Calf raisers share insights

Jane Metcalf
Now Media Group


Excellent communications and 100 percent transparency are among the skills custom heifer raisers need to practice to run a successful operation, a panel of producers told members of the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association here last week.

Mike Halderman of Buckeye Heifer Resources said his goal in working with clients is to build permanent trust. Beyond doing an excellent job of raising the dairy and dairy-beef cattle in his company's care, he said trust is built with total transparency and honesty, with no side deals.

"We don't hide anything," he stressed.

Located in southwest Ohio, Buckeye Heifer Resources is unlike some custom heifer raisers in that it works with 15 families in four states who raise heifers at their own facilities for dairy-herd owners. Those herd owners range in size from 125 cows to 4500 cows. They raise dairy heifers ranging from one day of age to springers, and more recently, have started raising dairy-beef calves for herd owners.

Justin Ball's family operation, Deer Creek Feeding in Calhart, TX, raises 37,000 heifers for dairy-herd owners in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. The operation includes Ball, who focuses on pre-weaned calves, his brother, who manages post-weaned calves, as well as a third brother and a sister. They have 115 employees, and they pick up calves daily from 25 farms.

Calf ranches developed a bad reputation in the past, Ball acknowledged, so in addition to doing a good job in raising calves, his family focuses on building trust with good communications, transparency and letting clients know how their calves are going on at least a weekly basis. The business weighs all calves going into and out of hutches, so they and their clients know the animals' average daily gain. They serum test all new calves so they know whether calves have received sufficient colostrum and to help dairy-herd owners evaluate their own colostrum-feeding practices.

Lane Sollenberger of Dream Farms of Newburg, PA said their operation's goal is to be viewed as a working partner with their dairy-herd owner clients. With 16 years of custom heifer-raising experience, Sollenberger said he has seen a shift in the industry. When he started as a heifer raiser, the mindset was "us versus them", but now heifer raisers and dairy-herd owners recognize both groups are more effective when they work together.

Sollenberger serves as general manager for Dream Farms, a contract heifer raiser of 800 heifers and 200 head of dairy beef. The farm works with 18 clients whose dairy farms range from 50 to 3000 cows. Dream Farms has 36 full-time employees who care for calves but who also do the farm's mechanics, building and transportation work.

While custom calf raisers were once satisfied to provide growth information on groups of calves, Deer Creek Feeding does a lot of data tracking on each calf. Ball and Sollenberger noted clients used to view heifers sent to them as groups. They would want to know how much a trailer of heifers weighed, for example. Now, Sollenberger said, individual calves are tracked at both Dream Farms and by the dairy-herd owners. The extensive collection of data is a value-added service they provide to clients.

"It's data, data, data," Sollenberger stressed.

In recent years, he also has seen a higher plane of nutrition and higher daily gains by custom heifer raisers.

As much as he believes data is vital, Sollenberger said getting to know individual clients is important, too. Each client is different. He has some clients who will communicate only via email, and others who never communicate by email. He tries to make visits to clients' farms, and they like to have clients visit Dream Farms. Providing prompt responses is vital to building good relationships with his clients, he added.

Halderman stressed the importance of hiring the "right people," who are like-minded and have the same core values. Because heifers and dairy-beef cattle contracted to Buckeye Heifer Resources are raised at growers' facilities, Halderman knows he is hiring the entire family, not just a man or a woman who does the daily work. The entire family needs to be supportive of the effort and untraditional work schedule.

Sollenberger agreed with the importance of hiring good employees. Employees become the face of the business for many clients, so they need to possess good animal-raising and people skills.

Both Ball and Sollenberger used Dairy Comp software to record and track data on the animals they raise, and most of their dairy-herd owners use the same software. Halderman uses the HeiferPRO record system, and he sends monthly reports regarding inventory, health issues, deaths and culls to clients.

Asked about pricing changes, Ball noted his area has a number of heifer ranches, so it is important to be competitive in their pricing. They might change pricing a couple of times of year. Halderman said Buckeye doesn't change prices that frequently.

"Our growers understand that sometimes the margins are tight and sometimes they are not," he said.

Sollenberger said the spike in feed costs a couple of years ago led Dream Farms to add a feed surcharge to their daily base price, and they attempt to ensure clients have an understanding of their pricing structure when contracting heifers.

Strained or broken relationships can and do occur between contract heifer raisers and dairy-herd owners, panel members agreed. Ball noted that strained relations most often occur when small issues aren't addressed early on and then grow out of proportion to their importance. Finance charges are another source of strained relationships, he added, so it is important that clients have a written contract that is easily understood. Sollenberger added contract heifer raisers must ensure that there are not long gaps without communications with the dairy-herd owner.

Ball noted he has visited a lot of calf ranches, and every operation does things a little differently. Deer Creek Feeding, for example, sells itself on its value-added services. Because of the proven value of quality heifer care and a higher plane of nutrition on breeding and lactation performance, dairy-herd owners no longer have a least-cost mindset when it comes to selecting their heifer raisers, he concluded.