“Holy cows.” That's what Greg Spradlin calls the 78 cows he has on 21 different farms in the northwest corner of Georgia. Each year when the calves from these cows are sold, the profits go to him.
But Spradlin isn't a cow-calf producer. He's a missionary. More specifically, he's the area director for the Lookout Mountain chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), a ministry that reaches out to coaches and athletes around the country.
The beef producers who care for Spradlin's holy cows participate in STEER Inc.'s cow-calf program. Celebrating its 50th anniversary last fall, STEER is a three-way stewardship program involving donors, farmers and ranchers, and mission societies. Since 1957, the non-profit, evangelical, interdenominational program has used agricultural projects to steer more than $13.3 million to missions.
About 1,200 farmers and ranchers in 37 states participate in STEER's giving program, contributing more than $1 million to missions in 2006. In the last four years, they've sent more than $3.5 million.
“You'd never think of farmers and ranchers as having that kind of cash, yet they're able to do it through STEER,” says Ivan Friesen. He's the ministry development assistant for STEER, which has six full-time employees and headquarters in Bismarck, ND.
“Farmers and ranchers are often very asset rich, but cash poor,” Friesen says, “but by using the STEER program, they're able to give significantly to missions without having to write a check.”
STEER is a fundraising arm to 88 mission societies that receive support for a plethora of projects, including radio, aviation, hospitals, education, food for the hungry, homes for orphans and Bible translation, to name a few. (View the list of mission societies at www.steerinc.com.)
“If you're passionate about any type of ministry, within these 88 organizations, you could find something you'd be drawn to,” Friesen says.
That's the case for Mark and Rose Pfeifer, who run a beef and grain operation on the state line between Long Lake, SD, and Ashley, ND. In addition to their 200-head cow-calf operation and 225-head custom heifer-development operation, the Pfeifers run 12 cows for STEER. They support several missons — varying from a local youth camp in North Dakota to an organization building homes for orphans in Brazil.
Pfeifer says he's able to contribute much more to missions through STEER than he'd otherwise be able to give in cash. Plus, the cows work right in with his operation since he's out feeding and checking his own livestock anyway.
“It's been a real blessing to us that we can be involved this way,” Pfeifer says. “It gives you a way to be involved off the farm, yet still be here doing the work you have to do all the time.”
Beef producer Tom Stieg, Hammond, MT, likewise sees only blessings with the STEER program. He and wife Kathy have been involved with STEER since 1981, when they first heard about it through their church. This year they have 34 cows for STEER, and support missionaries in the U.S., Canada, South America, Africa, China and Russia.
“God allowed me to do what I like to do — farming and ranching — and put it together with sharing the Gospel with people all over the world through STEER,” he says. “I never dreamed there would be a way I could do what I love to do and still be actively involved in taking God's word all over the world.”
How it works
Using donor investments, STEER purchases each cow or heifer involved in its cow-calf program — usually from the participating beef producer's herd or from a neighbor's herd. STEER covers all veterinary fees, death loss and depreciation. The beef producer provides labor, feed and care. There's no risk or out-of-pocket expense for the producer.
When the calf is sold, the check is made out to STEER so the producer incurs no revenue gain or tax liability. Eighty percent of the gain goes to the missionary or mission project specifically designated by the producer. The rest goes toward replacement costs, death and depreciation losses and administration. When a cow is sold, the original investment is retained and reinvested in another project.
The donors invest in $700 “units,” which are reinvested over and over again, Friesen explains. “That first dollar that was given (in 1957) is still a dollar that's on our books today. It never disappears,” he says.
The unique program is a win-win for everyone involved — farmers and ranchers, donors and missionaries, Friesen says.
STEER had more than $2 million worth of investments in 2006. It has funds to buy more cows, but needs more farmers and ranchers to take on the cow-calf projects, or other agricultural projects — such as crops, dairy, buffalo, horses, sheep, hogs or goats.
Pfeifer and Stieg both highly recommend the STEER program to other beef producers. In fact, Pfeifer challenges producers to get involved.
“It's really easy to become involved and to run an extra couple of cows with your herd,” he says. “It's a very simple, very rewarding program.”
Stieg agrees. “I think it shows that it's worked because it's still going today — the Lord's hand is still upon it.”
A meaningful partnership
For the missionaries, partnerships through STEER translate into reliable, long-term support, Friesen says.
“God can use farmers and ranchers to do amazing things,” he says. “It adds up.”
Funds raised through STEER currently account for 20% of Spradlin's chapter's overall budget. Nationally, FCA has placed 262 cows, sold 272 calves and received just under $80,000 through STEER since their partnership began in 2004. But the connection goes much deeper than finances.
“It's a bond with more than just a financial tag on it,” Spradlin says. “These farmers have not only partnered with me and other ministries, they've become close friends.
“And they're proud to be using their family farms to support great work. They know their parents and grandparents would be proud to see this family asset being used in such a mighty and unique way,” he adds.
Likewise, Stieg says, “We've been in contact with people all over the world who have been able to go (as missionaries) because we've been able to pay a small part of their support. They're a blessing to us as they tell us about the people they share with and the people who come to know the Lord. That's what it's all about.”
Diana Barto is a freelance writer based in Waconia, MN, and a former BEEF senior associate editor.