by: Clifford Mitchell

The Osage Country in Northeast Oklahoma is known for cattle. These prairies have been producing beef to feed hungry customers for a long time. Old photographs will often depict buyers riding in the back of a wagon from line shack to line shack, bidding on grass fed beeves that would be driven to the railhead, then on to Chicago or Kansas City in those days.

Today, this area is still known for its grass producing ability. Although the railroad cars have been replaced with pots, at certain times of the year, travelers will tell you these rigs should have their own track to travel. Area ranches, many multi-generational outfits, have had to adapt and adjust to modern raising practices. Adjusting to changes in the market or trying to control as many factors through the production process, to hopefully, create a better product and a more enjoyable eating experience.

Ratcliff Ranches, owned by Jim Ratcliff and under the guidance of General Manager Billy Hall, fits the evolutionary motives of the modern beef producing entity. In the late 90s or early in the 21st century, ranch principals decided it was time for a change.

“During that period it was decided to switch from yearling production and focus on a cow/calf operation,” Hall says. “Ratcliff Ranch has always fed cattle, but we knew to become more competitive in that arena, we had to have more control over our genetics.”

The transition also gave birth to a registered herd that would supply genetics to the commercial herd and other cattlemen. The real world proving ground has helped direct Ratcliff Ranch in the right direction.

“Because of tight margins we're a no frills ranch. We operate the whole operation like most of our customers run their ranches,” Hall says. “Developing a database, after following our genetics through the whole production process, has been the driving force behind what decisions we make. From genetics to health, real world data will answer a lot of questions. Every steer calf and all our cull females are retained and fed. Getting data back on these cattle and incorporating it back into the herd has helped us find balanced trait cattle that will perform on the rail and in the pasture.”

Because the operation was adept to the feeding industry and were confident in the genetics they were producing, purchasing customer calves became just another cog in the wheel that makes Ratcliff Ranch. The customer service oriented outfit had a meeting of the brain trusts and decided it was time to take the next step.

“Recently, we have formed a partnership with Unger Meat Co. to supply Choice, age and source verified cattle to be marketed under the Heritage Ranch Brand,” Hall says. “This was a big step. The partnership was really our next evolution in the beef business. We have the genetics and our customer's cattle have proven that they performed at a high level. Customer service has always been top priority at Ratcliff Ranch. This was another vehicle we could use to help reward our customers.”

Heritage Ranch beef is being marketed through the food service portion of the meat industry, which is primarily restaurants. The brand does not stop at quality grade to tell its story. It relies on local cattlemen to tell their story and give the personal touch.

“Nine out of 10 consumers today want to buy locally. We are working with ranchers in different regions that can bring that local flair. Each case of meat has an ID number that will trace the product to a specific ranch,” Hall says. “Each rancher's story can be used as promotional items to sell product. We want to transmit the pride and integrity of the ranching community to Heritage Ranch beef. As people get further removed from agriculture they need to know more about their food.”

The partnership with Unger Meat Co. brings together two segments of the industry that are often perceived as enemies. Shifts in the market are often blamed on the packing entities. However, without this group, beef producers would have no end market. Heritage Ranch beef much like its name, brings commercial operators to the forefront with respect to consumer wishes.

“Our program is total carcass utilization. This fits the foodies who want sustainability, local and quality,” Hall says. “Commercial cattlemen work so hard and are good at what they do. They deserve to be rewarded for their efforts. I need a steady supply of age and source verified genetics that have the ability to match our specifications for the Heritage Ranch brand. The relationships we make every day are the best part of what we do.”

Innovative has never been a word taken lightly at Ratcliff Ranch, but some production practices are best rested on the laurels that have paid the bills. Stepping into the bull lot, the cowboy hat replaces the hard hat and it is back to business as usual.

“I develop our bulls on a high roughage ration and I only confine them for a short period of time,” Hall says. “During the confinement period we still feed a high roughage ration, but we have to get a feel for how efficient the cattle are and upgrade the nutrition a little to get accurate ultrasound data. Cattle are compared with ratios within contemporary groups and I have no tolerance for poor performers. Cattle that don't measure up go to the feedyard”

The Ratcliff philosophy of developing bulls in large pastures on limited feed and grazing fescue grass should help bulls adapt to most production scenarios throughout the U.S. Experience from the Ratcliff commercial herd has also helped dictate bull development.

“We run about 4,000 commercial cows. A lot of our pastures are one, two or three sections with rock and limestone they have to travel,” Hall says. “We started developing a lot of these bulls to what we need at turnout.”

Genetics is another big part of the equation at Ratcliff Ranch. End product goals have always fit into the selection model. Harvest data only explains half of the genetic model and personal preference coupled with customer demand has been another tool utilized by Hall to create 85 percent repeat customers.

“Artificial insemination is a big part of what we do here. This helps prove our own herd bulls and lets me know if these genetics are what I am looking for. My customers demand similar genetics in volume and I have to create sire groups,” Hall says. “A lot of my customers can easily identify sire groups rather than look at some of the numbers. I am real big on cow families. I like to create half, three-quarter and full sibs because it adds predictability and consistency.”

Every seedstock operation's goal should be to best serve its commercial following. Bull sales often separate the men from the boys in this ultra-competitive business. Time, as much as anything, and comfort will often dictate where the commercial operator spends money. Understanding the need for a crossbreeding alternative for their customers, Ratcliff Ranch recently introduced Simmental genetics to the foundation Angus.

“We're looking to be a total seedstock provider. Simmental, we felt, was an excellent addition to our program. We could service more customers,” Hall says. “It took us three or four years to find the right foundation Simmental sire. Improvements with the Simmental cattle from a frame size, muscle and soundness standpoint make them an excellent compliment to our Angus. I market a lot of replacement females and the versatility of the Sim-Angus female was another positive addition.”

According to Hall, educating customers also falls into the duties of the seedstock operation.

“Some producers don't realize there is more to risk management than the futures market. Risk management comes with the right genetics and health program. I am a big believer in the Bovishield Gold Modified Live program from Pfizer. We operate with limited labor just like everyone else and we don't need to be doctoring calves,” Hall says. “Less than five percent of the cattle in the U.S are age and source verified. There is extra time and paperwork, but it is another opportunity for our customers. Hopefully, through our partnership with Unger Meat Co. we can pass more premium back to the commercial operator who can provide age and source verified cattle.”

Long term operations are often fostered in ranching communities that understand what the range was intended for and the best utilization of those resources is to have a four-legged critter grazing. These operations look at ranching as a lifestyle and it's a great place to raise a family.

Operations that can shoulder the burden of extended operation often have a couple things in common: a love for the industry and a commitment to the task at hand. Ratcliff Ranch combines both of these things with a sound business approach.

“You're doing business with an outfit that is 110 percent committed to the beef industry on a daily basis. Most days we're a seedstock operation, commercial cow/calf operator, yearling owner, cattle feeder and now we own some cattle after harvest. You might even find a good show heifer or ranch horse somewhere in the mix,” Hall says. “We're very passionate about what we do. Sometimes it gets a little overwhelming, but I am selling my customers the best bull I know how to produce.”


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