Most farmers in Louisiana Ranchers and Growers Association-related cattle producer organizations are raising Angus or Brangus commercial cattle. The first step is to find out if enough of them can raise similar calves to have sufficient numbers to market together. To determine this, producers who volunteered to be a part of the project are weighing calves at birth, at three months of age, and at weaning, which is targeted for seven months old. Weight is an objective measurement that tells the farmer how his/her animals are doing in comparison to others. The project goal is to wean 500-pound calves at seven months old. At the conclusion of the project, the goal is to have enough similar calves to sell as a truckload (50 – 55 animals).
Potential Louisiana small-farmer organizations that originated through Heifer International were recruited throughout the state of Louisiana to participate in the Quality Calf Project. Most of the members are limited-resource farmers and the majority are African-American. The mission of Louisiana Ranchers and Growers Association (formerly Pelican Farmers Association) is to support and educate families in cooperatively producing and marketing top-quality products for fair market value. The majority of the members raise beef cattle.
- The Quality Calf Project was an effort to help small beef producers raise calves that can be marketed as a group or truckload to take advantage of market opportunities. To sell together, calves must be similar in age, size and quality.
- Targets: 1) Birth Weight; 2) 3-Month Old Weight; and 3) Weaning Weight.
To become financially sustainable, small, limited-resource farmers were interested in marketing beef cattle together to obtain better prices for their animals. The goal was to raise calves that were uniform in age, size and quality.
- Louisiana Ranchers and Growers Association representatives met with producer/participants to educate them on the size and quality of animals needed for cooperative marketing. They were also assisted with information of methods for raising suitable animals in a cost effective way.
- Participants were recruited and asked to sign up for QCP.
- Each participant was required to keep records on age and weight of each calf, body condition of mother, immunizations, forage/feed, input costs, and other pertinent information.
- LRGA representatives weighed calves with producers at three months and weaning. Producers were supported whenever necessary.
- Throughout the program, LRGA representatives compared information and shared farmer-results to see the progress of animals. This information was used to plan technical assistance sessions.
- QCP reports were shared at Louisiana Ranchers and Growers Association (LRGA) annual meetings. Animal counts and the number of participating producers were reported during LRGA meetings.
- Technical assistance was provided by LRGA during the course of the QCP to provide additional training and support for producers.
The Quality Calf Project has had multiple impacts on participants and other interested parties. At the onset, many members expressed an interest in participating in the QCP. When the recordkeeping began, other deficiencies became highly evident. First, members began to recognize the need for strong, efficient cattle-handling equipment. Some catch pens were inadequate while others did not have sufficient head gates. These two deficiencies alone eliminated some producers from the process. At the same time, this prompted LRGA to teach producers the value and safety of owning and maintaining the proper cattle-handling equipment.
A second deficiency that quickly became evident was the need to identify each animal by using ear tags. Without ear tags, it would have been nearly impossible for LRGA members to identify and track calves in the Project. Members were also trained to tag their animals in order to track vital occurrences; such as, calving, working cows, identifying open cows, tracking age, and tracking financial information.
Producers also needed education about healthy pastures in order to avoid the high costs of feed and other inputs. Many members managed their herds based on word-of-mouth, out-of-date traditions, or just plain hit or miss. Many rarely kept any kind of records so they knew very little about their financial successes or failures. The use of record books was welcomed by many producers, and they became less intimidating as LRGA members assisted producers individually. By writing the actual expenses and income, producers were able to see the true story of their efforts.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Two potential areas of outreach were identified during the performance of the QCP Grant guidelines. Both outreach efforts proved to significantly improve member contact, support, and educational self-improvement. First, the educational videos were popular with members and community groups. These videos were prepared by farmers for farmers; therefore, the language and presentations were easily communicated to others in familiar terminology, settings and topics that were both interesting and acceptable. Videos were also helpful in retraining whenever members were unable to attend sessions or when they needed to review any information that was previously presented. The LRGA went one step further by developing a Facebook account in order to quickly communicate information to interested persons about group activities and/or upcoming events.
