Livestock costs hog students' profits
Youth agriculture projects teach aspiring farmers responsibility, financial management, record-keeping and countless practical skills as they raise livestock for show and sale at the Westmoreland Fair.
The lessons learned from the projects are especially valuable in light of market sale prices that haven't risen in proportion to increases in the cost of raising an animal to market size.
Prices for young market animals have surged in the past decade, pushing up the initial investment students must make in their show and market animal projects. And the cost to feed them may price some youngsters out of the big-animal market.
“Beef prices have gone up tremendously over the last four or five years, so it has definitely gotten a lot more expensive for students to do a project,” said Roy Campbell, Derry Area High School's agriculture teacher and Future Farmers of America adviser. “The amount of investment has definitely increased.”
“Ten years ago, feeder cattle were worth 80 cents a pound. Today, some weights of feeder calves are approaching $2 a pound,” said Penn State Extension Educator Dustin Heeter, who helps coordinate the fair's junior livestock sale. “If that's for a common calf going off the farm, then (the price of) an animal that has more care... is going to increase exponentially as well.”
Climbing feed costs have also cut into students' profits. Animals don't eat any less just because their feed costs more.
“Just this summer we've had increases and decreases between the normal feed that we feed, and we've had to change our feed due to the prices and everything,” said Emily Penich, a junior in Derry's agriculture program who has shown and sold goats, lambs and pigs at the fair. “It's just been chaos with trying to find the cheapest and then everything changing.
“I'm feeling like there's going to be less of a profit this year just because of the economy,” she said. “It's going to be hard to make my money back as it is with all the feed costs.”
Although prices paid for animals at the fair's junior livestock sale — at 10 a.m. Saturday this year — are higher than industry standard, they also tend to fluctuate less.
“The sale here really hasn't fluctuated that much. It has definitely not followed the cost up, but the prices that the kids receive here are inflated based on what the industry price is anyhow,” Heeter said. “A hog taken to the sale barn would be in the 60- to 70-cent range. The hogs that are sold here will be in the $2 to $3 range. ... But most of these kids aren't buying just the common pig or lamb or steer to raise.”
And if costs continue to rise, students may not be able to afford to raise the larger livestock.
“It all depends on how much money they have for their budget, I think,” Derry junior Kristen Hilty said. “It might scare them away to the smaller animals like maybe a chicken or a bunny or something that would be easier cost-wise.”
The FFA offers an alternative to students who can't fund a livestock project on their own.
“The chapter has fund-raised and we have the animals we keep up at our school barn, so basically the kids are getting a loan through the chapter,” Campbell said. “Through our activity account, we pay for the feed and pay for the (animal). But then when the check comes in after the sale, they have to turn around and repay us back (for those costs) from whatever they get.”
“This is an experience that, if I didn't do the ag program and I didn't have this option, I wouldn't be doing it,” said Derry junior Kristopher Heacox, who has been able to take advantage of the program. “I wouldn't have the ability to show.”
“The folks that buy at this sale, they come to buy because of the kids,” Heeter said. “A certain amount of it is because of the quality of the animals they produce, but the quality of the kid is what draws people to this sale. That's truly what should be focused on is the quality of the youth that are involved.
“The learning process, the dedication, those things that these kids do are why someone should come and buy at this sale,” he said.
Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913 or firstname.lastname@example.org.