June 10, 2012

A plan for marketing beef cattle

PETER HAGAR, Cornell Ag Connection

---- — Last spring, a group of Northern Tier farmers took a road trip to New York’s largest independently owned livestock sales center located in Canandaigua to observe a feeder-cattle sale.

Cornell Cooperative Extension organized this trip to educate beef farmers about their marketing options. Since most beef farms in the North Country are relatively small, often 10 cows or fewer, it is difficult to raise a uniform group of calves to market at such a feeder sale.

When buyers come to an auction, they would much rather purchase several large groups of calves to fill their truck than mingle many small groups from diverse backgrounds. Most highly sought after are calves that have been weaned, vaccinated and sorted into uniform weight groups. The situation is very similar in other regions as well. Most beef cattle in the United States start out on small farms with fewer than 50 cows

Traditionally, small beef producers start out as cow-calf operations. Cow-calf operations are in the business of supplying young cattle to the feedlot. The finished product of a cow-calf operation is the feeder calf, or a weaned animal weighing between 500 and 700 pounds, ready to be fed and finished for the retail market. What that typically means in the North Country is that calves will be born on pasture in the spring and sold in the fall when they stop nursing and the grass stops growing.

Cow-calf operations are businesses, and like any other business the goal is profit. Finding a buyer for your calves that will pay top dollar is the only way to keep your business sustainable for the long term. With live cattle prices currently at near record highs, mainly from high demand from the export market, now is an excellent time to consider all the options.

The North Country has an abundance of pasture land suitable for grazing and raising beef cattle, but one of the obstacles we face is our location and lack of marketing options. The local livestock markets have long been focused on the dairy industry and have not developed the market for beef animals. And while the local food movement is gaining in popularity and direct marketing is possible, many farmers aren’t interested in the extra time, effort and marketing it takes to go that route.

In an upcoming meeting at the Clinton County Cooperative Extension office, West Virginia University Extension Livestock Specialist Dr. Phillip Osborne will explain how beef farmers in West Virginia developed a feeder cattle marketing program to meet the demand for high-quality feeder cattle. By setting standards for vaccinations and by pooling cattle to be delivered to bigger markets, smaller farmers have the opportunity to participate in the Quality Assurance feeder calf sales.

Weaned, vaccinated and preconditioned calves regularly receive higher sale prices at auction. As more and more beef cattle are being raised in Northern New York, this type of marketing program may be an opportunity for small farmers in our region to benefit.

It won’t happen by itself, so local beef farmers are encouraged to attend this meeting on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Extension office in Plattsburgh. Dr. Osborne will be speaking via video-link and Cornell Beef Extension Specialist Dr. Mike Baker will be present to lead a discussion about the possibilities for such a program in New York. Please pre-register by Tuesday at 4:30 p.m.  A program fee of $5 will include refreshments.

Dr. Baker will also be available in Clinton County for a limited number of farm visits. If you are a beef farmer and would like Dr. Baker to visit your farm to evaluate your operation, contact Peter Hagar at Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County at 561-7450 or email

Peter Hagar, agriculture educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Route 22, Suite #5, Plattsburgh, 12901. Phone 561-7450, fax 561-0183 or email