Calf growers and buyers get on track with MFA Health Track

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

With almost half a million calves under its belt, MFA’s Health Track program is making calf growers and buyers sit up and take notice.
Brandt Willer is one of 2,600 cattle producers who boosts calf health with Health Track, a nutrition and vaccination protocol that assures health in calves. “Our calves perform great and stay healthy,” said Willer, who signed on when the program began in 2000.
Beyond helping assure animal health during the critical time before and after weaning, Health Track has also helped Willer earn a premium price at the sale barn.
“The market right now is so outrageously good it’s hard to tell a difference, but in the past our calves have sold on an average of $5 to $10 a hundredweight higher,” he said.

How does it work?
Working with his sons, Willer manages about 300 cow/calf pairs on his farm near Mexico, Mo. All cattle are black or black and white-faced, and the family schedules calving in both the spring and fall. Willer follows the Health Track nutrition and vaccination program for all offspring.
•    He gives the first round of Vac 45 vaccines two weeks prior to weaning.
•    He follows with a booster shot at weaning time (when he also worms and pours the calves for parasites).
•    Willer then separates the calves from their mothers and administers MFA-prescribed feed for 14 days. He feeds Full Throttle with an AS700 antibiotic that helps calves survive the stress of weaning.
•    Willer follows up with other MFA feed and minerals until he sells the calves. Health Track requires at least 45 days on an MFA-recommended nutrition protocol.
Willer usually feeds the calves until they weigh around 600 to 700 pounds before selling them at Bowling Green Eastern Missouri Commission Co.
Rick Robnett of MFA Agri Services in Mexico, Mo., helped Willer from the beginning. “He came out and talked to us about how Health Track could help us,” Willer said. “Rick is still our go-to guy at MFA. We talk back and forth about feed pricing, and he lends a hand when we put Health Track tags in the calves’ ears.”
The electronic identity (EID) ear tag allows MFA to gather data on calf performance, including weight gain and health. MFA passes each producer’s data along to the producer on a confidential basis.

What sets Health Track apart?
More than 500,000 calves have been enrolled in Health Track since its start in 2000. Just since Sept. 2013, Health Track has issued tags for 28,000 calves. Mike John, director of Health Track operations at MFA Incorporated, explains why Health Track is one of the nation’s most successful calf health protocols.
•    It includes a nutrition element. “Lots of calf health programs have come and gone in the past 10 years,” John said. “Pharmaceutical companies offer vaccine programs, but they don’t include the nutrition component, which is key to success.” Every calf is exposed to a diet of MFA feed products, Cattle Charge or Full Throttle, for at least the first 14 days of preconditioning. The program requires 45 days on MFA-recommended feed.
•    It’s free. “If a producer purchases the prescribed feed from MFA, MFA provides Health Track services at no charge,” John said. Other companies tried to make similar programs work on a fee-for-service basis, he added—without much success.
•    MFA is in your neighborhood. MFA AgriServices stores and other MFA affiliates have almost 200 locations, and every one of them offers Health Track expertise. In addition, a Health Track sales forces works out of the MFA Incorporated headquarters in Columbia, Mo. and provide added service and information. “No one else comes close to having the number of experts we have on the ground,” John said. “We didn’t have to build a new business model from scratch—we’ve been here for 100 years.”
•    MFA mines the data. “We’ve collected health data during the 45-day conditioning period for 14 years, so we can answer questions on what works best,” John said. These days, data can be entered from smartphone photos, faxes or scans attached to emails.

How do buyers like Health Track?
Tracy Brunner of Cow Camp Feed Yard in Ramona, Kan., buys weaned calves and short yearlings direct from the farm or ranch, as well as from sale barns. He sees a difference in the calves.
“Health Track program cattle are at the top of the list when comparing all ranch-direct calves for health and feed/gain efficiency in the feed yard, and in enhanced performance carcass quality at the packing plant,” he said.
Noting that MFA Health Track calves follow a standard protocol of vaccination, nutrition and weaning time, he added, “We believe these three things are nearly equal in importance to best prepare a calf for our feed yard.”
Brunner agrees that Health Track calves are worth a premium. “In auctions, I see them sell at the top of the price ranges for cattle on any given day,” he said. “When we are buying ranch-direct calves, if they are MFA Health Track, we know we are buying the best preconditioning program available.”
Mike John explains that feedlots are the primary buyers of Health Track calves, and he hears similar sentiments from other feeders.
 “The feeding industry has made it clear that they want to know how the calves have been treated before they buy,” John said. “They tend to buy calves in small herds, so they want third-party verification that the calves won’t get sick and die, and that they know how to eat. Health Track provides that verification.”
John backs up his claim with data. “We know fairly reliability that the risk of a calf getting sick post-weaning following the Health Track protocol is about 2 percent,” he said. “That compares to normal pull rates of 20 to 30 percent at backgrounding or stocker operations, where they pull in cattle from multiple sources.”

How do sale barns like it?
Mark Harmon of Joplin Regional Stockyards in Carthage, Missouri, says his sale barn handles 400,000 cattle a year. He sees a lot of Health Track calves go through the facility—especially at the big June and December sales.
“People buying cattle want performance—they’ve got to make money on those calves,” Harmon said. “What I see is those Health Track cattle have a lot of consistency. The cattle seem to gain well and perform well, and buyers are receptive to them.”
Harmon has used the Health Track program for 10 years on calves he raises.
MFA keeps a great database on the cattle in the program, Harmon added. John says his database reveals that Joplin Regional Stockyards sells 15,000 to 17,000 Health Track calves annually.

What’s the future hold?
According to John, return on investment for Health Track is better than ever with today’s weak grain and feed prices, combined with record cattle prices. “Look for the value to hold over the next few years as cattlemen rebuild their herds after the recent years of drought,” he added.
MFA is testing a new app that allows you to collect data and send it over a cell or Wi-Fi connection. In coming years, producers can expect Health Track to grow beyond calf health to include more cowherd management and stocker/backgrounding data management. “We’ll allow you to benchmark your operation against your peers and pinpoint areas that need attention,” John said.

Do producers recommend it?
Willer isn’t sure how Health Track could improve in the future, but he recommends it to other producers today. Even his website, www.willerfarms.com, mentions that the family uses Health Track.
Willer offers this additional testimonial: “With Health Track, you are passing along a healthy calf to the next step in the calf’s life. You build up a good reputation with this program. People want to buy your calves because they know they’ve been fed right, and received the proper vaccinations.”