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By Larry Stalcup, Contributing Editor
Some argue that the Texas drought of 2011-2014 was worse than the herd-killing one in the 1950s. Minnie Lou Bradley has survived both. Her daughter Mary Lou and son-in-law James Henderson braved the most recent drought with her. Together, the trio is into the ranch’s 60th year of selling prime Angus bulls. And they’re a “prime” example of how to manage ranch or farm succession.
Before we proceed, forget it if you think Minnie Lou has retired. At 86, she’s in the ranch office about every day, lending her expertise in registered Angus production and overall beef industry PR. But when she does finally take off her spurs, the ranch will remain part of the Bradley legacy, with Mary Lou and James holding the reins.
The ranch is located between Memphis and Childress in the southeastern Texas Panhandle. It maintains about 500 cows, as well as cows from a co-op herd. They plan to sell about 225 bulls, 200 registered Angus and 25 registered Charolais at their 60th annual bull sale in February.
Minnie Lou has received virtually every honor an Angus breeder could take home. She was the first and only woman to serve as American Angus Association president in 2005. With an animal science degree from Oklahoma A&M, she took over the ranch in 1954 with her husband Bill.
His father, R. J. (Rusty) Bradley, helped finance the ranch after Bill returned from serving in Korea. (Rusty took after his father, Rufus Jack Bradley, an XIT Ranch cowboy who saved nearly all his paychecks and bought land in Wichita County to ranch on his own.) This ranch used the flattop 3 brand as Bill was the third generation to own a ranch in Texas.
“We bought the ranch in November of ’54 and spent the first year getting things up and running,” Minnie Lou remembers. “The previous owners had overstocked, and many of the windmill pipes were broken. This country was still in that terrible drought, so the following spring we put out yearlings. The market went way down so we placed yearlings in the former Ludders Feedlot in Lubbock. It was a 10,000-head lot that was probably the first big feedlot in the area.”
The cattle were all Herefords. Due the drought and low markets, they lost a lot of money.
“Rusty told us, ‘that’s the cow business,’” Minnie Lou says, noting that they ran nearly all yearlings until 1958, when they started their Angus program, one of the first ones in Texas. “We found a herd of registered Angus in Sulphur Springs, Texas – 120 cows and calves. The seller also gave us a bushel basket of registration papers. We were able to match 100 of the cows’ tattoos to those registration papers and [started our] registered Angus cattle.”
They began selling registered Angus bulls in 1959. “They were all by private treaty, which we continued until 1993,” Minnie Lou says. “That’s when we had our first official sale.”
They began detailed recordkeeping in ‘59, with data collected on every animal’s weight and gain ratio for cows and calves. “We learned early on that a cow needed to wean a calf that was 50 percent of her body weight in order to make any money,” Minnie Lou recalls. That data helped us be more prepared to provide information to buyers of Bradley 3 sires.”
Meanwhile, in the 1970s, the Bradleys saw opportunities to sell their harvested beef. Minnie Lou noticed that her family members in Fort Worth craved steaks from their cattle that she took on visits to the city. “To them, that beef was better than what was available at the grocery store,” she says. “Well, that was the same ‘locker’ beef we’ve had on the ranch forever. I decided to have more of our cattle slaughtered and processed at a plant in Wellington. I became a meat peddler off the back porch.”
The sales were first in quarters and halves. She then switched to selling 25-pound boxes, which led to the family starting B3R Country Meats in 1986 in Childress. Mary Lou was working on her master’s degree when she returned home to build a packing plant. At 24 years of age, she tackled a project few producers will ever attempt.
The packing plant was her chance to join the operation and expand the ranch’s enterprise spectrum. Its niche was “all-natural” and was among the earliest all-natural plants in the country. The plant quickly developed a supplier base of ranches across Texas and Oklahoma. Eventually, the small plant was processing about 30,000 cattle per year. B3R produced one of the nation’s early branded-beef products. The plant was also among the first processing facilities to produce beef for Certified Angus Beef® Natural.
