Perception is a key word in the beef business. How a program, region or product is perceived will define a successful venture. For years the beef industry in the Southeast was viewed as being behind the rest of the country. When lost opportunities started to mount, dedicated individuals took the proper steps to find that common ground and changed the rest of the industry's thinking.
The show cattle market, although it contains its own unique atmosphere, was no different to outsiders. Perception needed to be changed to accommodate and grow a viable market alternative for those willing to take the proper steps to make producing “show cattle” part of their program. Much like anywhere else when people began to organize, results quickly came and a better market evolved.
“When I first started selling show calves in the late 80s or early 90s, we really weren't in the club calf business. We were trying to raise decent calves for kids to show. When the Georgia Club Calf Producers Association (GCCPA) was organized it really ignited the club calf business. I had no idea it would grow to where it is today,” says Jody Smith, Smith Farms, Pavo, Ga.
“There weren't very many breeders who produced club calves in the beginning. We have to give a lot of credit to the extension programs early on for helping to get the program started. From there the trend caught on and it has really grown in the state of Georgia,” says John Callaway, Callaway Cattle Co., Hogansville, Ga. Callaway has been named GCCPA Premier Breeder for the last three years and is a past president of the association.
The phrase “Build it they will come” was made popular in the movie “Field of Dreams.” However, a better statement could not be made for the Georgia club calf industry. Most producers point to the facility in Perry, as a stepping stone for the business to grow.
“The program in our state has always been stouter than what a lot of people wanted to give credit. The facility in Perry was a factor in the beginning because it was a family place, where families could go and show their cattle,” says Randy Daniel, Colbert, Ga. Daniel operates Partisover Ranch and is an accomplished judge.
“The powers to be decided to build a state of the art facility in Perry and that helped start the ball rolling,” Callaway says. “It was a new facility in the central part of the state that could house large numbers. Before that, we never had a facility that could accommodate the growing industry.”
With the facility in place and the GCCPA organized the potential was unlimited. It was just a matter of time before showing cattle became a common family activity. Breeders took an active role to become better at their craft and produce the type of cattle that could be competitive.
“One thing that has helped our producers get better is types stabilized. Time cured a lot of ills this business had when it was trendier,” Daniel says. “The competition between breeders and finding out what genetics work helped improve our product.”
“It took us a while to find the right kind of genetics needed for a club calf program,” Callaway says. “Breeders had to change their philosophy and it takes time to build a cow herd.”
“People had to figure out what cows would work in this type of program and be willing to employ new technology such as artificial insemination and embryo transfer,” Smith says. “It started with most people getting a descent herd bull. From there to stay competitive breeders had to AI and now some are starting to flush top donors. Everybody is trying to take advantage of technology. Some of our buyers don't know anything about the beef business outside the show calf industry. Breeders have to be positioned to take advantage of AI and use popular bulls.”
In the beginning this fledgling industry focused on producing steers for the program. Although it was an excellent place to start, to realize maximum benefit for its participants, heifers were added to the program. This not only increased opportunities for the young people involved, but opened new markets.
“The commercial heifer division has been one of the fastest growing divisions in the program. People breeding club calves had a new market,” says Todd Alford, Oleo Farms, Bowman, Ga.
“We have a huge heifer division. When we started showing heifers, we showed all the steers by weight. Kids could buy a heifer and go a lot of different ways. More kids had a chance to win a banner,” Daniel says. “It has been fun to watch the heifer division grow. When we first started the GCCPA not too many purebred breeders were interested in becoming members. Because of the point system and the recognition provided to breeders, everyone wanted to be a part of it.”
The new division helped grow the business from the outset with increased participation. The growing market offered young people opportunities they could not attain through the steer competition. New doors were opened and buying/breeding philosophies changed.
“A lot of families figured out they could take the same money they were going to spend on their steer project and buy a heifer,” Smith says. “Once they made their initial purchase, they could get an ag teacher or someone in their area to help them get them bred. A lot of young people raise their own projects or even produce a few calves to sell.”
“A lot of county agents and ag teachers have grown up showing in the program. They know how to manage those heifers after their show career,” Daniel says. “Some of these heifers are very predictable breeding pieces. When you sell a heifer to a young person, a lot of times, they will be offered a nice profit from someone willing to buy her for a cow.”
“If they select the right kind of heifers there is a lot of versatility in that female,” Alford says. “There is a fine line with some of these genetic combinations whether they'll make cows or not.”
“We have changed the focus of our breeding program from producing steers to meeting the needs of the growing heifer market. Whether they are registered or commercial we have a three to one market for heifers vs. steers,” Callaway says. “Every year our good heifers are the first ones to go.”
Once the breeders took the lead to produce a competitive animal, the families followed suit. Showing is the ultimate family outing for some. As the program has continued to grow the love for showing cattle has crossed the generation gap.
“There are a lot of good cattle being bred in the state. A lot of people got hooked on showing cattle,” Daniel says. “With every generation, we are producing more and more show cattle enthusiasts.”
“There are a lot of activities for young people. Few offer the family atmosphere this project does,” Alford says. “I came up through the program and we're seeing a lot of the parents today who also came up through the program.”
“Very few kids are going to be a star athlete or a talented musician, but there aren't a lot of kids who can't show cattle,” Smith says. “Showing cattle is a family friendly project. The whole family gets to participate.”
To produce top end genetics there was a learning curve for the breeders. The same learning curve fell to the buyers trying to learn what it takes to find a winner. When the two came together the bar was raised and the pressure fell on the breeders to keep supplying top-end cattle.
“In the beginning families wanted something to do with their kids as a family. Junior livestock shows are a family deal. Once they started showing they got the bug and wanted to stand at the top of the class,” Callaway says. “The biggest change through the growth process has been the quality of the cattle. My son exhibited the champion steer twice during his show career. He wouldn't come close to winning today. The bar has been raised that much. I think the top-end in Georgia could run anywhere.”
“There are more families willing to spend a little more money for the right calf,” Alford says. “Once they see the results, they are willing to invest more to do it right.”
“Everything goes together. Producers are learning nothing sells like a champion, but you better follow it up with a good set of calves the next year,” Smith says. “Most buyers are learning the selection tools themselves or find someone they trust to help them make a decision.”
“We are fortunate this is a second job for most of our buyers,” Daniel says. “They are willing to spend the money it takes to do a good job and it has changed the way we do business.”
The focus brought forth by these Georgia breeders goes much farther than the cattle. Most are thankful for the job they get to do, but that championship smile is near and dear to most of their hearts. A young person having success remains the top priority in the growing club calf industry.
“When I was a kid we put the stock rack on the truck and loaded our steer to go to the local stockyards to show. Today, people come to town with good cattle in nice aluminum trailers,” Callaway says. “I applaud the parent's willingness to make an investment in young people.”
“When one of the kids I work with wins it really means a lot to me. I take a lot of pride in watching their success after their show career,” Smith says. “Ag teachers and parents play a big role in the program and 99.9 percent of what they learn is useful later in life. I think this is the biggest reason the program continues to grow.”