CAB Progressive Partner, customers hooked on herd improvement
By Miranda Reiman
Coffee is to the caffeine hound as carcass data is to customers of Chappell (Neb.) Feedlot. Once they've had a taste, it's hard to function without.
"There isn't a good cow person out there who isn't damn proud of his cattle," says Tom Williams, owner-manager of the 7,500-head Certified Angus Beef LLC partner yard.
With good reason if they are his customers, cooperating in management from ranch to feedlot, where ultrasound and extensive sorting back it up.
"We get individual data on virtually everything," Williams says.
From June 2011 through May 2012, that data on more than 9,300 head revealed 44 percent Certified Angus Beef brand and CAB Prime qualification, nearly double the national average.
Five years ago the snapshot of data showed 26.8 percent CAB and Prime.
A quest for constant improvement and eagerness to help new customers along the way earned Chappell Feedlot the CAB 2012 Progressive Partner Award. Williams accepted the honor at the brand's annual conference Sept. 19 to 21 in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va..
Two decades ago he and wife Cindy found a set of business partners and purchased the feedyard.
"The day we took over, we had 699 calves from three investors and 2,500 square foot of bunk space," Williams recalls.
Today, cattle enter the yard from ranches in 14 states, mainly on retained ownership arrangements.
"We have turned 180 degrees, and that was my intention to begin with. It just took a while to do it," he says.
William's has trained his customers to expect data.
"It's tough to get through those first numbers," he says. "But after a year or two, most of our clients really use it."
The feedyard works with CAB's Paul Dykstra, beef cattle specialist, to pool reports and provide across-feedyard benchmarks.
"They consolidate it for me and compare it to other pens of similar cattle," says customer Eric Jennings, Spearfish, S.D. "It helps to know where you need to go and what you need to be working on."
Since grid marketing is the norm, carcass and performance measures are main points for the bottom line.
"That was the only way we could get paid for the genetics we were using," Jennings says. "Going through the ring we were just selling them based on an average calf, and I felt we probably had above average ones."
"That marketing ends up being a pretty big deal because the difference between profit and loss is how you market them," he says.
That's why Chappell was among the first feedlots to ultrasound-sort cattle into marketing groups at processing, and they adjust as the cattle change.
"I don't have any customer just sitting flat, getting nothing done or going backwards, because they're using their data," the feeder says.
Taking a personal interest in the herds helps keep pens full, even when supplies are tight.
"It's fun, because I like cows and this way I get to work with a lot of different cowherds to some extent," says Williams, who was a ranch foreman before buying the feedlot.
Jennings switched to Chappell because of their problem-solving approach. He was experiencing 6 percent to 8 percent death loss from brisket disease, caused by high pulmonary arterial pressure, at the same time Williams was working with Colorado State University to research the problem.
"We were able to identify which bloodlines we were having trouble with and now we're not having any problems," he says.
As CAB rolled out GeneMax, a commercial DNA test for feedlot cattle and replacement heifers, Williams was one of the early cooperators. He allowed the Angus team to pull blood samples on more than 700 head and coordinated gathering historical information on customers' herds.
"Tom sees the big picture and, in this case, was willing to go along with it when there was no personal or business benefit promised to him or his company," Dykstra says.
Sometimes it's not about the next big thing; rather it's about reinventing the standard. Any feeder will say weaning calves is hard work, but moving the production calendar up a few months punctuates that statement.
Still, Chappell welcomes early-weaned calves.
"We will put boards in the bunk," he says. That helps these highly efficient calves reach the feed easier, and it reduces waste. "Sometimes we'll cross-fence our pens, too."
Low-stress handling is routine, and Williams says he's been fortunate to find employees who share that mindset.
The feedlot works closely with backgrounders, and recently leased a 6,000-acre ranch for stockering and to help stabilize numbers into the yard. It also provides more control on cattle history.
"I'm probably working more hours now than when we bought the yard," Williams says.
Bring on the coffee. And the data, of course.