Filling a Market Niche for Natural Beef
Story and photos by Robert Fears
Consumer demand for natural beef continues to grow and sustain a market niche for cattle produced through branded programs.
A company solely dedicated to producing natural beef is Premium Beef and Grain located about half way between Lone Wolf and Hobart, Oklahoma. The company is owned and operated by C.R. Freeman who has mastered the techniques of feeding calves for natural beef production.
Both of these municipalities are in Kiowa County located in the southwestern corner of Oklahoma. The county was created in 1901 as part of Oklahoma Territory. Hobart is the county seat with a population of 3,592 at the 2016 census and was named after Garret Hobart, the 24th Vice President of the United States. Lone Wolf, with a 2016 population of 415, was named after Chief Lone Wolf of the Kiowa Indian tribe. Chief Lone Wolf was a warrior who fought to preserve his people’s autonomy and way of life.
Kiowa County lies within the Central Rolling Red Plains with its southern border covered by the Wichita Mountains. The mountain chain is about 70 miles long stretching from Granite, Oklahoma to Lawton. Driving to Lone Wolf from Vernon, Texas, involves passing along the northern edge of Quartz Mountain, which is part of the Wichita Range. The mountain is pure granite with its highest peak reaching to 2,040 feet.
Cotton, livestock, alfalfa hay, grain sorghum and small grains are the leading farm products making farming the primary enterprise in Kiowa County. Because of its agriculture, Kiowa County is very suitable for operating a business like Premium Beef and Grain. Freeman raises barley and alfalfa hay for use in his cattle finishing enterprise and obtains a large percentage of his remaining feed from farmers in the area.
C.R. Freeman’s father and brother, Charles and Joe Max Freeman, are the consulting veterinarians for Premium Beef and Grain. The family has always owned cattle as depicted on a beautiful piece of granite hung above the office door. A mural is centered on the granite showing a tilled field in the foreground with a green pasture containing black cattle and a red barn positioned behind it. In the background is Quartz Mountain and a big ball of sun. The picture depicts the purpose and functions of Premium Beef and Grain. In case there is any doubt in the meaning of the picture, “Premium Natural Beef” trademark is printed beneath the mural.
Around the mural are the family brands. At the top of the granite under the peak of the peak of the office roof is the brand, “CF.” This is C.R.’s brand. At the top right corner of the plaque is FB1, which looks like FBI. It was registered to C.R. Freeman’s maternal grandfather, Max Frank Boehm 1. He was a German from South Texas and his brand has been in the family for over 100 years.
Under Boehm’s brand is “JF”, the brand that belonged to John Freeman who was C.R. Freeman’s paternal great grandfather. It now belongs to Joe Max Freeman. At the bottom right corner is the brand, “III”, which was for Charles R. Freeman III. He was C.R. Freeman’s son who passed away.
On the bottom left corner is “G>”. Charles Freeman bought a herd of cattle from the brand owner 20 years ago. C.R. bought the owner’s land which is where the Premium Beef feedyard sits today. The Freeman’s decided to register the brand since the original owner no longer needed it.
Above the “G>” is an A with a half moon on the top of it. This is Charles Freeman’s brand which he acquired 40 years ago. Someone who worked at Charles’ veterinary clinic ordered the brand and never paid for it, so Charles adopted it as his own. In the future it will be given to C.R.’s son, Asa.
The brand on the upper left corner of the plaque belonged to Ralph Freeman, C.R.’s paternal grandfather. The same brands are displayed on a company sign at the entrance to Premium Beef and Grain.
C.R.’s grandfather and great grandfather were farmers and owned land that abutted the current Premium Beef and Grain property. Knowledge gained from the two generations helped prepare C.R. for operating his current farming and feeding operation.
“The parents’ assets were not large enough to support me and my family, so after graduating from Oklahoma State University, I became an investment broker working in Tulsa,” C.R. explains. “Instead of stocks and bonds, I invested my personal money in Kiowa County land which at the time, sold for a lot less money per acre than it does today. In 2000, I bought the farm and in 2005, I convinced the brokerage company that I could manage my accounts from the farm. We expanded the current office building to provide room for me to work. In 2006, we bought our first load of cattle.”
“Premium Beef and Grain is operated by 12 people who work together as family,” says C.R. “The staff includes pen and pasture riders and a feed and farm crew. If necessary, we work outside our job descriptions to get the job done. We grill hamburgers in front of the office quite frequently for a family type lunch.”
“I am the flunky of the organization,” C.R. laughs. “I am where the buck stops which means I do everything that no one has time to do.”
During normal working hours, C.R. cruises the operation in his pickup looking at operational details and makes mental notes of what needs tweaking. He is constantly on his mobile phone talking to clients, suppliers and staff. In late afternoon and early evening, he drives a tractor either baling hay or tilling soil.
“I collect my thoughts and rid myself of the day’s stresses while driving a tractor,” C.R. shares. “Most of the time, I put on earphones and listen to a book on my mobile phone. Sometimes I get so interested in the book that I forget to punch a key on the electronic keyboard that signals a needed function to the implement.”
