TAKING STOCK: Hollinger Cattle Company Captures National Stocker Award
By Darryal Ray
It was soon after the Crash of '29 that Fleet Hollinger saw a good portion of his income head South as his tenant farmers packed up and went looking for jobs in the Mobile shipyards.
|Leo and Jeannie Hollinger have captured BEEF magazine's National Stocker Award.|
"He didn't know what to do," says Leo Hollinger, recounting a long-ago conversation with his grandfather. "The only thing he knew to do was to fence off some of that cotton land, plant some winter grazing and buy some little steers. He wound up sending all three boys to college, including one to veterinary school."
But the story doesn't end there. More than eight decades after Fleet's own economic stimulus decision, Hollinger Cattle Co. has captured the 2009 National Stocker Award, recognizing the Wilcox County farm now owned by Leo and wife Jeannie Hollinger as the nation's top stocker cattle operation for its efficiency, innovation and management.
Sponsored by BEEF magazine and Elanco Animal Health, the four-year-old competition awards $5,000 cash to the winner along with expense-paid trips to the annual Cattle Industry Convention in San Antonio and the BEEF Quality Summit in St. Joseph, Mo.
More importantly, however, the competition highlights the importance of the stocker industry -- an often-misunderstood segment of the cattle industry that requires risk management, timing, flexibility and preparation.
For the Hollingers, that means taking freshly weaned calves too lightweight for the feed yard, grazing or feeding them through the fall and winter for peak gain, and carefully managing their health before shipping them to a feedlot for finishing.
"Feedlots don't have time to wean calves, and they don't have time to treat sick calves," says Leo. "They are willing to pay that labor bill and that vet bill if they know the calves they are getting are well-managed. They don't want problems. They are in the business of feeding cattle, and they want calves that are ready to start eating."
"Most of the calves weaned in the United States are not ready to go to the feed yard at that point in time," he adds. "Somebody has to be the shock absorber to take this flood of cattle in the fall, and get them ready to be put on feed in a way that the feedlots can also, hopefully, make some money and produce an orderly fashion of beef."
Nominated for the award by Dr. Don Ball, a forage specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, the Hollingers entered two groups of cattle -- one of 854 heifers and another of 179 steers -- in the fall-winter grazing division of the competition.
As one of three finalists selected by a team of independent judges, the Hollingers had to submit detailed profit metrics for the calves, a process that Leo says took 40 to 50 hours to complete. Profitability figures accounted for 60 percent of the judging, and required exhaustive tracking of expenses.
"One thing about it was that it gave Leo a much better idea of what was going on with the business," says Jeannie, a retired Extension specialist whose main job is bookkeeping and weighing the cattle in truckload lots. "It was like a self study. He had to do a lot of looking back."
Leo says it was particularly eye-opening to discover that 63 percent of his total gain went to expenses unrelated to feed or grass, things like veterinary medicines, labor, interest, commissions, marketing fees, transportation, death loss, etc.
"I knew the stocker business was weighted heavily toward these things," says Leo. "I didn't realize that my cost for feed and grass was cheap compared to the total cost."
Oddly enough, he says the calves entered were no different from most other groups that leave Hollinger Cattle Farm for the feedlot. "We had a dry fall, the grazing was actually late, we had a bad turn in the market that was favorable to buying cattle, and we had an upturn in the market about the time we wanted to sell. So we had a favorable buy-and-sell situation. But as far as the type of cattle and the grazing, it was a fairly normal year."
Of course, "normal" in the stocker business means one must be ready for anything. "If you're going to work calves and it takes an hour or longer to get your catch pen functioning and it's 90 to 100 degrees and the cattle are hot, you've stressed those calves to the point that no vaccine you can give them is going to work. ... If a calf ever gets sick, he hardly ever makes a profit."
No wonder Leo says stockers will spend thousands of dollars in veterinary drugs in caring for their cattle. He says he has about four vets he calls upon regularly, but many times, he is more familiar with bovine disease than they are because he's dealt with large numbers of calves during his 40-year career.
"One thing that Leo does is study it," says Jeannie. "He doesn't mind asking questions, and he tries to go to the people that he thinks can give him the best answers."
One of those people is the aforementioned Dr. Don Ball whose advice he seeks on the grazing end of the operation. "He does a lot of things right, as you can imagine," said Ball. "As a forage agronomist, I especially appreciate the fact that he has an outstanding forage program. One feature of his forage program is that he uses clovers extensively, which greatly improves the economics of his operation."
Perry Mobley, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation's Beef and Hay & Forage Divisions, puts it more simply: "Mr. Leo is one of the most accomplished stocker operators in this part of the world -- you don't win a National Stocker Award if you're not. He isn't afraid to ask a lot of questions, but I've learned a lot more from him than he'll ever get out of me."
It's a tough business, Leo admits. But with preparation, risk management, timing and flexibility, it can be worth it.
"Whether it's up or down, the cattle business has opportunities," he adds. "It may not be the same opportunities you had the year before -- instead of buying a light calf, you might need to buy a heavy calf, or you may need to sit it out. But there's usually an opportunity to make a profit if you study it enough or ask enough questions or consult enough people. There's usually a window there.
"One thing about the stocker business that I personally think you need to have is some sort of affinity to change. You just can't do the same thing you did every year," he added.
Nevertheless, Leo says running a stocker operation isn't for anyone afraid to take a risk.
"Sometimes, it just takes a plumb fool to do it," he says with a laugh.
He often reflects on how Grandpa Fleet got into -- and persevered -- in the business. "Fleet was an interesting man, and he dearly loved the cattle business," Leo said. "It was his way of handling the challenge that was pretty severe in the Depression. Almost every time I've had a situation where I was confused about what to do, I fall back on buying light calves and grazing them like he did."
After a pause, he smiles and adds, "I guess I've been confused all my life."