Applying the sound business principles he learned in the family’s pasta business to cattle ranching, Klaus Birkel and his team at Camp Cooley Ranch have rapidly developed one of the nation’s premier seedstock outfits.
Mr. Birkel, whose family once owned Europe’s third-largest pasta company, bought the 12,000-acre East Texas ranch in 1991 with the idea of running it as a business. Today, he oversees the nation’s sixth-largest seedstock operation with 3,500 producing cows, half registered and half ET recipients. Utilizing cooperator herds scattered from Georgia to California, Camp Cooley marketed more than 1,000 bulls last year and will sell about 1,800 this year in sales in Kansas, California, Texas and Alabama.
Customers and cooperators were also invited to consign females to a customer appreciation sale held in April. Three hundred registered females and more than 1,000 commercial females were offered at auction at the ranch’s facility near Franklin, Texas.
Mr. Birkel quickly credits the success of Camp Cooley to the staff he has assembled, which includes ranch president Mark Cowan and vice-president of marketing and customer service Joe Fuller, both veterans of the seedstock industry. But, as Mr. Birkel knows, a successful company thrives on the quality of its product — in Camp Cooley’s case that’s the genetics they supply to cooperators and commercial customers. And the backbone of Camp Cooley genetics is cow-herd manager Ken Hughes.
Two years after he bought Camp Cooley Ranch, Mr. Birkel purchased the entire 600-head Brinks Brangus herd based in Eureka, Kan. Mr. Hughes, a Kansas native, had already spent 10 years as the Brinks cow-herd manager and promptly moved to Texas with the herd.
Today, Mr. Hughes is responsible for the mating decisions for Camp Cooley’s registered Brangus, Angus and Charolais cows, and the ET work. “Our goal is to utilize performance and carcass data to identify the genetics that can provide a profitable endpoint for Camp Cooley and our customers,” Mr. Hughes says. But he also acknowledges that performance data and EPDs are not the only factors used in mating decisions.
“It all starts with the cow,” Mr. Hughes says. “Yes, we select for performance and carcass quality, but the cow has to be functional. She has to work in a ranch environment.” He notes that many of Camp Cooley’s customers are smaller operators, where the owner’s primary income is from an off-farm job. “Calving ease is crucial to our success. Many of our customers can’t handle calving difficulty because they are not on the ranch full time. But we also must provide cattle with growth and performance.”
Mr. Birkel’s plans for growth also suggest the smaller customer will continue to be important to Camp Cooley. About 60 percent of the bulls sold from Camp Cooley now leave Texas, mostly for the 16 Southern states from Florida to California. Among Mr. Birkel’s goals is to provide 10 percent of the bulls sold annually in Texas. That would amount to 5,000 to 6,000 bulls.
Such aggressive growth plans will challenge Mr. Hughes and his cowboy crew to continue searching for ideal matings that produce bulls and females useful, productive and profitable for their cooperators and customers.