Consumers are increasingly concerned about the handling of beef before they pick it up at the grocery store or order it as take-out and call for best practices is moving its way down to feedlot operators, cattle buyers and cow-calf producers.
Arkansas’ Natural State Preconditioned Calf or GoGreen program provides a marketing outlet for cow-calf producers who follow a series of health protocols prior to sale. University of Arkansas ruminant nutrition professor Shane Gadberry organizes the program alongside a group of dedicated Extension agents throughout the state in an effort to help smaller producers capture value they may already be adding to their herd.
“There’s been a history of trying preconditioned calf programs here in the past,” Gadberry said. “So we took a look back at what had been tried in the past as far as the successes and limitations of those programs when we were formulating this new initiative.”
Mike McClintock, a Boone County Extension agent and early contributor to the GoGreen program said early attempts at preconditioning programs helped provide a foundation of experience for the new initiative.
“A similar program was attempted about 20 years ago in Arkansas and it just kind of fell flat,” McClintock said. “We spent almost a full year working out the kinks and talking about ways to make it better, have more accountability between the sale barns and producers.”
One major change the organizers implemented was a flexible program base that could work with a wide variety of sale outlets throughout the state — whether they had an existing preconditioned program or not.
“One of the main opportunities the county agents and I saw when we were creating this program was the opportunity to make something fairly generic,” Gadberry said. “A lot of salebarns already have their own preconditioning programs, many of which require a specific brand or type of vaccine, or other individual requirements.”
The GoGreen program asks producers to fulfill a checklist of requirements, including Beef Quality Assurance certification. Cattle in the Natural State Preconditioned Calf program, identified by a green tag, must be a minimum of 45 dats post-weaning and a minimum of 14 days from their last round of vaccinations. Bulls must be castrated and horns removed as well as healed.
Calves in the program cannot have an antibiotic withdrawal time violations and have been administered a host of vaccinations as well as de-wormer.
“What we have not required is the use of modified live vaccines on the respiratory side,” Gadberry said. “The reason we chose to leave that option open is that a modified live vaccine handled incorrectly is less effective than a killed vaccine that has been handled and boostered properly.”
Gadberry explained transitioning to modified live vaccines can often be prohibitive because of cows not having prior exposure to a modified live vaccine.
Overall, the vaccinations protocols not only help encourage health and overall gains during weaning, they also promote healthy receiving cattle for backgrounders or feeders buying GoGreen calves — addressing a stigma associated with cattle moving west from the southeastern United States.
“Historically cattle out of the Southeast haven't had a positive perception when it comes to health,” Gadberry said. “And that is something that I think the whole industry needs to address and work together to improve.”
Slowly but surely, the GoGreen program is making a name for itself through special GoGreen preconditioned calf sales as well as sending green tag calves through existing preconditioned sales — and they have the data to back it up.
“We see a premium reported statewide for about $7 to $9 per hundredweight for preconditioned cattle,” Gadberry said. “And we encourage producers to see those premiums as just icing on the cake of their overall profitability.”
For Boone County producer Kayla Pratt, enrolling cattle in the GoGreen program was a no-brainer way to capture value already being added to her calves.
“When we first started the program the only price difference to us to enroll was the cost of the $2 tags,” Pratt said. “We were already following all of the protocols the program calls for and so it was an easy decision to try it out as a marketing strategy.”
As far as an increase in profits, Pratt isn’t sure the program garners a premium, so much as it protects producers too small to market calves by the pot load from dockage in the regular market.
“I don’t know if I’d say that preconditioned cattle bring a premium, but I would say that cattle sold without following preconditioning practices or marketing themselves as preconditioned are definitely discounted,” Pratt said.
Preconditioned calf programs have seen a rise in popularity in recent years, especially in season where the cattle market has been at its most unpredictable.
Gadberry said the popularity of preconditioned programs as a whole has helped start a new wave of engagement.
“There’s been a lot of popular press the last few years focused on the demand for preconditioned cattle and increased need for cattle health across the United States,” Gadberry said. “That, along with the renewed benefits producers are seeing locally has spurred producer interest.”
Pratt said she has been encourage by more community involvement in the program, including her local livestock auction owner, Carl Campbell stepping up and getting involved.
“In a program like this, the more people that get behind it and get involved, the bigger the impact it will have,” Pratt said. “I do feel like more and more people are participating, and at our own sale barn — Cattlemen’s Livestock in Harrison — the owner enrolls his own personal cattle in the program as well.”
Gadberry and the rest of the Extension team have high hopes for the influence and longevity of the project in the future, as well as the support network it has formed for producers along the way.
“We’re seeing sustained growth in the program,” Gadberry said. “In every new program there are always early adopters, both in extension and with the producers, while the rest sit back and wait to see if it will be successful — and now we’re beginning to see that demographic step forward.”