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Adding Value, Generations Deep

Improving the cattle industry is all in the DNA for the Birk family

Deeply rooted in Jackson, Mo., the Birk family has been in the livestock business for more than 150 years. Each branch of this well-known family tree has added value to the cattle industry in Southeast Missouri.

Throughout the generations, the Birks have continued to improve their cattle as well as the herds in the region with research, use of quality seed stock, artificial insemination, embryo transfers, DNA evaluation, genetic data collection and programs to precondition calves.

With such a profound impact on the area’s industry, it was no surprise when Clay Birk and his wife, Storm, bought the Farmington Regional Stockyards in 2019, just four years after they graduated from Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO). His father, Terry, was a co-owner until August 2023, when the young couple bought him out.

“We always acknowledged that we had much to learn when we started,” Clay joked, “and we weren’t wrong. But we’ve figured a lot of things out now—including how to help our customers add value to their cattle and get them in front of the right buyers.”

In the DNA
Discovering how to do things right is part of the Birk lineage. Clay’s great-great-grandparents immigrated from Germany, purchased land in Cape Girardeau County in 1876 and started farming. The family’s love of the land and livestock endures today.
In the early 1980s, Clay’s grandparents, Glen and Alice Birk, dispersed their polled Hereford herd and began purchasing registered black Angus. With his eye always focused on the future, Glen has been on the cutting edge of the cattle industry for more than 40 years.

Using the latest research on health, nutrition, genetics and reproductive science to raise quality cattle, Glen was among the first producers to participate in the Show-Me-Select (SMS) Replacement Heifer Program. He has sold heifers in every SMS sale in Fruitland, Mo., since the program’s inception in 1998 and was recognized last year for his support and continued partnership.

“My grandpa has put an extreme amount of effort toward creating a well-balanced, registered Angus female that’s going to be able to be used for seed stock in a commercial operation,” said Clay, who credits his grandparents’ operation for inspiring his desire to farm. “That sounds like a tagline, but that really is what he’s trying to do. He’s put more emphasis on carcass quality and genetic merit, in my opinion, than most people do. I’ve learned from the best.”

Since purchasing the Farmington Regional Stockyards, Clay and Storm have followed the family farming tradition. The Birks also run a backgrounding operation on rented ground and own a semi-truck and a few gooseneck trucks to ship and haul cattle.

“We actually run three different entities that all work together. The logistics are fun,” Clay laughs. “My favorite thing is having buyers from different places and juggling all the different factors.”

Clay says he really enjoys the business side of running these interconnected enterprises.

“Figuring out opportunity cost over and over and over, in this business, is a constant thing,” Clay said. “If we have a set of cattle for six months, I figure their opportunity cost every month and see if it makes sense to keep or sell them. If I had to buy them today, would I buy them? If the answer is no, then we sell them. If the answer’s yes, then we keep them another month or so and go through the cycle all over again.”

Storm didn’t grow up in agriculture but was exposed to farming when she and Clay met at SEMO. “It’s just second nature to me now,” she said. “I think it was one of those things that I was made to do. It’s kind of been a whirlwind. One day I’m feeding cattle, and then the next day I’m an accountant.”

Adding Value
Controlling costs is difficult, and many variables are out of a producer’s hands. However, looking for new ways to add value to the operation can be beneficial to the buyer as well as the seller. Encouraging preconditioning programs is one way to add that value, Storm said.

“We stress the preconditioning programs to farmers because when we ship cattle off to South Dakota or Nebraska from here, they need to be healthy and in great condition to endure the stress of traveling,” she said. “We try to make sure that those benefits are passed through and are getting back to that farmer, because we are one of them.”

“We are proud of the cattle we sell and we are proud to offer the buyers cattle that are preconditioned,” Clay added. “I like to visit the farmers and see their operations so we know what we are selling. Because of the relationships we develop with the sellers, our order buyers can trust what we are selling. Every buyer wants a third-party verification, and we can provide that.”

