7/26/2014 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer
CONESTOGA, Pa. — On a 100-acre farm a few miles from Lancaster, Pa., Karl and Elma Hess operate one of two Certified Angus Beef feedlots in Pennsylvania, one of three east of the Mississippi.
“Cattle feeding has been part of our family’s operations for over a century,” Karl Hess said, citing family financial records that go back to the late 1800s.
The Hesses lived at Silver Run Farm, which has been in the family more than 250 years, until a few years ago. Their middle son, Jonathan, and his wife, Monica, now operate that farm, and Karl and Elma Hess have moved their feedlot to a former dairy farm with similar acreage a mile away.
The Certified Angus Beef brand is owned by the American Angus Association. It can be applied to Angus meat that meets certain requirements for marbling, carcass sizing, tenderness and appearance.
Launched in 1978 to build demand for Angus genetics, particularly Angus bulls, the effort quickly led to a two- or three-fold increase in the use of Angus bulls nationwide, said Hess, who also works as a Farm Service Agency loan officer in Lancaster.
Feedlots licensed by the Angus Association offer cow-calf breeders with good genetics an opportunity to make more money on their product, Hess said.
The Hesses produce certified animals at three times the national average, according to the Angus Association. Sixty to 75 percent of the Hesses’ carcasses get certified, Hess said.
Hess originally saw Certified Angus feeding as a way to get into custom feeding instead of owning all of the cattle he fed. “That has essentially gone” as a business model in the beef industry, he said.
These days, Hess generally buys cattle by the tractor-trailer load through an order buyer.
Unlike organic certification, which requires different management techniques, Certified Angus cattle can be fed the same way as other cattle, Hess said.
Rather, the certification depends on the animals’ genes. “If the genetics aren’t there, I can’t outweigh that,” Hess said. “That’s a little genie in a bottle I can’t see.”
To test the importance of genetics, Hess and the Angus Association ran a trial with a shipment of cattle that he fed. The feeders came from cows that had been randomly divided among three bulls, one-third of the cows to each bull.
One bull produced only Certified Angus animals. Another’s offspring were all certified except for two. The third bull sired no certified cattle, he said.
“That was a very good lesson for me,” Hess said.
Because Certified Angus applies to the farmer and not the land, Hess did not have to transfer or re-establish his certification when he moved to the new farm.
Being licensed in the Certified Angus program means serving as a resource for other cattlemen, particularly cow-calf operators who want to get into the Certified Angus market.
Hess fields a lot of calls from farmers seeking information. “That’s just what’s expected of us by the Angus Association,” Hess said.
Hess once got a call from a breeder whose genetics were not up to the necessary level yet. Hess steered him to a Penn State Extension agent and other resources, then called the Extension agent to give his assessment if the farmer called him.
The farmer’s beef operation was later featured in Lancaster Farming, so the man must have found some success upgrading his herd, Hess said.
“I got a lot of satisfaction out of that,” Hess said.
Though feeding 150 to 175 cattle at a time would make the farm a small operation in Texas, “Pennsylvania is not a bad place to feed cattle,” Hess said.
Hess said the state is “blessed” to have the JBS plant in Souderton, where he sends most of his animals. “That’s just the backbone” of the industry in the region, he said.
For as large as the Brazilian multinational JBS is, the company is easy to work with, Hess said. He said he can typically set up a forward contract by email in 10 minutes, and a representative recognized his name when he went to an open house at the plant.
Being near the East Coast population centers also saves more than $100 per head on transportation costs compared with the big Western feedlots.
Those operations buy feeders from Southern cow-calf operations, move the cattle to the feedlot and then have to ship the meat back east after slaughter, Hess said.
A Western cattleman once even proposed working with Hess to house his cattle closer to consumers, but Hess decided he would rather grow corn for his own business than sell it to the Westerner’s operation.
Hess grows all of his feed: corn, barley and silage from both crops. He typically handles two shipments of cattle a year, but he does not have any cattle right now as he wraps up a several-month remodeling of the former dairy barn
When the Hesses first bought the farm, they put an initial group of cattle through to see how the existing layout worked. Karl Hess has been tinkering with the design ever since to make it more suitable for beef animals.
“It was a little rugged” when they first fed cattle there, Elma Hess said.
Karl Hess is restructuring things so that the cattle can head into the chute better and be worked easier.
“I like to build and remodel myself,” he said.
The timing was right for the construction sabbatical. When Hess sold his load in April, his order buyer said almost no cattle of the requisite quality were available. The buyer said supply would be better toward the end of July or early August.
Hess reasoned that if he brought in 600- to 700-pound feeders in August — lighter than what he would normally take — the animals would be ready to market next April, getting him back onto his marketing schedule.
Hess has also been recognized by Tyson Foods and the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association for environmental work.
By the time Hess finishes adding terraces at the Conestoga farm, his family will have more than two miles of terraces in its fields between Silver Run and the new farm.
Hess also uses minimum- and no-till. “I still shudder to think of the amount of cover crop I plant into,” but the looks at the fields a month later and sees the corn, he said.
Hess, the first in his family to go to college, actually majored in chemistry. The interest was sparked by a chemistry set he got as a Christmas gift and by good science teachers.
“I’ve got the biggest chemistry lab of anybody I went to school with,” Hess said.
That background has helped Hess understand what happens in farming at the molecular level, rather than rely on a sales pitch.
“It’s got to make sense in my chemistry and physiology and biochemistry background,” he said.
Before Jonathan and Monica Hess took over Silver Run Farm, Karl Hess added hog and chicken barns.
Those animals helped diversify the farm, and contract feeding is less risky than the cattle business. They are a good fit for Jonathan and Monica at this stage in their lives, Karl Hess said.
Jonathan Hess is also an ag teacher at Penn Manor High School in Millersville.
Father and son now share equipment in a loose arrangement — and a friendly competition.
“Jonathan’s goal is to grow 100 bushels of wheat before Dad grows 300-bushel corn,” Karl Hess said.
To keep up with his son and the industry, Karl Hess continues his education, including attending a corn grower training session in Illinois.
With corn, as with the Angus cattle the corn will help feed, success is about quality and efficiency, Hess acknowledged, not just scale.
“I’ll probably be the tiniest operation out there,” Hess said. “I don’t care. I’m out there to learn.”