Cow Camp Chatter:

by Ron Torell, Long-Standing Educator and Advocate of Agriculture


California Grass

Earlier this year, Nevada livestock producers traveled to northern California to examine marketing alternatives for their cattle and learn about California grass. Nevada is an exporter of light-weight calves primarily due to the unavailability of standing winter feed which results in an inability to economically add weight and value to calves during the snow-bound months. Fortunately for Nevada livestock producers, California offers an abundance of winter time grass making them importers of light-weight calves.

According to Ellington Peek, owner and operator of Shasta Livestock Auction Yard and Western Video Market in Cottonwood, California, the northern California grazing season begins in mid-November and extends through mid-May. Ranches are stocked at a rate of 2.7 to 6.0 acres per five-weight calf for the season. The typical gain for the six-month period will range from 200 to 300 pounds with the heifer calves gaining approximately 25 pounds less than a steer. Normally, 40 percent of the season’s gain comes in the first four months of the grazing season (fall-winter) while 60 percent of the gain is realized in the last two months. This coincides with hopefully consistent rains and warmer spring temperatures which promotes the best plant growth.

“What really makes grass is the timing of the rains, day length, and temperature during that plant’s growing period,” states Tehama County Extension Farm Advisor Josh Davy. “Grasses germinate with coinciding fall rains, hang on through the winter, and flourish with warmer spring temperatures. This all hinges on adequate rains through the season. 2011 was an exceptional year. The rains started at the end of October, 2010, and persisted throughout late spring of 2011. Gains on cattle during adequate rain years are exceptional.” Davy maintains that along with a variety of annual grasses, filaree and several varieties of clover dominate the landscape of many northern California ranches. The low elevation and warm wintertime temperatures coupled with an average precipitation of 15 to 25 inches, which comes throughout the winter months, make plant-growing conditions ideal for winter rangeland.

Western Video Market and Superior Livestock Marketing sales representatives offer the following for readying calves for the California market. Calves should be of excellent genetics with the potential to grow. A 550-600 pound maximum weight calf that is green, in other words, not packing a lot of flesh, is ideal. A 45-day, healthy, weaned calf who has been vaccinated with modified live 4-way and 8-way shots demands a premium. Delivery date is important and should be after the middle of November. This is when northern California grass is usually ready to accept cattle.

In preparing truckloads of sale calves, keep in mind that uniformity in size is important. If the average is 500 pounds, buyers like to have all shipped calves weigh close to that average. Anything that can be done to make cattle attractive as a group also adds value and makes it easier for buyers to market cattle down the road as yearlings. Hip brands are preferred to rib brands, no waddles, limited earmarks, and uniformity in color all add value. Remove the outliers from the load because they will detract from the product.

Weighing conditions at the time of purchase is important. This is monitored by off truck shrink at the time of arrival to their destination. If cattle are shrinking more than 4% from pay weight, it’s obvious weighing conditions at site of origin are not good. Many buyers keep track of the performance of cattle they purchases from various ranches and either bid up or bid back cattle the following year based on past performance.

Duane Martin Sr. of Martin Livestock located near Ione, California, purchases Nevada calves to fill a large portion of what’s needed to stock his ranches. “We run a lot of double season cattle. We buy a light calf from Nevada and run that calf in California from mid-November to mid-May, then we truck that seven-weight animal back to Nevada, Oregon or Colorado for spring grass. The eight to nine-weight animal enters the feedlot in July or August in hopes of catching the November or December fat market,” explains Martin. It is for this reason that the 450-pound maximum weight calf with similar conditions mentioned by sales reps is preferred. The 450-pound calf is hard to find. Five-weight calves are becoming the norm due to better genetics and better management from the cow-calf man.

Martin Livestock has maintained records on the death loss of cattle over the years. It is their experience that weaned calves do the best with an average death loss of only 0.35 percent. When they receive balling calves the death loss rises to 1.25 percent. When they purchase sale barn calves the death loss rises to 3.0 percent or more. Pull and treatment costs and performance follow the same pattern. With those numbers it is easy to see why buyers prefer a 45-day weaned calf that was lined out. When asked about paying for the weaning program, all buyers gave the standard answer: “We do pay more for a weaned calf. We either bid up or down the following year on calves based on the past year’s performance.”

When asked how he prefers to buy cattle, Martin acknowledges he utilizes both Superior and Western Video Auctions, sale barns, private consignment and order buyers. “Any method to get them bought right. Price is very important to success, buy them low and sell them high. It is in our best interest to buy them as cheaply as possible just as it is in your best interest to sell them for as much as you can. If I bid on cattle and do not get them bought, I make the other guy pay."

That’s enough for this month. As always, if you would like to discuss this article or simply want to talk cows, do not hesitate to contact me at 775-385-7665 or

(December 2011)