Working Hard, Working Cattle

Do You Know Where Your Beef Comes From? It Might Be Just Down the Road
Scott Holstein
Tuten and Tuten Cattle Farm

Scott Holstein

George WIllis and Junior Tuten move a herd of cattle to a different pasture in Greenville.

Lean, lanky head honcho J.N. “Junior” Tuten gives his saddle cinch a final adjustment and casually remarks, “Did I mention your horse is named Widow Maker, on account of the last three riders it threw off?” Cowboy humor, I’m sure.

We mount and head out singly and in pairs —- Tuten; his son, Gary; grandson, Christopher; five “hands” whose rugged features and easy horsemanship bespeak experience and competence; and me, a curious novice with romantic notions of cattle ranching from too many Western flicks and Old West paperbacks.

We ride past the wooden cowpens and down the narrow trail, through a rickety gate held open by one of the riders, and onto green rolling pastureland sparkly with dew and aglow with the soft sunlight of an early morning. The “fun” soon begins, as the riders spur their mounts and fan out to round up the scattered cattle and herd them toward the cowpens.

I do my best to help gather the animals and drive them in the desired direction, recognizing I lack the requisite horsemanship to sprint after breakaway, recalcitrant animals and return them to the herd. I do well enough to stay in the saddle given the workout the Quarter Horse’s rough trot is giving me.

Once the roundup is completed and the cattle secured inside the pens, the men dismount, sort the 150-or-so cows, calves and bulls into appropriate groupings, and start preparations for the inspection and treatment of each animal. All the while the cattle mill about: bawling, kicking up dust and generally creating a din.

You might think this scene takes place in some western “cowboy” state such as Texas, New Mexico or Colorado. Or if in Florida, that it must be some dude ranch, movie set or Western reenactment. But no, this very authentic and viable cattle operation is actually within a stone’s throw of Florida’s Capitol, figuratively speaking. More precisely, it’s 30 miles east of Tallahassee in Jefferson County.

Most visitors and newcomers to Florida, as well as a great many longtime residents, associate the state with tourism and readily identify beaches, warm weather and theme parks among its major attractions and assets. And indeed, tourism remains the state’s No. 1 industry, notwithstanding whatever black eye the recession and Gulf of Mexico oil spill may have dealt it. Fewer individuals, however, know or appreciate that agriculture is Florida’s second major industry, and that cattle ranching is a significant component of the equation. Florida, in fact, ranks 11th in the nation in beef cattle, and boasts several of the largest cattle operations in the United States.

It may also come as a surprise — popular mythology and Texas’ claims aside — that Florida actually is the birthplace and cradle of the cowboy and cattle industry in this country, going back to 1521 when Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon brought the first cattle into the continental United States. In fact, today’s Cracker or scrub cattle, a hardy breed particularly well adapted to Florida’s climate and scrubby pinewoods, can be traced to the long-horned Andalusian cattle the first Spaniards brought to the peninsula. Likewise, the early Spanish vaqueros or cowhands served as the model for the later-day cowboys.

Here’s another interesting tidbit that few consumers appreciate: The quality of whatever beef we may consume — from a hamburger to a filet mignon steak — is determined from day one by the way the cattle are managed on the ranch.

Scott Holstein

Tuten moves a herd of cattle.

Which brings us back to Tuten. If you consider that the average cattle herd in Florida is less than 50 head, Tuten, who maintains more than 1,000 head singly and in partnerships, qualifies as a midsized commercial producer. Florida, incidentally, is a “cow-calf state,” meaning it primarily produces calves that are weaned at about 600 pounds and shipped to western states for “finishing,” or fattening and processing into marketable beef.

This particular morning’s operation entails “cleaning up and synchronizing” a newly-purchased mixed herd of bulls, cows and calves. Which means the animals are treated for various diseases and parasites, “groomed” for marketability and integrated into one of several existing herds. The morning’s activities, specifically, entail testing for pregnancy; de-worming, delousing and inoculating the animals; and branding, castrating, dehorning and ear tagging when appropriate.

The cattle have no say in the matter; they are pushed, prodded and channeled down a series of gates and chutes that terminate in the squeeze chute, a mechanical contraption that holds an individual animal immobile while the various procedures are performed. The process is efficient, methodical and assembly-line like, taking about five minutes per animal on average, barring special circumstances. It’s a process that’s also a bit crude and callous at times, that will test the squeamish or fainthearted, especially the branding, dehorning, castrating and pregnancy testing.
Once the animals are treated and “groomed,” they are sorted for integration into one of several management programs, depending whether they are bulls, pregnant cows nursing calves, pregnant cows not nursing calves or “open” — meaning not pregnant. Generally, open cows past their prime for calf production are not considered worth their upkeep and go for slaughter, as do the majority of calves after finishing. If it sounds a bit harsh, understand that, in agricultural terms, the cattle represent a crop.

Tuten, a two-term former Jefferson County commissioner and lifetime cattleman, has a deep and abiding love and appreciation of cattle and the ranching lifestyle. But he is also a savvy, clear-eyed businessman whose enterprise happens to be beef production, and who must therefore view his animals as so many units of beef/money on the hoof: i.e., so much cost-per-pound to produce, so much money per pound in return. It’s the way it must be, if he is to survive in an enterprise fraught with challenges and risks, not the least of which are natural disasters, animal diseases, insect pests, marketplace prices, government regulations and the ever-escalating cost of doing business.

