Following a program that works is key to success for Maxey
CHATHAM, Va. — Cattle farmers work hard and battle all types of weather to raise the best cattle they can for meat and breeding.
When they sell those cattle to other farmers, they want to know the buyers appreciate what they’ve bought.
When they do, that’s the satisfactory part of cattle farming.
“The key for raising good cattle for us maybe is being consistent in staying with one program that works in our environment in Southside Virginia, but then the product we’re raising also works for the guys who are finishing those cattle on out to harvest weight,” said Hank Maxey of Maxey Farms west of Chatham, Va.
Maxey and his family market feeder cattle steers through the Tel-O-Auction system provided by the Central Virginia Cattlemen Association based in Orange, Va., in conjunction with the Virginia Cattlemen’s Association. According to the Central Virginia Cattlemen Association, the group consists of like-mined producers who intend on marketing their cattle, bid on feeding equipment, and purchase minerals and other supplies.
Before selling his cattle, Maxey follows industry standards for weaning conditions, vaccination protocols, and genetics.
When the cattle are ready to sell, he asks graders from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to grade them.
Then he videos them to sell on the auction. After they are purchased, about two-thirds of his steers end up with small farm breeders in Pennsylvania.
He also sells some breeding stock to other farmers in his area and throughout the state.
If the cattle meet buyers’ standards, then hopefully they will return for more stock and become repeat customers.
“I guess that makes us think we’re on the right track,” Maxey said
Getting to that position doesn’t just happen overnight.
It requires good recordkeeping and doing his research. Maxey regularly reviews the American Angus Association’s database of Expected Progeny Differences to see if he can find a bull progeny that will genetically improve his cattle.
The database includes data such as calving ease, docility, birthing and weaning weight, yearling weight and height, mature weight and height, claw set, and foot angle to name a few.
“We don’t select one or two [EPD traits],” Maxey says. “We use a balance of all of those. We want something that is very balanced but above breed average.
“We don’t have to have the top one percent of the breed in any certain trait, but we like to be in the top 25 percent all the time on pretty much all the traits possible.”
Keeping good records based on EPD data is so important. “If you don’t have any numbers or history to back up what you’re doing, then it’s hard to make progress,” Maxey said. “If you’re going backwards and don’t know it, ag is no different than any other business. Whatever cattle you’ve got, it’s got to be efficient off of grass no matter what the end product is.
“We try to balance all that out, but first and foremost the cows have got to work. We try to have our breeding percentages good, our cow longevity good, and [keep track of] how many annual units we run to an acre. We try to be real efficient with that and feed as little hay as possible.”
Maxey breeds each of his cattle at least one time, artificially through a synchronizing program, then he turns registered Angus clean-up bulls into his pastures.
At one time, his cattle were strictly commercial Angus, but national data from breeding programs suggested that cattle could benefit from hybrid vigor.
So about 10 years ago, he started injecting about a quarter Simmental semen when breeding his Angus.
Lately, Maxey has reversed course and started breeding back to straight Angus because he believes that the Angus association has the largest database of cattle traits.
This allows him and other cattlemen to choose their seedstock in hopes of making improvements in their own herds.
To improve his herds even further, each year Maxey and a couple of other local cattlemen visit producers in the state to learn what they are doing differently or better. “Is he backgrounding his cattle differently than we do? he asked. “Is it more efficient? Is it more cost effective? Is his vaccination program tweaked a little bit better than ours? What’s his genetic profile, what’s he shooting for and how’s that working? Reciprocally, Maxey and the visiting producers share what they’re doing in their operations.
“People are open about what they’re doing,” Maxey added. “It’s really beneficial.”
To help his cattle progress, he lets them feed on mostly a mix of fescue and clover for as long as possible in the growing season.
He says during the summer heat in June, July and August, higher quality grasses don’t hold up as good as durable fescue, a cool-season, perennial grass.
“Fescue is a good forage to stockpile in the fall,” Maxey said, “and the value of it doesn’t really decrease.”
For at least the past three years, above-average rainfall has produced enough fescue and clover with the nutrients needed to grow sufficient grass and to feed out cattle well into the winter.
In 2021, Maxey’s cattle have grazed on the mix all the way up into latter January, which is generally longer than normal.
Why clover mixed with fescue? “The fescue has an endophyte in it that causes cattle some problems,” he says. “Clover helps dilute that.”
According to Ohio State University, endophyte can produce an alkaloid or mycotoxin that can cause blood vessel restriction.
When this vasoconstriction occurs, the cattle become hot and struggle to cool down because they can’t regulate their body temperature.
“So you see cattle standing in ponds and creeks and not grazing, more so when there’s a lot of endophytes,” Maxey said. “They don’t shed their winter haircoats off as fast and slick down. When you’ve got a little clover or some other mix in that [crabgrass, wiregrass, whatever], it helps to dilute that fescue a little bit.”
Maxey has raised cattle for 30 years and said he will continue to see where he can improve or what he can do differently for the betterment of his animals.
One of those things that he has done successfully is retain ownership of some of his cattle after they’re sold. “Looking back, maybe we would have done more of that,” he said. “We’ve got genetics in these to know the quality they’ll be in, the value they add onto their endpoint. We’re probably going to do some more in the future, just as a way to diverse a little bit.
“I guess I’m not in the young crowd anymore,” Maxey said. “The old, experienced folks know what’s tried and true, and sometimes you get in a rut. There’s a few folks coming along doing the same that have probably more energy and more drive to look at newer stuff. Sometimes, you start watching those folks a little closer.”