In beef industry circles, Camp Cooley Ranch is a fairly recognizable entity, though most folks initially wonder what's behind the name. To those a little more familiar with the Franklin, TX, seedstock operation, the puzzling thought is how a former pasta executive from Germany could flourish in a singularly American business like U.S.-style ranching?
That's exactly part of the answer.
Fifteen years ago, Klaus Birkel divested the family pasta business in his home country and went looking for new challenges. Fate and a hunting trip brought him to Franklin, where since 1991 he's worked to assemble the staff, the genetics and the partnerships that — with a customer service philosophy honed in Europe's retail food business — he's coalesced into what is today the nation's sixth largest seedstock operation.
Birkel's Camp Cooley Ranch is a 12,000-acre showplace on the rolling hills of East Texas about 100 miles northwest of Houston. Its namesake is a butte-like rise on the operation — once called Camp Cooley — around which Confederate recruits are said to have mustered for the Civil War.
It's also the location from which Birkel is mustering his efforts to realize his vision of a regionally integrated beef production system. His professed goal is to provide a packer partner as many as 100,000 head of uniform quality cattle/year, produced by Camp Cooley cooperator herds using Camp Cooley genetics, fed in Camp Cooley cooperator feedyards — and at a premium that allows more profit for all the partners in the chain.
What makes the task just a bit trickier is that Camp Cooley aims to get the job done by harvesting the cooperation of mostly small to mid-sized cattle operations interested in garnering more market premiums for their calves.
The philosophy for getting the job done is the same one Birkel's family used in building one of Europe's largest food empires. It basically boils down to this: know your customer and what he wants, then provide the education, product, service and value that allows your customer to also succeed.
As an outsider who continues to study the U.S. beef production model intensely, Birkel sees three main challenges.
“From all the different discussions we have had with industry leaders, bankers, partners, feeders and packers, there are two things that jump at me,” Birkel says. “One is packers are pretty unhappy with the quality of the cattle they have to buy. There are too many problems for them in bringing together the quality numbers they need to make contracts with their customers.”
The second item is that while the beef industry talks a lot, little actual “communication” seems to transpire.
“There are a lot of seminars, but very seldom do you see a packer, a feedyard person and a producer sitting at one table and discussing all the different issues of this business,” he says. “So my idea is to bring this all more or less together and to be the one to transfer this knowledge.”
The third is that too many commercial operations either are not making money or leaving money on the table.
“It makes me sick to hear people say they can not make money with their cows,” Birkel says. “The idea of Camp Cooley is to help especially these smaller and mid-size operations without clearly established management to run their operations. We want to give these people all the support of somebody like the specialists at Camp Cooley who know how to raise cattle.”
How it started
The basis of Camp Cooley genetics is the 600-cow Brinks Brangus purebred herd Birkel bought in 1993. In its day, the Brinks herd was among the most progressive and a leader in ultrasound performance testing.
Camp Cooley has continued to develop the herd via intensive programs in performance measurement and culling, and worked to build numbers through an ongoing and aggressive embryo-transfer (ET) program. Along the way, purebred Charolais and Angus lines were added to offer Camp Cooley customers more breeding options.
All mating decisions and ET work are done by Ken Hughes, the former Brinks Brangus cow herd manager who moved with the cattle to Camp Cooley. That's quite a job when one considers there are currently 3,500 mature cows on the ranch, half being registered animals and the other half ET recipients.
Hughes is among a cadre of young, energetic cattle-industry lions, many with high-profile beef marketing alliance experience, who Birkel hired to bolt his vision together. Others include Mark Cowan, president, and Joe Fuller, who heads up sales and marketing. Both are former staff members of the International Brangus Breeders Association.
In addition, Bill Pendergrass handles the feedlot program and private treaty sales, while Craig Green is responsible for the cooperator program, Matt Jones — records and research, and Cheramie Viator is responsible for ranch promotions/advertising and western marketing.
In 2004, Camp Cooley marketed more than 1,000 bulls via its annual production and private treaty sales, and will market 1,400 bulls this year. It also has joint cattle ventures in Mexico, Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina.
About 60% of Camp Cooley bulls leave Texas, settling in 16 states south of the Mason-Dixon Line from California to Florida, in areas that demand cattle with a measure of heat tolerance, Fuller reports.
Birkel believes that within a decade, the seedstock industry will consist essentially of a dozen major suppliers, of which he intends to be one. Among his goals is to provide within five years, 10% (about 5,000-6,000 head) of all bulls sold annually in Texas.
It's part of his plan to develop the critical mass of consistent, high-quality cattle to fill a significant production contract with small to mid-sized regional packers.
“We have to first standardize more our product and bring the quality level up. To do that, we have to teach these people what to do — about genetics, health care, marketing,” Birkel says. “As a genetic supplier today, you can't just sell a bull. The future is one where seedstock suppliers will have to offer both extraordinary service and genetics.”
Camp Cooley has established industry alliances with Fort Dodge Animal Health for health management, Purina Mills for nutritional management, and AgriLand and Farm Credit Services for financial services. All the companies are available to Camp Cooley customers.
And, Birkel says, Camp Cooley is currently in negotiations on a production contract with Sam Kane Beef Processors of Corpus Christi, TX.
To build such numbers, Camp Cooley intends to continue to capitalize on such programs as:
The Camp Cooley Cooperator Program (CCCP). With more than 50 participants, CCCP offers staff consultation to commercial and purebred buyers of Camp Cooley genetics to help them improve their cattle businesses. Services ranging from selection and breeding consultations to advice on animal health, nutrition and financing are included.
The ranch also provides marketing services for commercial producers' replacement heifers via its no-charge Camp Cooley Ranch Customer Appreciation Sale each April.
Producer Return Enhancement Program (PREP). Initiated in 2001, more than 12,000 head of Camp Cooley-sired feeder calves moved through PREP in 2004. Participants can retain ownership of their calves, partner with Camp Cooley or sell their calves outright.
The calves must meet Vac-45 requirements and are fed in three Camp Cooley cooperator yards — Irsik and Doll in Kansas, Hondo Creek Cattle Co. in Texas, and McElhaney Cattle Co. in Arizona. Sold under various quality grids, the cattle are predominantly harvested at Sam Kane and Brawley Beef in Brawley, CA.
Detailed live performance and carcass data are collected, analyzed by Camp Cooley staff and discussed with the herd of origin, even if ownership was not retained.
Until November, PREP participation was based on 50,000-lb. truckload lots. Camp Cooley is now working with Jordan Cattle Auction's Premium Feeder Calf Sales, which allows producers of smaller numbers to participate in the program.
For more on Camp Cooley, visit www.campcooley.com.