Agriculture Through the Ages: The changing, youthful face of north country agriculture

The Porter family still owns an operates Porterdale Farms in Jefferson County, from left, Stephen, and wife, Angela, with children Landon, 11, Collin, 8, Kennedy, 6, and Katelyn, 5, David Porter, and Lisa, and husband Greg.

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Beef farmers planning commingled cattle pool to do business with big buyers

Farmer Donald H. Holman checks some of his cattle in his pasture on Route 178 in Adams. Norm Johnston / Watertown Daily Times

Farmer Donald H. Holman checks some of his cattle in his pasture on Route 178 in Adams. Norm Johnston / Watertown Daily Times

North country beef farmers are preparing to do business with farms across the Midwest next fall by pooling their calves into a commingled herd.

Livestock educators from six counties across the region have offered training over the past three years with that goal in mind, encouraging farmers to adopt cattle similar calf management practices needed to establish the feeder pool, said Betsy F. Hodge, who leads Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Northern New York Regional Livestock Team. To establish a commingled herd marketed to buyers, she said, beef calves all would have to be similarly bred, weaned and vaccinated. They should be preferably crossbred, weigh in the range of 450 to 650 pounds and be bred with black hides.

Creating the feeder pool would enable buyers to purchase a large number of cattle with the same weight, color and health treatment. Those feeder cattle likely would be marketed and sold at the Canandaigua-based Finger Lakes Livestock Exchange, along with local cattle backgrounders and finishers who raise them to be slaughtered. The Finger Lakes sales barn, which hosts auctions twice monthly from September through December, sells calves to farmers who raise them for slaughter.

Beef cattle producers in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties already have considered joining the pool, Ms. Hodge said. Some 80 beef farmers own farmland in Jefferson and Lewis counties; there are about 80 beef farmers in St. Lawrence County alone. Some farmers have begun to raise their calves using practices recommended by educators, she said, who launched the feeder pool initiative in 2012.

“I think we’ve reached a point where they could get a group together, because we’ve worked on this a long time,” said Ms. Hodge, who recently applied for a $7,000 research grant to kick-start the initiative from the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program. That funding will go toward research to determine what management practices farmers are using to raise calves.

“We want to get a handle on how farmers are marketing calves to sell now so that we know where to start,” said Ms. Hodge, a livestock educator at St. Lawrence County’s extension office. “Farmers who haven’t been to our meetings need to get on the same page.”

A few farmers in Jefferson and Lewis counties are interested in contributing cattle to the feeder pool, said Ronald A. Kuck, livestock educator for Jefferson County’s extension.

“We’re trying to recruit a group of like-minded beef farmers to do everything similar,” he said. “That’s going to attract a group of outside buyers that will be willing to make a trip to the north country. They’re willing to pay higher prices for cattle that have been vaccinated, castrated and weaned correctly.”

Those large groups of cattle could net up to 45 cents more per pound on the market than what they’ve garnered individually at auctions, Mr. Kuck said. That difference would equate to sales of about $270 more per head for 600-pound cattle.

The feeder pool initiative is expected to be launched on a small scale, Mr. Kuck said, then grow incrementally in successive years.

“If 10 guys contribute 10 calves, and five guys contribute 20, that would give us a pool of 200 to start out with,” he said.

The biggest buyers at the Canandaigua auction are seeking to buy large quantities of cattle, with 70 to 100 head that are transported in tractor trailers, said Michael J. Baker, beef cattle specialist at Cornell University, Ithaca. Dr. Baker, who helped launch the feeder pool program here, is hopeful enough beef farmers will participate to launch the program in the fall of 2014.

“Even if we don’t get the magic 70-head number to sell that trailer load next fall, we could get three or four farms to put together 50 or 60 calves,” Dr. Baker said. “We could either send them down together to the Finger Lakes sale barn, or we could leave them on the farms and have them described and presented at the sale; maybe even with a video, so that buyers can bid on them without being there at the barn.

“That would remove the stress of shipping them to the sale barn, and then to their ultimate destination. Those loads are going out of state to Kansas, Texas, Missouri and a variety of places, because we just don’t have a large feeding industry in New York.”

Out-of-state buyers are lured to the Canandaigua auction mainly because of the comparatively low prices for preconditioned feeder cattle, Dr. Baker said. Those calves now are sold at a relatively low price at the Finger Lakes Livestock Exchange, according to findings from a three-year study led by Cornell University. Data from the second year of the project, collected on nearly 10,000 cattle head and 3,900 lots, show they were sold at an average of $2.80 per hundredweight; that price is 29 cents per hundredweight less than the national average.

Adams beef farmer Donald H. Holman, who raises Angus cattle to be finished, said he might be interested in selling and buying calves in large numbers by participating in the feeder pool if it’s established. He now buys anywhere from 100 to 150 calves from about eight farmers who live within 50 miles of his farm. Once calves became full-sized adults with a weight of 1,200 to 1,500 pounds, he transports them to an auction barn in Paradise, Pa. He sells about 250 to 300 cattle a year.

If enough beef farmers join, “this pool could be phenomenal because you could go to one place, one time, and pick up 50, 100 or 200 head,” Mr. Holman said. “I now buy almost everything I need from private individuals, but if they join the pool then I’m going to still get those cattle, because I know them.”

The most lucrative market for cattle in the pool, however, likely will be among Midwest buyers, Mr. Holman said.

“The whole point of this pool is to get buyers from the Midwest to come up here because they can buy a potload of cattle,” he said. “They’ll keep coming here as long as they can take them in potloads of about 45,000 pounds.”

-Ted Booker, Watertown Daily Times