The romantic cowboy image aside, the cattleman is basically a resource manager, complete with a management plan and production goals, whether the latter be to achieve a 90 percent or higher calf yield per calving period; have each cow produce a calf every 12 months; or ensure that calves attain a certain weight at weaning. All the while, he must assure the animals’ health and quality-of-life (stressed or unhealthy animals don’t gain weight or reproduce as readily as contented ones), manage the pastures for pests and maximum production of high energy-yielding forages and work to improve the herd quality. Meaning he must have, at minimum, a rudimentary knowledge of animal husbandry, genetics, nutrition, chemicals and market forces, among other things. Ultimately, of course, the goal is to produce a quality product at the least possible cost and sell it at the maximum possible price.

“Our desire is to produce a product that’s not only tasty, but also tender,” Tuten says. “In order to do that, you’ve got to be aggressive with genetics and produce the kind of cattle that will gain weight on less food or less grain products. It used to take eight or nine pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. With genetics, that’s down to around 5 ½ pounds of grain per pound of red meat. That’s a savings to John Doe Housewife, who in the end is paying the bill.”

The cattle are grass-fed and exempted from antibiotics and hormones. “We want our cattle to be all natural,” Tuten says, conceding that once the calves are shipped to the feedlots, he loses control over their diets.

He explains that the cattle are bred in 75-day cycles to assure for continuity of production and the uniformity of the calves in terms of age, size and condition — factors that enhance their marketability.

“We have three or four different management programs,” Tuten explains. “The cattle get the same shots and basics done in each program, but they may be on different time schedules. One set of cows may carry in October, November and December; the next in November, December and January; and another in February, March and April. You have to be versatile to market them year round.”

Typically, he doesn’t buy cattle, the present mixed-herd purchase being the exception.

“We like to grow our own cattle,” Tuten says. “We then keep the top 15 to 20 percent as replacement heifers and sell the rest, heifers and steers alike. You have to keep enough heifers to maintain your base herd; or if you want to expand, you keep adding until you maximize. That too is part of the management, because you want to utilize all your land before you go getting more. Your ability to manage resources determines the size of your operation, because if you exceed your limitations, you can’t survive.”         

Typically, the cattle are rounded up and subjected to the various treatments and procedures in the spring and fall, at which times herds are culled and a percentage sold.

“We try not just to sell cattle, we try to market cattle,” Tuten says. “The difference is price per pound. What we do, and the way we present them, is what we get paid for. Each thing, like the vaccinations and the shorter breeding program, that’s referred to in the industry as ‘value added.’ For example, out of 254 heads we sold last year, 240 graded choice and prime. We breed for that, because there’s a $100 more in value for prime than for select. You want your cattle to grade prime and choice because that’s your high-dollar cuts.”

That’s where genetics and nutrition enter the equation. Not only are the cows fed the best possible nutrition and bred to select bulls, but those animals displaying the desired attributes are kept for future reproduction, ensuring the upgrade of the herd.

Scott Holstein

While the scene at Tuten and Tuten Farms is picturesque, caring for and monitoring the cattle herd is strictly business for Gary and Junior Tuten, shown here on horseback.

“We’re constantly looking to improve the base herd,” Tuten says. “A hundred years ago, they would just turn cattle loose and then gather them, but that day is gone. You can’t survive doing that because you can’t get your calves big enough. In those days, a 350-pound calf was considered big. Now, we’re weaning calves at 680 to 700 pounds. That’s how much the quality of the cattle has changed. My job is to get the maximum quality and gain off the resources I have.”  

Selling the cattle is also not simply weighing the animals and shipping them on trucks. It requires months of planning, preparations and accurate recordkeeping.

“We prepare the cattle for sale four months before it’s time to sell them,” Tuten says. “And we document everything we do. We record the serial numbers off our vaccines, the lot numbers, the expiration dates and such.”

This information follows the cattle to the feedlots and all the way to the processing plants, where more information is recorded and conveyed back to the individual cattle producers.

“Electronics is in the cattle industry,” Tuten says. “We can now trace cattle from the day they’re born until they die. That information stays with the cattle until they’re killed, and the processing plants also record information that’s sent back to us, letting us know how these calves fed and their weights, grades and conversion ratios. And then we work to improve on that.”

Tuten once tried managing a furniture/appliance store, but found it insufficiently challenging.

He tired of commission work after two terms, deciding politicking wasn’t for him. Cattle ranching, on the other hand, is in his blood, and also satisfies his need for challenges, notwithstanding the long hours and associated risks. He’s hopeful for the future of the family business too, given his grandchildren’s expressed desire to continue it. Meanwhile, it’s his to watch over and grow.    

It’s now near noon and the herd has been processed, although another waits on a different pasture. Gracious host that he is, Tuten invites me to the next roundup. I, however, equally graciously decline the invitation, being more sensibly inclined, if not a little saddle sore and a mite wiser about cattle ranching.