As Feed Costs Rise, Fewer Cattle Are Shown

8/24/2013 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent

HARRISONBURG, Va. — The goats have come marching in, and the steer barn at the Rockingham County Fair isn’t just for steers anymore.

Call it another sign of these times of expensive feed. Raising a steer for the county fair isn’t cheap, and accordingly, the fair has seen a downward trend in entries to the steer show over the past several years. At the same time, sheep and goat numbers continue to rise; this year, overflow goat capacity spilled into one corner of the steer barn.

“Some of these kids are going to have $1,500 in feed costs,” said Bill Ferrell, chairman of the market steer show. “That’s just a lot of money.”

Ferrell said the number of market steers shown at the county fair — the largest county fair in Virginia — has fallen from 100 a few years ago to just 70 this year.

In addition to the growing expense of feeding a steer to exhibit at the fair is the fact that cattle markets have been strong lately. A steer at the stockyard might go for $160 a hundredweight these days, Ferrell said, compared with a price closer to $100 a hundredweight five or so years ago. It can add hundreds of dollars to a steer project’s startup costs on the low-end, stockyard side of the market. Club calves only go up from there.

A final factor working against cattle, and in favor of the sheep and goats, is the time requirement. A steer will eat a lot of expensive feed for 11 months. A smaller livestock project will eat a much smaller amount of expensive feed for just a couple of months.

Sheep “are more economical,” said Martha May, who runs the commercial sheep show at the Rockingham County Fair, which was held Aug. 12-17. “They don’t need much space at all and you won’t go broke feeding them.”

May’s sheep show had 210 entries this year, up from less than 150 when it was first held a few years ago. The market lamb show has also grown significantly; in total, somewhere around 400 sheep were at the fair.

Goat numbers have seen similar growth. Last year, the 4-H/FFA market goat contest had 94 entries. This year, there were 115, said show chairman Dale Shifflett.

He also identified “extreme” feed prices as a major reason why smaller livestock are increasingly popular choices at the fair, at the expense of steer numbers.

Because of the time and labor involved, Ferrell said raising a steer for the county fair gives kids and their parents a great experience to share over the course of the year. For that reason, he hates to see numbers fall because of feed costs, and expects that they would begin to rise again if costs drop in the future.

Expensive feed doesn’t mean there’s not money to be made on a steer. Even last year, when prices were high, Claire Shank and Hannah Cupp, students at Turner Ashby High School, made about $1,000 profit per head on their steers after the sale at the end of the fair. Both of them put their fair profits into a college fund.

Pausing for a moment beside her steer in the barn (the one partially taken over by goats) Shank, a rising senior, said she had more money invested in her animal this year. But with cattle prices also high, she was holding out hope that profitability, and her college fund, might not suffer too much.

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