Guarding the graveyard shift at a ranch fire, trying to stay awake, R.A. “Rob” Brown Jr. of Throckmorton, TX, brainstormed an idea with his son Donnell. Ultimately, that idea could change the way most all fed cattle are valued. For some, it already has.
“We were wondering what we could do to help our customers, who pay a premium for good bulls, get paid for that,” explains Brown. He speaks with the matter-of-fact confidence that surely defined the previous two generations of his family who also called this ranch home.
Brown's ultimate solution was gathering together some ranching friends to form Ranchers Renaissance. It's a novel producer cooperative begun several years ago that launched its branded beef program this year.
What's unique is that the cooperative works hand-in-glove with Excel as its packing partner and retail behemoth Kroger as a retail partner. Together, they deliver customers what they want and then share the added value that comes from added market share.
Plenty of cattle folks dream about getting paid for the value they add to cattle. Brown and his cohorts developed a system that does it on a scale that makes them a mainstream player rather than a niche.
Riding The Edge
“If there's a better way, find it. If there's a better mousetrap, let's build it. That's just the way I'm geared,” says Brown.
In the case of Ranchers Renaissance, he knew there was a better way.
For starters, until you can spread prices wide enough with a broad enough range of economic demand for different kinds of cattle, Brown says you'll always wind up with averages or another version of them. Until they can share in the actual consumer pie grown richer in value, Brown says producers who have what consumers want will get paid less than they should, and those who generate what consumers don't want will be rewarded more than they deserve.
Plus, Brown recognized a basic principle that has eluded some other alliance newcomers. That is: If the basic idea doesn't make sense to the cowboys tending cattle, and if they don't buy into the concept behind the system and the management requirements they're ultimately responsible for, it won't fly.
Brown understands that because, as comfortable as he is in the boardroom, he's most at ease atop a horse, with cattle in sight and leather in his hands.
“We had to come up with some way to have a packer-processor involved. We also needed enough commercial operations that agreed with the philosophy of breeding cattle that would produce carcasses with more consistent salable meat of good eating quality, with tenderness being the key,” says Brown.
He began by inviting representatives of large commercial ranches, feedlots and Excel to brainstorm about the possibilities. He focused on larger operations to assemble the volume that could attract packer and retail interest and enough critical mass for the cooperating producers to know it had a chance.
By the time the meeting broke up, they had the commitment and the basic premise. It bloomed into a first-of-its kind, vertically coordinated, pasture-to-consumer system.
“We felt Excel would rather have a known source of cattle that would have repeatability,” Brown says.
And, if they had that, they felt they could sell the program to the retailer, who would pay for guaranteed quality and tenderness, he adds. It was that simple.
They were right. Ranchers Renaissance harvested more than 100,000 head last year as one of three primary suppliers for “Cattleman's Collection.” It's the exclusive beef brand processed by Excel and marketed to Kroger.
John Butler, CEO of Ranchers Renaissance, reports that, based on consumer acceptance in Kroger's 125 Colorado stores, Ranchers Renaissance is positioned for exponential growth.
Producers involved in this vertically coordinated system that goes directly to the consumer are sharing in the added value, not just the value of the cattle they provide, Butler says. This is done through a pricing system structured to share risk and reward between all the partners, rather than settling for what the packer will give the feedlot based on what retailers will give him.
Brown believes this and emerging systems aimed at consumers via inter-segmental control draw a bead on key industry puzzles.
“Our biggest challenge is gaining back market share. There are three things that will do that: consistency, quality and convenience,” Brown says. “Our pork and poultry competition have kind of peaked. We still have all kinds of slack to pull out of our beef system with consistency and convenience, so it's also the biggest opportunity.”
The key to making it work, Brown says, is that it has to work for everybody — producers, feeders, the packer, the retailer and consumers.
The logistics of such a value-sharing, mainstream system are daunting. However, Brown says that “with the right kind of people, it's doable… There has to be some give and take; there has to be some trust, and you have to be paid for your contribution.”
One obstacle, Brown says, is the philosophy of independence that cattlemen traditionally have had. In a system like this, “one must see the bigger picture, give and take some and realize you're in the beef business rather than the cattle business,” he adds.
Brown is convinced that thriving in the new beef industry will require a willingness to hit targets that others pin on the wall.