James Henderson joined the plant in 1993 with over 30 years of experience in meatpacking. He started his career with an Abilene packing facility and had learned to measure and analyze carcass data. Those skills were welcomed at Bradley 3.
“James developed data for all cattle that ran through the plant,” Minnie Lou says. “We started paying premiums for better cattle.”
“I took all of the data myself,” James points out. “At the time, we were the only plant that gave data back to producers. We developed a grid to determine value on individual traits of animals. We also learned that we needed to identify innovative and creative producers who could adapt to the type of all-natural cattle we needed.”
The packing facility operated efficiently with Mary Lou as its owner/general manager. But the pressures of running even a small packing facility made Mary Lou believe life could be calmer. “It was sometimes a 24-hour-a-day situation,” she says. “We had 80 employees and sales of about $700,000 per week. We finally decided to sell the plant in 2002, and I walked away in 2004.
“I then became more involved in the bull production program. My hardest challenge was to slow down. James and I married in 2004. And we saw we needed to slowly expand our ability to better serve our customers who have come to know the value of our bulls in their cattle operations.”
While the most recent heavy drought was worse between 2011 and 2014, it started in 2010 for the Bradley 3 and lasted until 2015. “We were on the verge of having to sell off the herd,” Mary Lou explains. “We were actually getting ready to preg-check and ship cattle when the rains came. It rained so much we couldn’t get vehicles in and out. That rained saved us. I took that as a sign from God that we were not done.”
That heavenly reprieve helped push Minnie Lou, Mary Lou and James to improve their production and marketing programs. A new office building replaced an old temporary office that had long since exceeded its original purpose. It’s ideal for hosting potential buyers and other visitors. A new horse barn is also in the works.
“I knew we needed a better office when I had to spray for wasps while talking to a potential buyer,” Mary Lou quips. “The new barn replaces a barn on the ranch when it was purchased. It will eventually have solar panels and batteries for better energy efficiency and to replace an undependable electrical grid. We’ve also added center pivots to the ranch. There were none here before the drought. That’s part of a new drought plan with new pipelines and wells.
“Each of the three of us has our roles in the operation. I am the main financial person, James is head of operations and Mother maintains our client relations. It’s a good mix.”
Again, in the business of providing excellent breeding stock to ranchers, James stresses the need to allow time to improve herd genetics. “Calves we’re AI’ing right now will be in our 2020 sale,” he says. “The first calves from those animals won’t be weaned until 2023. We hope to see the prodigy from those animals be productive until 2035.
“We work with the best cattle people in the world. We listen to their needs to know what it takes for them to make money in this business.”
Transition takes time
Efforts to keep the ranch in the family started long before the Bradley 3 started expanding its facilities. As any estate attorney or CPA will tell you, ranch or farm transition is not an overnight event. It’s an exercise that requires detailed legal matters, depending on a surviving spouse or the number of siblings.
Mary Lou says she took steps several years as to assure a smooth transition in ownership when Minnie Lou decides to retire. “For any family or group, I don’t know that our transition is over,” she says. “We’re still defining some things and still working on our future. Our roles will continue to evolve.
“We have invested a lot with accounting teams and legal teams. A transition plan is something that you review. We have people coming here this spring to review our situation again, especially with the new tax changes.
“Also, like any ranch, we are only as good as our people. Good employees make it work. A lot of times, we are not the ones with the best skills for a particular job. So we tend to hire for our weaknesses, not our strengths.”
She says they are “really trying to think out front.
“I read a lot of books and see how people made an impact so that I think about more than just today and tomorrow,” Mary Lou says. “It’s not just for six months, but for the long haul. Sometimes you’re so far in the weeds with your thoughts, you can’t see the results. It takes a while for people to see it.
“In the cattle business, we can really embrace new technologies and start to think differently and achieve more than we could ever dream of.”
Minnie Lou admires her daughter’s gusto. “She is cursed or blessed to be a workaholic,” she says. “She and James know the objectives we’ve always had to helping others improve their operations.
“When you get down to it, we know that one good bull can do so much for a ranch. And with good data, ranchers can get rid of genetics that don’t make any money.”