our thousands of customers and know about when they’re going to sell,” Harmon says. Harmon, Moore and the rest of the staff are the middlemen connecting those who have cattle with those who need cattle and making sure everyone does well. They’re as informed as they can get in their marketing region and their customers know it. They’re also accessible.

“I’ll call Jackie and pick his brain a little on what’s going on and consult Harmon on specialty sales to help determine when and how I should sell my cattle,” Lewis says. And he’s not alone in leaning on their expertise.

“If you’re an employee at Joplin your phone rings seven days a week,” Harmon says. “We’ve worked to build those relationships and trust because our customers have worked all year and in 30 seconds we turn those cattle into cash.” That’s a responsibility they don’t take lightly and the reason they offer a diverse number of ways to market livestock. Specialty sales, video auctions and live auctions each have their fit.

Video auctions have provided great benefit for producers. “In the old days you’d only get two to four people coming to an auction to buy calves. With a video auction, people get online or watch on TV and it really ups the exposure of those calves, ultimately getting more for the producer,” says Skyler Moore, an auctioneer and second generation Moore at Joplin.

It’s a bonus, too, that it cuts out the stress on the cattle and expense to the producer of shipping the cattle to the stockyards. “There’s no charge for a no-sale, either, so it’s a lot more relaxing for the producers,” Skyler says. They can come in with a plan for what they want and can take or leave the price. Then, they can load and ship the cattle directly from the farm. “Producers like it. Buyers like it. It’s a great way to sell cattle.”

The Lewises opted to sell their weaned and preconditioned calves by video auction this spring. Many buyers had already left the sale ring before the Lewises’ 100 hefty yearling steers flash onto the screens, the last to be offered for the day. The dwindling crowd does nothing to ease anxiety for the Lewises as Skyler takes a deep breath and rattles off the many virtues of the Lewises’ cattle–as he and his father have done many times over the years.

Despite the sparsely populated buyer section, bids come in quickly for the reputation cattle both in-house and over the phone, driving the price to near the top of the market for the day. The reputation of both the cattle and Joplin Regional Stockyard hold their own as they close out not only the day, but a year of work on a high note.

“It’s our job to initiate programs that allow our producers to be more profitable,” Moore says. “They give us a commission to do the best job for them and if you can’t do that, you should take down your sign and go home.” In the case of the Lewises, it looks like Moore gets the nod to keep his sign up for at least another year.

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