Josh Eilers, the 27-year-old owner of Ranger Cattle in Austin, Texas, is not your typical beginning cattle producer. He didn't follow a traditional route to enter the beef industry, either.
He wasn't born into the cattle business, although he nurtured boyhood dreams of becoming a cowboy. He did not grow up on a farm or ranch. And he didn't study agriculture in high school or college.
But as a former U.S. Army Ranger who served three tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, earning a Purple Heart for injuries sustained during combat, Eilers brings something special to the cattle business — the can-do spirit he learned in the military.
"The Army used to have a slogan, 'Be all that you can be.' I kind of took that to heart," Eilers says. "I have always felt that if you are going to do something, do it right and in the best possible way."
With Ranger Cattle, a Wagyu seedstock and ranch-to-restaurant beef operation he started in 2011 while attending college, he is doing just that.
Getting Into Cattle
The story of Ranger Cattle, as Eilers tells it, begins in a college bar near the University of Texas at Austin (UT), which offers just about every academic program except agriculture.
In 2010, he left the military and returned to Texas. Two weeks later, he was a fulltime student at UT majoring in biology.
"I'd managed to save some money because most of the time I was deployed or training to be deployed," he recalls. Following his first semester, however, he saw his bank balance shrinking and realized he needed to invest his hard-earned money. Then one night he stumbled upon a potential business opportunity.
"Ironically, I was in a bar, and I overheard a guy bragging to a pretty girl that he'd just spent $100 on a Wagyu steak," Eilers recalls. "I didn't know that a steak could cost that much, but I decided that if you could raise cattle that are worth that much money, that's what I wanted to do."
Why Not Wagyu?
Eilers went home and researched Wagyu cattle, a Japanese breed that earns premiums for its finely marbled meat. Through an Internet search, he discovered local Wagyu breeder Larry Beard, who would become one of his mentors and supporters. Within a few days, Eilers had purchased 16 Wagyu bred heifers from Beard, and was grazing them at his mother's small central Texas horse farm.
When the cattle outgrew the horse pasture,Beard and his wife gave Eilers their "military discount" on a pasture lease on the eastern edge of Austin, he says. Beard also introduced Eilers to a neighbor, Bubba Kay, one of the first and best-known Wagyu breeders in the United States.
"Mr. Kay has been my biggest mentor. He has literally taught me everything from synchronization protocols to how to dehorn a calf, to how to analyze pedigrees and what to look for in bloodlines," Eilers says.
It's a role that the veteran cattleman enjoys. "I'm just glad to see a youngster in the business," Kay says. "When we go to cattle meetings, most of the people there are between 65 and 75. We need young people coming into the cattle business."
Meanwhile, Eilers was taking genetics courses at UT, and realized that what he was learning in the classroom about genomic profiling and embryo transfer technology could be applied to his own cattle herd. He soon purchased a full-blood Wagyu cow so that he could transfer embryos from her to his other cows.
Becoming an Entrepreneur
Equally helpful was an entrepreneurship course he took in his senior year.
"I knew nothing about business, and this was exactly what I needed," Eilers admits. The course required that students work together on an actual business case, and his group chose to study Ranger Cattle.
"It was like I had four interns working for me for a semester," Eilers says. Oftentimes, their creativity and curiosity surpassed his.
Up to this point, he'd been selling his calves into the food chain. With his classmates' encouragement, he decided to try marketing the cattle to restaurants that promote locally sourced foods. One student helped Eilers develop a website, where he now takes online orders for Wagyu beef.
They also researched alternative feed sources that could reduce Eilers' expenses, and discovered that spent grain, a byproduct of Austin's vibrant craft beer industry, could be a cost-effective feed. Their search led them to Independence Brewing Co., which now gives Eilers spent grain twice a week, saving him $400 a month in feed bills.
"That's where the college kids were helpful," Eilers says. "They're like toddlers — they don't care about getting (their ideas) shot down."
As part of the entrepreneurship class, Eilers was required to present his business model to a group of actual investors. They recommended that he grow the company and secure outside financing.
Eilers approached three commercial banks for a loan, but was turned down because he could not produce three years of taxable income statements, as he was going to college on the GI bill.
"But I already had deals with restaurants," he says.
Finding Good Financing
Fortunately, Beard referred him to Mark Rutledge, credit office president in Austin with Capital Farm Credit.
"Mark asked me what I wanted to do with the cattle. 'To sell direct to restaurants, to cut out the middleman,' I told him," Eilers says. "I wanted to raise them on Austin grass, feed them Austin grass, have them processed here and sell them to Austin restaurants."
Rutledge recognized the equity that Eilers had built in his herd and agreed to work with him. With a Capital Farm Credit operating loan, Eilers was able to expand the herd and purchase finished cattle so he could fulfill his commitment to restaurants.
"We cannot thank men like Joshua Eilers enough," Rutledge says. "He put his life on the line on multiple tours in the Middle East to further the interests of and protect the United States. It is our privilege to partner with him to help build Ranger Cattle and produce his unique beef product."
Ranch to Restaurants
Ranger Cattle's Wagyu beef is currently on the menu at five Austin restaurants — Barley Swine, Hasler Brothers Steakhouse, Hill Country Galleria Restaurant, Odd Duck and Posse East. Eilers also markets his beef at a local farmers market west of Austin, which allows him to promote his product one-on-one to consumers. Even his vendors and customers have been helpful. The co-owner of Posse East, a popular university-area burger joint, recommended that he raise his retail beef prices, and a farmers market customer gave him a feed trough.
Now with 65 momma cows, nearly all of them fullbloods, Eilers says he is pushing the genetic envelope, with a long-term goal of breeding cattle that predictably will yield Prime-grade carcasses. He works with an embryologist and plans to transplant 35 embryos this year. To help with breeding decisions, he DNA-tests his calves and sends them to the Genetic Development Center for feeding efficiency studies and ultrasound tests to measure rib-eye size. He also plans to expand his marketing efforts next year by involving high school culinary arts students in beef cooking demonstrations at farmers markets and awarding scholarships.
As for the future, Eilers says, "I'm in this for the long haul.
"I'm the only guy I know who has overcome the barriers of entry into the livestock industry without any prior experience, and built up a cattle company that might actually be successful," he says. "If Ranger Cattle is successful in the long term, it will be in large part due to Bubba Kay and other members of the community who have helped me out so much." – Staff
For more information, go to Ranger Cattle.