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Highlights from the 2022 Cattlemen’s College

For over 25 years NCBA’s Cattlemen’s College has brought thought-provoking, stimulating sessions that can help improve an operation. As the 2022 event kicks off, producers share the latest practices and initiatives they are employing in their operations.

Embracing Conservation Practices

Ric Coombie and his family raise cattle on Thunder View Farms, 100 miles north of New York City. That puts it directly in the watershed that provides drinking water for 9.5 million New York City residents, and makes it perhaps one of the most environmentally exposed cattle ranches in the country.

“Rather than fight New York City, we decided to embrace it,” he tells other ranchers attending the 2022 Cattlemen’s College. They’ve met with the water regulators, and now manage the farm by New York City rules designed to deliver absolutely pure water from the watershed.

One of the conservation practices they employ involves wintertime feeding of their few hundred cows. They make silage in plastic bags, and feed it on a long concrete feeding pad. That concentrates the waste and manure in one area where they can easily scoop and spread in a controlled manner only where they want it and where there is no risk of it getting into runoff zones.

“If we’re lucky with the weather, we can spread it in hayfields year-round,” Coombie says. “We never spread anything within a mile of a stream or water reservoir.”

Cashing in on Ecosystem Credits

Bob McCan of McFaddin Enterprises, a large cattle ranch in south Texas, says that his ranch is closely looking at an entirely new income stream: ecosystem credits. 

“We’ve been approached by people who want to pay us for carbon and conservation credits for our practices, our biodiversity efforts, and perhaps water quality practices,” he says. “We don’t know all the details, but it could be a significant amount that a consortium of businesses are willing to pay, maybe in the range of $10 to $15 an acre.”

The Value of Combined Herds

Three is better than one, says Nevada rancher Bill Lickley after combining cow herds with two of his friends. Now, the cows are still owned individually, but they run together and are managed as one larger herd. At branding time, individual calves are branded according to the owner. The value of the combined herds comes in many ways, says Lickley, including management and labor efficiencies.

“But perhaps one of the best advantages comes at marketing time, when we’re sorting calves for sale,” he says. “When my herd was alone, we had about 200 cows, and when we sold calves we always had the majority of calves in the middle, size-wise. We could make a couple loads of them. Big loads always help on price. But we always had a few calves that were bigger, and a few that were smaller that we would sort off, and there were never enough of them to make a full load. They never sold as well, and that was costing us a lot of overall value.

“Now with the combined herds, we have about 2,500 cows. We can put together a full load of those calves that are a little smaller, maybe because they are just younger, or a little bigger. I feel like we’re getting closer to full value on all our calves.”

The combined herds also let him and his partners specialize in ways they couldn’t as individual herds. For instance, Lickley says, he doesn’t have to fret over leased grazing land issues, as one of his partners does that. Rather, he gets to concentrate on marketing and risk management, his real expertise. 

From a Seedstock Operation to a Direct Market Beef Operation

Higher market prices in recent months are putting a smile on the faces of producers at the 2022 Cattle Industry Convention & NCBA Trade Show. Most people measure that in cents per pound of calf sold – $1.60 last year, over $2 this year. But Andrew Donnell of Jackson, Tennessee, measures it in actual price of a steak. That’s because he’s rapidly converting the ranch from a seedstock operation to a direct market beef operation sold through a brand-new butcher plant he added to the farm last year. 

“We started off selling ribeye steaks for $12 a pound,” he says. “That was too low, so we raised it to $15 and we still sold out quickly. Recently we raised it again to $18 and it’s still selling because people like it so well.”

His ground beef price is still at the original level of $5.50 a pound, but he’s in the midst of reevaluating that. “We really are trying to establish a good client base, and we want them completely satisfied, so our first goal is just to get customers to try our beef. In fact, sometimes when a new customer comes to me, I tell them to take a package and try it before they buy.” He can do that, he says, because they always come back. He hopes to soon be able to sell all his calves (about 100 a year) through the butcher plant.

Opening the Barn Doors to Visitors

What if you opened your farm to agritourism, and over a million people showed up? That’s what happened at Kualoa Ranch in Hawaii. Of course, they have some things you probably don’t have: year-round beautiful weather, world-class beaches, and tourist traffic that lands on their doorstep. And, oh yes, they also have dinosaurs. This ranch on the island of Oahu was where much of the filming happened for the Jurassic Park movies.

They also have 4,000 acres of pastureland and a thriving grass-fed beef business. Stephanie Mock of Kualoa Ranch told the beef producers at the convention that they try to capitalize in a sustainable way on all the opportunities they have to attract visitors with agritours, biking treks, hikes, weddings, zip lines, and more. Here’s her list of things they’ve learned that may be of value to other ranches looking for alternative revenue sources.

  1. Don’t let cows in a field the day before you are hosting a wedding there. Kualoa Ranch knows this from hosting 400 weddings a year.
  2. Not all alternative ventures will work. You can hedge your risks by easing into a new venture with leasing or collaborative partners who take on some of the risk.
  3. What you think is safe may not be the same as for some of your guests who don’t work on a farm every day.
  4. Schedules for tourists do not always match up with your farm activity schedules.
  5. Appeal to your guests’ senses. Let them get their hands dirty, or let a cow lick them. “Those are the lasting memories they will take away. What you take for granted, they don’t experience, and they’ll pay you to get that experience,” says Mock.
  6. Always teach them about farming and ranching. “They may come to our ranch because of the dinosaur movies, but all the time we are teaching them about cows and crops.”
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