by Sally Colby
When Mark Bray was growing up in North Carolina, he and his grandmother made a deal: they saved some discarded flue-cured tobacco, sold it, and split the profit.
“That got me a little bit of money,” said Mark, who also had a small plot of tobacco of his own. “When you’re in the seventh grade, that’s the most money you can ever imagine having. But I wanted a calf so bad that I saved my money and bought a heifer.”
The next year, Mark traded his heifer for a show steer to exhibit in the local livestock show. He used the money from selling the steer to purchase another heifer and used his tobacco money to purchase another steer. “It just kind of mushroomed from there,” he said, referring to his start in the cattle business.
Over the years, Mark raised stockers and did a lot of custom backgrounding. In 2000, Mark and his wife Dorinda constructed two poultry houses on their Lawsonville, NC farm to raise hatching eggs under contract. “That’s when we formed Ridgecrest Farm on our own,” said Mark. “We were still raising stockers and doing some custom backgrounding for another farmer. Between our own cattle and the custom backgrounding, we were running about 2,000 head per year.”
The Brays constructed a third poultry house in 2007, and continued running about 1,200 stockers a year “We bought them at about 375 pounds and sold them at 775 pounds,” said Mark. “I was buying most of them most at a livestock market in Turnersburg, North Carolina.” Mark says purchasing cattle through a sale barn is always interesting, and likens it to a cat and mouse game with buyers competing to outbid one another throughout the day yet still remaining friends when the day is over.
In 2011, Mark changed his game plan. The price of calves rose, and the price of young, thin cows was so much less that Mark cut the number of stockers in half and started purchasing young, thin cows with the idea of selling them. “We did that in spring 2011, and when it came time to sell them, they had gained weight, looked pretty good and were calving,” said Mark. “I thought that instead of selling them in fall of 2011, I’d sell them with the calf in spring of 2012. That way they’d be worth more money. When it came time to sell them in spring of 2012, I decided I liked not having to buy as many calves each week. We could put these calves on some pastures that were further from home, and they required less day to day management. We still checked them every day, but it was a simpler pace and less work.”
The young cows are pregnancy-checked and grouped according to expected calving dates. “We have 90-day windows, and if one is seven months bred, she’ll go with others that are seven months bred,” said Mark. “We now have several calving seasons behind us and a calving schedule. It’s taken a few years to do this, but now we can manage them the way a cow herd should be managed.”
With cattle on 10 different farms, it’s difficult to use A.I., so Mark uses Gelbvieh, Simmental and Angus and bulls on the cow herd. When it comes to selecting heifers to keep in the herd, Mark says it’s more about size and scale than color or breed. “Our primary goal is to get a calf that will grow rather than one that’s a specific breed,” said Mark. “We keep calves that are dark-hided or smoky-grey Charolais/Simmental crosses, or white-faced black cows. My theory is that if we can buy an animal that has decent quality and breed her to a quality bull, we’ll get a good, growthy calf.”
One farm is home to a select group of 10 exceptional cows, and those animals are bred A.I. “Our goal is to get bulls out of those 10 cows,” said Mark. “Right now we’re buying bulls from purebred producers.”
Ridgecrest Farm heifers come from Mark’s brother’s dairy farm. Each year, about one third of the dairy herd is bred to beef bulls. Mark gets a portion of the resulting heifers, which are Holstein x Jersey x Angus crosses. He breeds those crosses to a thicker beef bull for beef-type heifers. “That gives us an animal with good milking ability, and Jerseys help temper the frame size,” said Mark. “We’re going to breed our first set of those heifers this fall for spring calving. We’ll use an Angus bull for calving ease the first time, then we’ll breed them to continental breeds — most likely Simmental.” Since this mating is a terminal cross, Mark can select bulls for growth and muscle rather than for milking ability and calving ease.
Mark says the poultry houses are where the operation really starts. “We use the litter from the chicken houses to fertilize our hay fields and pastures,” he said Mark. “We buy grain, but everything we feed is a by-product -wet corn gluten, soybean hulls and cotton by-products.”
Ridgecrest Farm currently has 140 brood cows, and the Brays’ sons, Drew and John, have 90 brood cows together. Drew recently graduated from North Carolina State University with an associate degree in poultry and animal science. He also has an auctioneer license and fits cattle for shows. John is a sophomore at South Dakota State University.
Now that Ridgecrest Farm is producing calves regularly and throughout the year, marketing beef has become a priority. Dorinda started selling beef at two farmers markets, and has recently connected with Carolina Grown to market beef through that organization.
“We let them know what we will have available,” said Dorinda. “They put it on their website and customers place orders. We get an email early Monday morning letting us know what Carolina Grown has sold, then we take the meat to a drop-off point and they distribute it.”
Learn more about Carolina Grown at www.carolinagrown.org, and visit Ridgecrest Farm on Facebook.
From tobacco to cattle
by Sally Colby