From the high ridges of Ridgefield Farm LLC, nestled in the southwestern tip of North Carolina near Georgia and Tennessee and on the southern edge of the Smoky Mountains, you can see the Georgia state line and Tennessee only 15 miles away. Owned and operated by Steve and Mary Beth Whitmire and their sons, Bud, 20, and Whit, 17, the farm consists of 1,020 acres of woods and pastureland.
Steve Whitmire is no stranger to the cattle business. His father, E.J., began assembling the initial parcels of Ridgefield Farm in 1951. He named the farm Ridgefield because of the many ridges and elevation changes on the property, which vary up to 800 feet. E.J. Whitmire was an ag teacher and a cattleman and he kept a registered Shorthorn herd for 10 years and a herd of commercial cattle for 30-35 years.
Steve grew up showing livestock and was involved with the farm until he graduated from college after earning an ag economics degree from North Carolina State University, Whitmire worked in management for Southern Bell in Florida and Georgia, then was vice president of marketing and sales for a textile manufacturing business in Maryland. Subsequently, he became an entrepreneur in gold mining, oil and gas, and the crushed stone industries.
In 1994, Ridgefield Farm was selected as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) Region II Environmental Stewardship Award winner. It was in connection with duties associated with the award that Steve and his father traveled to NCBA events and saw their first Braunvieh cattle. Steve liked the bulls displayed at the NCBA convention by Golden Link Braunvieh and became acquainted with Harlan Doeschot Sr. Despite Steve's desire to try Braunvieh bulls at the farm, though, E.J. chose to continue with the same terminal sire breeding program using average black hided crossbred cows and Charolais bulls.
In 1998, at age 82, E.J. was killed in a farm accident. Steve needed to step in and quickly figure out a way to keep the farm going. Although the land was paid for, the farm was experiencing negative cash flow and constantly required supplemental capital. He and his sister set out to preserve and improve the legacy of Ridgefield Farm by developing it into a profitable business.
Braunvieh showed profit potential
Initially Whitmire bought 130 Angus cows and then, in 1999, he bought two purebred Braunvieh bulls from Golden Link Braunvieh. One of the bulls, a Yahoo son, is still in production at the farm.
“The commercial herd I started with consisted of a variety of breeds. I wanted to find out what combination would generate the most profitability for the farm in our terminal sire program,” says Whitmire. So he retained ownership on all of the calves starting in 1998. The 1999 calf crop, the last sired by his father's Charolais bulls, was shipped to Decatur County Feed Yard in Kansas where they were fed and measured throughout their development. The test results showed profit potential in Braunvieh genetics. Whitmire believed that if the cows could produce calves with 100 pounds more carcass weight, improved carcass quality and feed efficiency, they could improve the farms' profitability.
“Based on those results, I knew I wanted to use Braunvieh cattle exclusively,” says Whitmire. Since then, Ridgefield Farm has been developing a quality set of Braunvieh cattle by either breeding up or purchasing genetics they believe to be the best available. Their cowherd currently consists of 165 purebred and fullblood Braunvieh females as well as 90 Angus and 30 halfblood Braunvieh cows that are used as recipients in the farm's embryo transfer program.
“We breed for quality first, meaning performance in the feedyard and on the rail,” says Whitmire.
Ridgefield Farm also takes animal health seriously. In addition to recommended vaccinations for herd health, they have tested 100 percent of their herd for BVD and are obtaining Johne's disease herd certification.
In the past two years, Ridgefield Farm has invested heavily in their infrastructure and in people, building 20 miles of new fence; fencing out all creeks and streams; drilling six wells and piping water to every pasture; and building a new farm manager's house, an additional bull development feeding facility, a heifer development facility, a commodity barn and two large hay sheds.
Experienced cowman John Hart joined the Ridgefield operation last year as farm manager. James Conely, an NC State graduate is assistant farm manager and Kevin Laney, a long time employee, lives close by as does his mother, Ramona Brown, who works part time as needed. In the summers, both Steve and Mary Beth's sons also work on the farm. Mary Wright is office administrator, managing accounts payable, maintaining herd records and handling customer communication.
“The farm improvements and having high quality people working for us have greatly improved our farm's efficiency and profitability. We have been able to increase stocking rates and improve our breeding program,” Whitmire says.
When it comes to marketing, Ridgefield Farm has very strict principles. “I believe strongly in making a great first impression. One unhappy customer can damage your reputation as a seedstock breeder. So I protect that reputation and we live and die by what we sell,” states Whitmire.
In the past few years, Ridgefield has primarily targeted their marketing toward commercial cattlemen. The Blue Ridge Mountains are home to many small herds of commercial cattle and often producers with small lots get lower prices at the local auction barns. In an effort help Ridgefield customers increase their returns and collect more data on farm herd sires, Whitmire started a calf buy-back program with their bull customers in 2001. This program has evolved into the “Ridgefield Farm Braunvieh Bull Deal.”
Braunvieh Bull Deal a big deal
If you buy a bull from Ridgefield Farm, they will purchase 100 percent of up to three calf crops out of that bull at a 4 cent/pound premium over the local auction barn price. If you can sire identify your calves and record birthdates, Ridgefield will pay a 5 cent premium/pound for those calves.