At the sale barn, feeder cattle that are in a preconditioning program and have a health background usually bring a premium because the buyer has confidence in those calves, said Stephen Daume, MFA livestock specialist. MFA Incorporated’s Health Track is among those preconditioning programs that have brought producers and buyers proven value since its inception in January 2000. Starting March 1, 2024, the ownership and management of the program will transition to Mike John, who will continue to lead it independently from MFA. John, who has been Health Track’s long-time advocate and manager, retired from MFA in February.

“As we considered the future of the program—its management and potential to evolve with the industry—it became clear to us that it will best be continued through Mike John’s leadership,” said John Akridge, MFA senior director of Livestock Operations. “With Mike at the helm, the program is set to continue as a leader in weaning and preconditioning.”

The verification and market data provided through preconditioning programs such as Health Track have been shown to increase profitability and reputation for quality livestock. Daume anticipates the same thing happening with genomic information.

“For the last few decades calf health programs have added tremendous value. But I believe that we are on the verge of making great progress on the genetic side with DNA testing,” Daume explained. “It’s in the beginning stages, with the Birks and about five other producers I am working with right now. We are improving the reputation of the cattle from this area. It takes time, but small farms are improving the genetic and carcass value, and we are seeing the results with sales.”

A Cut Above
The information provided by DNA testing includes potential growth rate, feed efficiency, marbling and other key traits that can help project how a given group of cattle will perform and how valuable their carcasses will be. It’s a strategy that seed stock producers, such as Clay’s grandfather, have employed for decades, using expected progeny differences (EPDs) to market their elite genetics.

“Genomically enhanced EPDs changed the seed stock market,” Daume said. “What we are really talking about is transitioning some of that to the feeder calf market.”
As buyers and cattle feeders start to understand the power of genetic information and how it plays a role in performance and carcass traits, Daume said he believes it will soon be used as a tool in pricing and buying feeder cattle.

“It’s not going to take long for buyers to understand what those numbers mean,” he said.

Since traits that influence performance and carcass are inherited, DNA testing puts value in what can’t be seen, Storm explained. When buyers typically purchase feeder calves, they are assuming the “average performance.” The Birks would like to provide more tangible information.

“Generally, bids are based on time of year, cattle weight, cost of corn and feed. The reality is that some cattle are better than the average, others are average and then some are below average,” Clay said. “It becomes a commodity-type approach without additional information.”

Producers who are buying quality cattle and retaining ownership may be the ones who reap the most benefits of this information, Clay said. “They will actually be able to use that data to predict rate of gain, feed efficiency carcass results and even more,” he added. “This is the direction we all need to start moving in.”

The Birks and Daume are not alone in this thinking. The Genetic Merit Pricing Task Force, a coalition of 32 producers and industry stakeholders, had their first meeting in Denver, Colo., this past November. The task force is dedicated to accelerating the industry toward widespread use of genetic information in pricing feeder cattle.

“When you consider the success that objective genetic information brought to our seed stock market over the past several decades, you get some idea what could happen in the feeder cattle market,” said Tom Brink, Red Angus Association of America CEO and one of the task force founders. “Industrywide genetic improvement will progress more rapidly when genetic information is part of the price discovery process, and that benefits everyone from ranch to consumer.”

For the Birks, one important goal of genetic testing is to increase the percentage of high-quality cattle that come through their sale barn. In the long run, Clay said, that helps everyone involved.

“The DNA test allows us to have the right information and true value that we can share with buyers,” he explained. “Plants want to buy square loads of cattle that are all the same—ideally all prime, but at least in that high-choice, low-prime area where they’re extremely consistent. So let’s say that through the DNA testing, we can show the true potential with cattle that they can build those square loads and get that premium. That’s a win-win.”

For more information on the Farmington Regional Stockyards, call Clay Birk at 573-275-1387 or visit farmingtonregionalstockyards.com. Contact your local MFA livestock specialist or key account manager for more information about preconditioning or DNA testing cattle.

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