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PRODUCER FOCUSES ON CONSUMER TO BUILD FUTURE

by: Eric Grant

Scanning the horizon south of Hobart, Okla., there are several surprises that meet the eye.

The first and most obvious are the mountains that rise from this productive valley floor.

At one time, herds of Texas Longhorns streamed across these ragged outcrops on their way to the railheads and markets in the north.

The second surprise is an unlikely partnership of family-owned cattle ranches and local feedlots that have committed themselves to producing not only quality cattle, but also quality beef for consumers.

Recently, they chose to take their case directly to consumers through a branded beef program called Premium Plus Natural Beef. The product, which produced with cattle that never receive antibiotics or hormones, will go a long way in securing the future for their families in Oklahoma.

“Ultimately, Premium Plus Natural Beef is about the people we care the most about – our families,” says Kirk Duff, who owns and operates Duff Cattle Company, a seedstock operation near Hobart. “We see it as a way for our customers and ourselves to add value to our cattle, to build a direct link between our farms and ranches and the consumers who buy our product.

“I'm extremely excited about what this partnership can do for our customers and about what it can do for ourselves,” Duff continues. “If we can vertically integrate our products directly to the consumer, we can take out a lot of the volatility and the huge market swings that we see in today's market place.”

At the heart of the effort is Duff's seedstock operation, which has focused on production of grass-efficient Angus cattle, cattle that hold their flesh when grass conditions turn poor, cattle that could produce calves that finish quickly in the feedlot and reach a high quality grade.

In the late 1990s, Duff began building genetics that not only possessed genetics for quality beef, but also had an efficient body type and structural soundness so that the cattle would be an efficient alternative to other seedstock available in the marketplace.

“We wanted efficiency and moderate mature size. We wanted structural soundness. We wanted cattle that are deep-ribbed with tremendous capacity,” explains Kirk. “We wanted a cow herd that could do well on grass with minimal supplementation – and calves that would gain more rapidly than conventional genetics. And, we wanted cattle packed with muscle.”

The reasons for this were simple:

“The biggest single factor that a cow/calf man faces is cow replacement, so the longer that we can get these females to last the more profitable we are going to be,” explains Kirk. “So if we're going to get these females to last they need to be in a moderate, easy-fleshing package.”

Recognizing that form and function also produce quality beef, CR Freeman approached Duff two years ago about leveraging his genetics into a superior branded beef program for consumers. He had seen the quality grades of the Duff-sired cattle. Most pens graded 80 to 90 percent Choice or higher, and they did so on fewer days than other cattle that CR was feeding at the time.

CR, who recently constructed a feedyard a few miles west of Hobart, wanted a reliable source of quality calves. So two years ago, he began purchasing cattle from Power Plus customers and feeding them through his natural beef program.

To add to their capacity, the Duff family, too, recently purchased their own feedlot, and began purchasing and feeding out customer cattle as well.

The partnership has become a win-win for all – especially for the commercial producers involved in the production system. Commercial customers pay no shrink when they sell cattle to CR, no sales commissions, and receive a premium price for their naturally raised calves.

Those are dollars that add up very quickly, particularly in times of down markets for cattle, adds CR.

The branded beef program has also seen its reputation for quality – which begins with genetics and ends on the consumer's plate – grow among local restaurateurs and hoteliers who depend on quality food to build their business.

“The acceptance of this product has been incredible, says Phil Thomason, who owns Deer Ridge Bed & Breakfast in Hobart. “The steaks are always extremely high in quality. They're always consistent. They're always tender. This is really a superior product.”

The reputation of the alliance's feeder cattle has also spread across the country.

U.S. Premium Beef, one of the largest beef production alliances in the nation, has been feeding and processing these cattle for several years now. They fit perfectly into the company's natural beef program.

“In the last year, CR has sent through at least 800 head of cattle that have qualified for Nature Source,” says Tracy Thomas, director of marketing for US Premium Beef. “Among that 800 head, CR has averaged nearly $160 per head in premiums as to what those cattle would have received above and beyond the average cash market. So there are definite economic incentives for producing just those types of cattle.”

In the end, both Duff and Freeman believe the partnership they've built will go a long way in improving the economic sustainability of the people they serve.

“This partnership is allowing a lot of the cattle producers in this area improve their cattle herds through Kirk's Genetics,” says Freeman. “We are improving the price that they receive for their cattle here by buying them direct on the yard. We believe that we are leading them in the right direction in this industry and maybe this area can kind of have a leg up or an advantage in what we see happening in the industry down the road.”

The effort combines the best of what rural America has to offer, reinvigorating the age-old connection between ranches and their neighbors in town.

It underscores the fact that, in the marketplace, quality will always prevail, that when good people commit themselves to quality and to the well being of each other, great things can happen.

And, like those old mountains that rise from the Oklahoma prairie, it anchors the ranchers who live here not only to their past but also to their future.

“We're excited about what this effort is going to do for our families and our customers' families,” adds Kirk. “We think we've got a great product to sell, and the demand we're seeing from consumers has really been overwhelming so far.”

For more information, please visit www.powerpluscattle.com.

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