“As a commercial producer, I think you will have to have cattle of quality that fit within a system,” he says. “Then, whether you own them all the way or sell them off the cow, you'll have more opportunity. And, the more alliances that are successful, the more opportunity there will be.”
True To Form
Study the Ranchers Renaissance saga, and you realize this is just one more innovative first crafted by Brown and built upon the desire to serve customers more effectively.
Here's a short list:
Back in the 1950s as a student at Texas Tech, he angered neighboring ranchers by hosting outsiders to hunt quail for a fee. Now, hunting leases are a major income driver for ranches in the area.
Brown and a pal started a mesquite wood business they let go by the wayside. Now, it's an industry unto itself.
He was one of the first in America to use and breed Simmental cattle, and he helped found the Simbrah breed.
Brown conceived the notion for the Best of Remuda Quarter Horse Sale featuring horses only from American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) Best of the Remuda Award winners.
As a seedstock breeder, he was one of the first to offer bulls of more than one breed.
He developed the Hotlander composite (Angus, Simmental, Brahman and Senepol) that's picking up steam and taking South America by storm.
Brown's family was the first to have registered Hereford cattle in this part of Texas. Rob and his dad, R.A. Sr., were among the first to wholeheartedly embrace crossbreeding in their commercial herd.
“It's just been our goal to be the best we can be at whatever we do, but it's always based on the needs of the commercial industry,” says Brown.
Today, the R.A. Brown Ranch, begun in 1895, is a sprawling, vertically integrated family operation that includes extensive seedstock, commercial cow/calf, stocker and cattle feeding enterprises. It's also one of the premier Quarter Horse programs in the U.S.
“We're extremely vertically integrated,” emphasizes Brown, “from the commercial cow/calf operation we use to prove up our Hotlander composite and breed AI in order to get performance and carcass data on our young bulls, to the feedyard and stocker operation.”
In part, the integration is the result of building an operation that could support five families rather than one.
“It's been our philosophy raising our kids that if they wanted to come back and be involved, we'd give them the opportunity to do it. They'd have to earn it, however,” Brown says.
Rather than give them a piece of ground or a herd of cows, the children's opportunity was to partner with their parents, expanding and integrating the enterprise to generate enough income to accommodate them.
Rob and Peggy, his wife of 44 years, have four children. Betsy, Donnell and their spouses and children are part of the home operation. While still partners in the home ranch, eldest son Rob A. and his family own and operate their own ranch in the Texas Panhandle. Meanwhile, youngest daughter Marianne and her family work in a Nebraska Sandhills ranching operation.
“The key to the whole thing is my family. It's a team effort,” emphasizes Brown.
He says Peggy's strengths are his weaknesses and, thankfully, his children all enjoy focusing on different aspects of the ranch, giving the ranch expertise in many areas.
Brown continues to find similar complementary advantages in working with a lengthy list of formal and informal business partners.
No one has all of the answers, he says. Working together, though, he believes you can find them as long as you're willing to get involved.
“I feel like part of your obligation to the industry you're involved in is to give something back,” explains Brown.
That in mind, his list of volunteer activities runs longer than a well rope. He's served on the board of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association for 22 years, and the board of the AQHA even longer, serving as president in 1995. He's currently the Governor-appointed chairman of the Texas Animal Health Commission.
All this carries even more weight when you realize Brown suffers from dyslexia. The condition, which limits his reading to the rate of just a few letters at one time, wasn't diagnosed until he was in college.
“I was blessed with a good memory, however,” Brown says. “In school, if I heard it, I had it.”
But, 15 years ago, he learned of some doctors' success in treating dyslexia with different colored eyeglass lenses. The larger medical community was skeptical, but Brown tried it and it worked. Later, it was learned the beneficial effect comes from the way a particular color for a particular person filters the light received by the retina.
“I could care less about why it works as long as it does,” says Brown. He's sported a pair of yellow-tinted glasses ever since. He mentions it only to educate fellow dyslexics about the treatment's potential.
This do-what-works attitude is a Rob Brown staple. It might make no sense and no physiological difference to yank the spots off a Simmental bull, for instance, but Rob says if it's important to the customer, then it had better be important to him.
“Cowboy common sense is still a big key to the whole deal and what works for the people you're working with,” he says.