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COVID-19’s impact on livestock marketing

Photos courtesy of Larson Farms Cattle in a feedlot peeking through metal fencing
STRESS OF COVID: Feedlot owners and managers across the country were challenged by meatpacking plant closures due to COVID-19 outbreaks. “Weights were going higher and higher and we wondered if the plants would reopen,” said Mike Martz, Illinois cattle feeder with Larson Farms.
At FPVX, one Illinois farmer shares difficult times of marketing fed cattle during the pandemic.

In 2019, if you would have told Mike Martz about how COVID-19 would disrupt the operation and marketing of cattle in his partnership 3,400-head capacity custom cattle feeding business, he wouldn’t have believed it was possible. Yet that is exactly what faced Larson Farms, located about 60 miles west of Chicago, when COVID-19 struck and completely halted fed cattle delivery for cattle feedyards across the country for more than five weeks.

“I never saw it coming,” Martz said about the packing plant shutdowns during the early days of the COVID-19 crisis. “We had five weeks where we had no bids for finished cattle. Weights were going higher and higher and we wondered if the plants would reopen.”

Finally, after five weeks of true distress, Martz was able to obtain a bid on cattle, although it was $25 per hundredweight less than before COVID-19.

“I was just so grateful to get a bid,” he said. “That was the first night I slept really well in five weeks, and there were a lot of producers that felt the same.”

Martz recently discussed the stress he and fellow cattlemen felt during the onslaught of COVID-19 this past spring and how they have dealt with the additional stress and management challenge during the Farm Progress Virtual Experience “Livestock marketing in the time of COVID” panel.

Aerial view of a feedlot and farmsteadRIDING THE STORM: Larson Farms, located just outside of Chicago, is a diversified operation with cattle, crops and truck hauling business. The crops enterprise ranges across 6,500 acres.

Formed in 1979, Larson Farms is a partnership involving five families and three generations. The operation includes crops, a trucking business and the custom cattle feeding enterprise.

In addition to the lack of ability to move cattle, the operation had been feeding dried distillers grains as part of their ration. When the local ethanol plant shut down, they were unable to get DDGs.

“Our cheap feed was gone,” he said, “so we had to hustle to find other feed sources.”

Health concerns on the farm

Adding to the strain was Martz’s concern over the physical safety of family partners working on the farm and their four full time employees.

“We started talking about what happens if we get COVID on the farm,” he said. “What will we do? This was good to talk about at our partnership meetings, so we could make better decisions when we were not under stress.”

A man and a woman wearing maroon collard shirts stand next to each other as they smile for a photoFAMILY RUN: Lynn and Mike Martz are part of her family farm — Larson Farms — near Maple Park, Ill. The two joined the partnership in 1980. Both work with the cattle feedlot aspect of the operation.

Fortunately, everyone stayed safe and healthy, but it remains a concern for the wellbeing of those involved in the operation. Still there was a mental stress surrounding the coronavirus. What helped Martz through was other cattle producers.

“I had three close friends that I talked with two to three times a week” during those dark days when there was nowhere to go with fed cattle, he added. “We all talked about what we could do, and there was some comfort in numbers,” he said. “In the end, I think we all came through this stronger than when we went into it.”

Moving forward

As for advice for 2021 with COVID-19 still lingering, Martz said that there needs to be a plan for the farm and then stick to the plan.

“Make modifications if you have to, but it provides a road map of where you want to go,” he said.

Secondly, producers need to know their costs.

“Some costs can fall through the cracks, so make sure your costs are accurate,” he said.

“Don’t let problems overwhelm you and look for opportunities” within the challenges, he said. He also advised getting involved in a peer group, commodity and farm organizations and community groups.

“In peer groups, you can open up about your farm and what is going on,” he said. “People can tell you what they think and that helps during tough times.”

Find input, marketing sources

Information is power, and sometimes you might have to pay for advice or information, Martz said, but it could be one of the cheapest things you pay for every year.

“We try to sell cattle every week and stay on top of this,” he said. “You can’t take a break from selling cattle and think you know what you are doing five weeks later. You have to stay current with marketings.”

Larson Farms uses three packers consistently, but they have sent cattle farther away.

“That’s why relationships are important,” he said. “Have feelers out so you know who is buying cattle.”

COVID-19 also forced Martz to search for more affordable feedstuffs.

A feedlot structure filled with cattleAT CAPACITY: During the early months of COVID-19, Larson Farms cattle operation was at capacity. Its feedlots can hold 3,400 head of cattle at any given time and produce roughly 7,000 head of finished cattle each year. With limited processing plant options, much of the cattle were held on site.

“Cattle have the ability to take these marginal feeds and make them into great beef,” he said. “We recently purchased damaged corn at half price and worked with our nutritionist” to work out the rations.

To listen to all of Martz’s comments visit fpvexp.com and register. It is free. Then click on the “Sessions” tab. The “Livestock marketing in the wake of COVID-19” discussion can be found on Day 3 at 10:30 a.m. and is available on demand by pressing “Join Now.”

Visit other panel discussions, equipment demonstrations and a virtual trade show at fpvexp.com

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