Farmers and ranchers can employ every “best practice” learned over decades in the business, or from any given workshop conducted by industry professionals, but when it comes right down to it, weather often has the final say as to their success any given year.
It’s barely June and cattlemen across the Coosa Valley are already showing evidence of weather-related stress. Prices for heifers at the University of Georgia HERD program sale in Calhoun on Wednesday were bringing between 60 and 70 percent of what Extension Animal Science Specialist Jason Duggin said they would normally bring.
“It’s just been too hot and too dry,” Duggin said.
“I can’t believe it’s this dry this quick,” said Floyd County Extension Director Keith Mickler, a member of the HERD team. “It is the ultimate gamble, whether you’re a row crop producer, an animal producer, weather can make or break you.”
Heifers that had spent the last six months in the special Heifer Evaluation and Reproductive Development program were almost universally regarded as close to being sure bets for long, successful calf production in the future.
“Most of them are bred to one specific bull that is selected by the HERD team, but consignors can select their own bull as well,” Duggin said. “This year it was a bull called Niagara. The fact that they conceived (via) artificial insemination and the fact that Niagara is a popular bull in the Angus breed and is heavily utilized, hopefully they can get some good progeny, maybe even keep back a few females out of that mating.”
Duggin said the fact that the heifers have been through the program generally brings a higher dollar than the rest of the market in most years, but that the heat definitely impacted the turnout and prices last week.
Mickler said he had seen the livestock arena in Calhoun packed to the point where you couldn’t get another person in the building, but there was plenty of room in the barn last Wednesday. Duggin explained that heifers which would normally bring between $1,800 and $2,000 were selling for between $1,200 and $1,400.
Many of the people in the barn were ranchers who had cows consigned to the sale and were perhaps interested in picking up another quality mama cow or two.
“You can imagine having your cattle in that sale,” Mickler said. “They must have been saying, ‘Hmmm, I don’t know if I want to sell my cow.’ ... It was a great day for a buyer.”
Buyers at the sale are largely commercial beef producers with some seed-stock producers within a 50-60-mile radius of the Calhoun livestock barn.
Charlie Johnson, a Catoosa County cattle farmer, was among the buyers at the sale.
“I’m looking for an investment for the future. Most cows end up, when they’re born, with a one-way trip to the market. These are fortunate in that they’re probably going to live a good long life because their qualities for reproduction are something you look for. You want to continue them into the next generation,” Johnson said. He explained that the criteria for the heifers to participate in the program and actually be brought to sale culls out things ranchers don’t want to see in the future.
“It’s a long-term investment in a better quality animal,” Johnson said.
They are also subjected to tests that evaluate their reproductive qualities, and if the cows do not meet specific criteria, they are not allowed to be put up for sale.
Gordon County Extension Agent Greg Bowman has indicated previously that a lot of the information and data farmers can get back on their cattle is information they generally don’t develop on their own. Producers can get data on how their heifers stack up in an evaluation process.
Johnson believes that heifers which have come through the HERD program can easily be successful mama cows for up to 10 years. “Maybe 12,” Johnson said.
Johnson got into beef cattle production because it was a passion of his as a youngster.
“I was always a city kid and always had a desire to be around the farm. When I got older I made that opportunity for myself,” Johnson said. “It’s something that gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
Right now Johnson has 17 cows, 12 mama cows and five calves. He said HERD is an excellent program for someone just getting started.
“You know what you’re getting. A lot of times when you go to an auction or you’re buying an animal, you’ll stand on the fence rail and look at the animal to see how pretty it is. You want one that is going to give you what you need from the cow. In the end, the cow is making you money,” Johnson said. Those factors are what makes the HERD program attractive as a buyer, even though he might typically pay a little more than he would at some other auction.
Don Westlake, who was representing a farm owner in Polk County, retired from what he referred to as a regular job and was hired on at the farm two years ago. He was at the auction specifically looking to pick up Red Angus heifers.
“I love Red Angus because they are heat tolerant. They’re docile cattle,” Westlake said. With the early heat and what that is likely to mean the rest of the summer for hay, Westlake spent a lot of time before the sale poring over the details of each heifer in the sale program brochure.
Most of the calves from the ranch Westlake works at are sold to the feed lots for commercial purposes.
The Georgia HERD program is a collaborative effort between producers and the University of Georgia Extension Service, which initiated the program to develop replacement heifers.
The sale wrapped up the 19th season of the HERD program, which is run by the Extension Service out of Calhoun and Tifton. The Northwest Research and Education Center is on Bells Ferry Road along the Oostanaula River.
Heifers were consigned to the program from 24 farms across the region including Kelly Farms, Shady River Farms, Oostanaula Farms, Williams Angus Farm and C.S. Farm, all in Calhoun, as well as Brownlee Mountain Farms and Taylor Angus in Adairsville, Jan-Bil Farms in Cedartown, Terry Farms in Cave Spring and Hard Times Ranch in Rome.
The heifers sold last week were typically right at a year old when they were selected to participate in the program back in December.
About a month to six weeks into the program they are artificially inseminated then allowed to spend 45 days of exposure to calving-ease Angus bulls, which helps the cows to conceive. All have had their pregnancy confirmed prior to the sale. If for whatever reason the calf doesn’t develop, the purchasers are entitled to a 25 percent rebate on the purchase price.