The second outreach effort was made to support more economical, sustainable grazing techniques while producing healthy livestock for market. As a result, LRGA aligned many of its meetings and training sessions with Southeast Graziers. This group conducts on-farm technical assistance while designing and utilizing managed systems for calf production by the use of pasture walks on many different farms. Participants with varying levels of knowledge and expertise attend the farm visits and they provide valuable “no cost” information informally in a nonthreatening environment. LRGA producer/participants attended several of these grazier meetings where they received hands on training on varying levels of grazing techniques.
Both sources of outreach are sustainable and beneficial to all levels of livestock producers who are interested in improving their operations. Likewise, each of the outreach resources requires minimal amounts of time and each was provided at no cost to the producer.
Initially, four producers participated in the first phase of the program, keeping records and weighing 20 calves born in March and April 2011. Of the 20 calves, nine weighed 500 pounds or more at weaning, which took place at seven or eight months for these calves. Therefore, by the end of the first phase, the 500-pound success rate was 45%.
By the end of the Fall 2013 weaning, the number of producers participating in the project had increased from four producers to nine producers: more than double the first phase amount. This accomplishment also showed an improvement from 20 calves to 116 calves. By the end of the Project, most of these producers were retaining their calves longer and they were also improving the calf sizes.
A significant result was that the level of experience of the producer had a significant impact on whether the target weight of 500 pounds was achieved or not. Two producers had more than 15 years of cattle handling and producing experience. Likewise, both of these producers relied on their activities as a business or income-producing activity. These two producers had clearly stated plans that they used to operate their farms. Each producer used rotational grazing techniques, supplemental minerals, breeding schedules, removal of bulls from the herd during non-breeding times, palpation and removal of open cows, scheduled times to work cows, and individual animal records. These producers kept detailed records of their activities and they managed their herds based on data and knowledge. These two producers achieved the target goal of weaning 500 pound calves at a success rate of 79% (19 of their 28 calves reached 500 pounds).
On the other hand, the less-experienced producers were more reactive than proactive. These seven producers seemed to take a more leisurely approach to managing their herds. Most of the seven used some form of rotational grazing; yet, a couple of them used the formula of grazing two acres of land for each animal. These two producers did not utilize rotational grazing at all. About four of the seven had no true breeding plan, and as a result, they left the bull with the herd all of the time which resulted in calves being born throughout the year. This practice made recordkeeping, palpation and weaning either difficult or nonexistent. Young calves had to struggle to gain a place in the herd instead of growing and competing with other calves of similar size and age. These producers achieved the target goal of weaning 500 pound calves at a rate of 39% over the QCP period.
The combined rate for all nine producers in reaching the goal of weaning 500-pound calves was 49%.
The QCP opened an awareness among limited-resource producers about the needs for designing adequate plans and good recordkeeping for herd management. Many participants were able to see more clearly that cattle raising can be a substantial source of income rather than a past-time activity. The outcomes that are presented from this study can be used by others to provide the necessary education and training resources to producers to get them started more easily and efficiently. It must also be noted that an undertaking such as this must have committed parties who are willing to change, if necessary, in order to conform with the overall group. This type of effort leaves little room for producers to deviate from the overall goal of the group.
Educational support is needed to guide producers in their efforts. It appears that producers took more initiative to attend hands on training sessions that directly related to their operations. The pasture walks were the most valuable tools used and these activities should continue with a focus on beginner to advanced sessions. Producers need to have even more opportunities to grow by attending sessions that are most applicable to their own knowledge level.
Education through the use of videos and Internet were also basic and beneficial. LRGA should focus heavily on providing timely videos and publishing them for members to use at will. If these videos can be published on the Internet, that will prove to be even more accessible to producers at any time.