For 76-year-old Rogers, preconditioning his calves before they are sold is a way to earn a little more money to supplement his fixed retirement income.
North Carolina Cooperative Extension agents and specialists helped beef cattle producers launch the Western North Carolina Preconditioned Cattle Marketing Association 12 years ago as a way to improve the health of feeder calves produced and sold in the area. Feeder calves are ones that are sold to stocker operators or feedlots to be raised from about 400 to 600 pounds until they are ready to be slaughtered.
Association members follow strict guidelines for weaning, feeding, vaccination, parasite control and management of their feeder calves, then offer them for sale in special telephone auctions.
In Haywood County, under the leadership of agricultural agent Tony McGaha, the preconditioning program has remained strong and expanded, providing added income for both part-time and full-time farmers who want to keep their land in agriculture.
Preconditioned calves usually weigh more than other calves, and they fetch a premium from buyers because they are usually healthier. Each calf is fed at least four pounds of grain per day.
“ When buyers know they are getting calves that will survive and thrive in the feedlot, they are willing to pay a little more,” McGaha says.
In 2002, prices at the western North Carolina preconditioned cattle sales ranged from 3 to 9 cents per pound above state-graded sales and as much as 15 cents per pound above regular sales.
McGaha estimates that the 25 Haywood producers who participate in the program net an extra $1,000 to $2,000 for each sale.
While that may not sound like much, for producers like Adrian Presnell, it helps make ends meet.
Presnell, a young full-time farmer, is trying to make a living off 25 to 30 farms of roughly five acres each. In addition to working the small piece of land where his family has been farming for more than 100 years, he rents nearby land for burley tobacco and beef cattle production.
Continued cuts in the burley quota, coupled with rising land costs in a county popular with retirees, makes it increasingly difficult to make a profit. So Presnell is understandably eager to find new ways to maintain his income.
With the help of McGaha and others in Cooperative Extension, the producer is exploring options for both new crops to grow in his tobacco greenhouses and ways to increase profits on his existing operations.
“ Anything extra helps,” Presnell says.
To achieve added income from the preconditioned cattle sale, Presnell and others who participate in the program must spend a little more up front and work harder.
“ It’s extra work,” says fellow producer Rogers, “and you have to like to do it.”
To administer and keep track of animal vaccinations, producers have to have cattle-working facilities. They also need feeding troughs and fountains. And because additional manpower is needed to herd the cattle when it comes time to administer vaccines, association members often “swap work,” as Rogers puts it.
Ultimately, an Extension agent or a volunteer representative of the Western North Carolina Preconditioned Cattle Association must certify that each calf meets the association’s health care guidelines.
Those that do are marked with ear tags — white for heifers and green for steers — for special sales held three times a year. Cattle are taken to a stockyard in Asheville in the morning, and producers gather at McGaha’s office to listen in on the evening phone sales.
Rogers, who has participated in the program from the start, says that he’s always earned more income through the preconditioned sales than he would have through regular weekly or state graded sales.
When we started this, we hoped to get extra money, and we did,” he
said. “I don’t think we’ve ever lost money — maybe
a year or two we didn’t make a lot, but we’ve never lost
money. Even three to four cents a pound extra helps.”