C.R’s two daughters, Zell and Vivi, work in the office during the summer. They weigh trucks either carrying feed ingredients or cattle, help keep records, answer the phone, file paperwork, run errands and work as assistants to Crystal Groves, the office manager. They are very knowledgeable about the business and its functions. Vivi, the oldest daughter, occasionally drives a tractor performing various jobs.
Animal comfort and sanitation
Relying on his “cow savvy”, Freeman added some unique features to his pen design to enhance animal comfort and sanitation. Each feeding pen has a back gate opening into a separate pasture where the calves spend most of the day grazing, resting and chewing their cud. They voluntarily come back into the pen for water and feed. A concrete apron, covered with dirt, extends from the feed bunks past the water troughs to approximately one-sixteenth the length of the pen. This is where most of the manure is deposited after the calves feed. The concrete pad allows easy pick up of the manure which is composted and spread on cropland or pasture.
Each pen has a series of slotted metal panels hung between heavy metal poles. When the panels are upright, they serve as windbreaks for the calves and when they are manually turned to a horizonal position, they provide shade. Additional heavy metal poles are set vertically near the feed bunks and contain three triangular metal blocks welded in random positions. These poles serve as rubbing posts for the calves.
“We learned that calves will drink water and then go rub and scratch against the poles,” said Freeman. “This prevents the aggressive animals from hogging the water troughs. They stop drinking to scratch, which allows the less aggressive calves to get their share.”
In addition to manure removal and management, the sanitation program includes thorough feed bunk cleaning after every feeding. The pens are well drained and barley straw is spread along the feed bunks during wet/cold weather to help soak up moisture and to avoid mud accumulation.
“Feeding calves for natural beef requires a total different nutritional program than feeding for conventional beef,” explains Tony Scott, Nutritionist for Premium Beef and Grain. “Since we don’t use ionophores or other hormone sources to promote growth, we have to achieve it with nutrient rich diets. We have recipes for seven different rations including one we feed to new arrivals. The starter ration contains a large amount of roughage because newly arrived calves have been on pasture and their rumen primarily contains bacteria that digest roughage. After they have adapted to their new surroundings, we slowly increase grain and other nutrient rich ingredients giving rumen bacteria time to adapt to a different diet.”
“Even with nutrient rich diets, we can’t finish cattle as quickly as the feeders that implant animals with hormones. It takes us an additional 60 to 80 days, which is why it costs more to feed cattle for natural beef than conventional,” continued Scott.
“We supply Whole Foods Market with their grain-fed beef needs for Texas and Oklahoma. To meet their requirements, we have to have 150 to 250 head of cattle ready for harvest each week. The challenge is to regulate the rate of gain in each pen to have cattle ready on time,” Freeman conveys. “We have to slow the rate of gain in some pens and accelerate it in others. We do this with amount and composition of rations.”
Scott and Freeman constantly study performance reports generated by computer software that show them rate of gain and feed intake of each pen of cattle. This information is used to help determine if a ration composition change is needed or if an increase or decrease in feed quantity is appropriate.
Feedstuffs in the rations include barley, corn, barley silage, corn silage, alfalfa hay, barley straw and distillers grain. A large percentage of the barley and alfalfa is produced by Premium Beef and Grain. All produced crops are from non-GMO seed. Freeman likes to feed barley because it produces white fat in the carcass which makes it easy for the consumer to see the amount of marbling.
Premium Beef and Grain only buys calves that are at least fifty percent Black or Red Angus. The purchase criterium is based on the desirable traits of this type of cattle such as feed efficiency, rate of gain and carcass quality.
Charles Freeman wrote a preventive health and management protocol that each calf supplier is expected to follow in management of their cow herd. An agreement affidavit is signed by the supplier committing to follow the protocol. Each of the 80 cow/calf producers is audited every 15 months by a third-party representative to ensure the protocol is being followed. Premium Beef and Grain experiences only three to eight percent morbidity (disease incidence).
“Managing cattle to avoid high stress situations aids greatly in promoting good animal health,” says C.R. Freeman. “Seventy percent of our arrival cattle are rancher hauled. When we are responsible for the hauling, we use a trucking firm that has proven abillity to load, haul and unload cattle in a low-stress manner.”
“Success of a preventive health program largely depends on the vaccination program – the what, when and how. We have learned that different vaccines with the same bacterial and viral antigens from different manufacturers are not the same,” shares Charles Freeman. “Through our testing, we have found that certain vaccine products perform better than others for our program. Those products are the ones we ask our calf suppliers to use and we use them also. Even the best products are effective only when they are administered at the right time and by the correct method.”
When a calf does gets sick at the feedyard it is taken to the hospital pen for quiet, calm rest and treated with electrolytes and an NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory – Flunixin meglumine), which rapidly reduces fever associated with respiratory diseases. If the animal doesn’t improve, it is given an antibiotic and later marketed through regular channels.
Natural beef is a niche market that provides producers another avenue for marketing. C.R. Freeman has learned how to produce a good product for this market.