N.B. beef farmers learn about the benefits of calf clubs

by George Fullerton
The New Brunswick Cattle Producers (NBCP) added a production management workshop this year in conjunction with its autumn regional producer meetings. The workshops were held in the afternoon prior to the evening producer meetings. 
The NBCP introduced the workshops to enhance producer profitability and to help producers move toward the Maritime Beef Sector Development and Expansion Strategy’s goals.
The workshop featured Ron Stevenson presenting on calf clubs in Ontario and Maritime Beef Council general manager Ellen Crane discussing the Verified Beef Production Plus program.
At the Region 8 workshop and meeting in Sussex, N.B., on Oct. 13, Stevenson, who is a business manager with Metzger Veterinary Services in Ontario, delivered a rapid-fire description of the calf club program, underlining that the strategy consistently generates higher-than-average prices for weaned calves.
To illustrate the price differential, Stevenson referred to a 2014 report that compared the average Ontario price received for 500-600-pound steers at $286.74 per cwt (hundredweight) to that received for the same class of steers produced by members of a Georgian Bay calf club at $321.89 per cwt. 
Stevenson works closely with four calf clubs in southern Ontario.
The calf club concept was the result of producers joining together to raise superior feeder calves. The first Georgian Bay calf club sale offered calves that had received spring vaccines. Their second sale offered calves from herds that had full herd health vaccines for cows and calves in the spring and again in fall.
Producers quickly understood that if they agreed to adopt similar production methods, including vaccinations, and then grouped calves from several farms, they would have the necessary volume of sorted calves to command buyers’ attention and increase their bidding.
Calf club members also agreed to ensure better calf age uniformity by coordinating bull turnout. The cooperative effort evolved over the years to include a comprehensive vaccination protocol for cows and calves, feeding the same mineral supplements, and adopting a creep feeding strategy.
Tightening up the calf birthing period resulted in more uniform groups. Vaccinating calves resulted in less illness when the calves went into the feedlots. Less illness meant a better margin for feedlot operators who were therefore willing to pay a premium.
The calf club successes led participants to adopt other common management practices. In addition to synchronizing bull turnout, calf clubs have focused on specific genetic parameters (expected progeny differences or EPDs) when purchasing sires. The bull genetics initiative allows individual breed preference while still striving for calf crop uniformity.
Calf clubs send out production protocols to members, which the producers must agree to and sign at their annual general meeting in the spring.
Additional management practices include a selenium shot and identification tagging at birth, timely dehorning and castration, and inoculation with products and timing agreed to by club members.
The cooperative spirit has led clubs to act as buying clubs for drugs, minerals, bale wrap, and other supplies. Stevenson said suppliers offer discounts for bulk sales.
Some clubs have added a bunk-ready aspect to their calf sale prospectus through creep feeding, and the clubs shop for feed supplies in the 100-tonne range. Feed suppliers are eager to compete on pricing for such contracts.
Calf clubs also host a summer barbecue, which allows buyers to meet club members, see some cattle, and learn more about their production protocol and the quality of the calves they’ll have in their sorted sales.
Stevenson said calf clubs have had producers who haven’t followed production protocols. A buyer reported to one club that some of the club’s cattle became ill after arriving at the feedlot. Using Canadian Cattle Identification Agency tags, the sick cattle were traced back to one farm. Further investigation determined that the producer purchased the required vaccinations but hadn’t used them. The wayward producer was dropped from the club.
Metzger works with some club members to provide chute, handling, inoculation, and record keeping services. Stevenson said the chute service has allowed many older producers to stay in business. The club moves chute panels to a farm and brings along a crew of cattle-savvy young people to handle the cattle and administer pre-sale inoculations.
Stevenson encouraged producers to consider the calf club model to enhance their marketing position. “Don’t be scared,” he said. “Start small and grow. A good place to start might be a vaccinated sale, with producers simply agreeing to vaccinate calves several weeks prior to sale day.”
Stevenson said the clubs will table the Verified Beef Production Plus program for adoption in the spring of 2018.
“Beef producers are the last of the renegades,” he said. “They relish their independence. But the industry is evolving and other parts of the value chain will demand and pay for cattle that have been raised by production methods supported by Verified Beef Production.”