Warren Zenker, a cattle producer from Gackle, ND, believes that volatile markets are the biggest challenge facing those in the agriculture industry right now. But Zenker is trying to change that for his family operation by changing the way they market their cattle.
Zenker and his wife, Linda, operate a true family operation near Gackle alongside their three nephews. Their son is slated to join the operation as well after graduating from college this spring with a degree in animal science. Together, the family runs 450 cows, farms 7,500 acres and runs a 2,000 head permitted feed yard.
In the summer of 2014, Zenker decided to try something new for their cattle marketing plan. “We’ve used the Board of Trade as a tool for our feeder cattle,” he said. “We went out and hedged our calves at what we thought was a phenomenal price; and it was.”
They had good luck with the new method that first summer and have continued to use it over the past few years. Protecting their family operation from the volatility of the market is important to Zenker. “We try to do as much risk protection as we can,” he said. “We’re probably never 100% marketed but we’re typically 50 to 70%.”
As the new president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association (NDSA), Zenker believes market volatility is something that needs to be addressed not only within each individual operation, but at the state and national levels as well. “Until we get this volatility thing figured out, that’s the biggest challenge,” he said.
Zenker hopes that having a NDSA member (Larry Schnell) on the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Price Discovery Sub-Committee will help. “The Stockmen’s Association can put our ideas and our efforts to Larry to take to the working group,” he points out. “They’re bringing some great ideas to the table. I just hope that they can follow through.”
Those committee decisions will hopefully have a lasting impact on family farms like Zenker’s, where several families are working together.
“It’s a family operation, but two different entities,” Zenker said as he explained their operation. Nephews, Chris and Mike, take care of the grain side of the operation, while Zenker and his wife, Linda, mainly focus on the cattle. Linda’s nephew, Taylor, works as the hired man between both places, helping out wherever he is needed. Although they all have their individual roles, they still help out whenever and wherever they are needed. “When it’s harvest, I’ll drive tuck or if it’s planting and there’s a planter that needs to run, I’ll hop in,” Zenker said. “We all kinda work together.”
Despite the rough winter the region has experienced this year, the cattle are doing surprisingly well. “We’ve had probably right around 50” of snow,” said Zenker. “I think the biggest thing for us is that we got caught off guard just like everyone else. We went from unbelievably beautiful weather in November to 10” of snow.”
“The cattle got caught off guard just like we did,” he said. “It’s been hard on them, but we feed pretty heavy.” With 2,000 head of calves filling the feed yard, Zenker is proud to say his death loss this year has been only three head. “I kinda pride myself in that. Our cattle are walked two times a day. Anything that is questioned, we pull,” he said. He attributes most of that success to their vaccination program. “I get a lot of calves from the sale barn in here. There’s a lot of crap floating around,” he said. “If you have an extensive health program, I think that’s 90% of your battle.”
The feed yard is filled with a mixture of calves owned by Zenker and some that he customs feeds for other producers. Zenker’s calves are fed all the way to finish. “Most of the time, we retain ownership on them and take them all the way to kill,” he said. “We put them on a finishing ration around the 15th of April and we try to hit the September/October market with those.”
What works for Zenker’s operation may not work for every operation, but he encourages other producers to work with their lenders. “If I had any advice to anyone, just sit down with your lender about stuff like that (marketing),” said Zenker. “We bank at our small town bank and a lot of times those guys don’t understand those things. They take your advice. They want it to work for you as well.”