Calves are fed out in the Midwest, and both feed efficiency data and harvest data provide producers and Ridgefield with a resource to improve their genetics. “This program was designed to be a win/win situation for our customers and the farm,” says Whitmire. “Since we are totally focused on performance, we wanted to have a program that de-emphasized color, instead focusing on feed efficiency and carcass merit.”
Interestingly, only about 20 percent of Ridgefield Farm customers take advantage of the program. Many of the producers are being offered great premiums for their calves and they are happy with their current returns. Even so, Ridgefield Farm feeds 600-800 head of feeder calves each year from their progeny purchase program. This year, heifers from Ridgefield's buyback program won fourth, sixth and 23rd places in the Beef Empire Days Carcass Contest.
Purchasing their genetics
Ridgefield continues to have their Annual Performance Tested Bull Sale at the farm. At their sale Sept. 29, they plan to offer about 60 lots of quality bulls and bred cows. The man whom Whitmire considers his mentor, Harlan Doeschot Sr., who got him into the Braunvieh business, told him that Ridgefield's bulls are plenty good to sell to Braunvieh breeders and could, in fact, help many breeders improve their programs. “I have the greatest respect for Harlan Sr., and believe that all of the best Braunvieh genetics go back to Golden Link cattle,” Whitmire says. Because of his confidence in their cattle, this year, Whitmire decided to broaden their marketing program to include Braunvieh breeders.
In the past, Ridgefield has sold very few of its top heifers, even though people are continually asking to buy them for their herds or to show them. “I place a high value on those genetics and have never been willing to let them leave the herd,” explains Whitmire. “We ruthlessly cull our cows and the only way I can continually build the herd's quality is to keep the heifers.”
However, Whitmire is in the process of developing a program where Ridgefield will cooperate in joint ownership for some of their best females and make them available to select people for showing.
“This will provide an avenue for our cattle to receive more exposure, while providing an opportunity to some enterprising young person to show some of the best Braunvieh in the business,” explains Whitmire. Ridgefield is still working out the details, but they plan to retain some interest in the heifers so that they can continue using to use the genetics in their program –another win/win program.
Commitment to Braunvieh
The only time that Whitmire has questioned his decision to breed Braunvieh cattle was when someone he respected wanted to know why Braunvieh cattle are not the dominant breed in the industry based on 1980s research conducted at the Meat Animal Research Center.
“That question troubled me,” says Whitmire. However, he was encouraged when Joe Cassidy, Ph.D., at NC State decided to introduce Braunvieh genetics into the university herd and the Animal Sciences Department head, Dr. Roger McGraw, referred him to Ridgefield Farm.
“I think Joe really has his feet on the ground regarding production agriculture and I respect him as a cowman with roots that originate in the commercial cattle industry,” Whitmire says. “Working with him has helped me confirm that I made the right decision in using Braunvieh cattle.” Additionally, Whitmire believes the partnership NC State has with the BAA to conduct research is a tremendous boost to the Braunvieh breed.
“We have invested heavily in Braunvieh cattle and can not afford for the breed to stay a novelty or just become a pastime,” Whitmire says. In January 2006, Whitmire was elected to the BAA Board of Directors. He has been actively involved in initiating the first-ever BAA National Bull Test and Sale – the only breed-sponsored test where bulls, in addition to typical evaluations, such as ADG, ribeye area and intramuscular fat, will also be measured for residual feed intake (RFI) or what is commonly referred to as “feed efficiency.”
Whitmire has also formed Braunvieh Beef LLC, a company that will cooperate with the commercial bull buyers from the National Bull Test Sale to buy back their calves, feed them out and collect feedyard and carcass data. Although Ridgefield Farm has several bulls in this year's national test at the Green Springs Bull Test Station, they are in the process of backing up their spring-calving cows so that they can enter more bulls in future National Bull Test Sales. “Those who do not participate in this bull test and sale will wish they had,” says Whitmire. “I believe in a few years the best genetics in the breed will come out of this sale.”
Many successful business people have basic they use to manage their businesses. “I believe that checking your pride at the door is the best policy,” Whitmire says. “If you always have the best product at the least cost, you will prosper. If you don't have the best performance, you won't make it in the long run as a cowman.”
He believes that measuring performance is an absolute necessity in improving herd genetics. “If breeders don't have the critical data, including accurate birth weights, weaning weights, yearling weights, average daily gain and ultrasound data, they won't see us paying premiums for their cattle,” states Whitmire.
Late in 2006, Steve and Mary Beth became the sole owners of most of Ridgefield Farm when they purchased the outstanding interest from Whitmire's family. Now, more than 700 acres of the farm has been placed in a conservation easement to ensure that it is never subdivided or developed. “Because of Braunvieh cattle and some good fortune, Ridgefield Farm is on its way to profitability,” says Whitmire. “We look forward to continuing the farm's legacy and our investment in Braunvieh cattle by helping to see that they become a dominate cattle breed in the U.S.”