With cowboys on quarter horses working the cattle, A Bar Ranch is the picture of tradition, but owners Mike and Martha Armitage are also focused on the future and incorporate marketing and technology into running their business.
The Armitages have been in the business close to four decades and run three complementary livestock divisions – a base cow herd of approximately 1,300 commercial animals, a quarter horse breeding and sales operation, and Armitage Livestock, a marketing company that sells primarily bred cows and heifers.
Mike and Martha both grew up in the cattle business, and Mike’s first partner was a great aunt. He leased her land to graze his cows. Today, like 97 percent of the cattle ranchers in Oklahoma, A Bar is a family business with Martha managing customer lists, building sales catalogs and running the office. Oldest son Merrit oversees one of the ranches and handles all advertising, layout design and video marketing, while youngest son Turner, a college student, does most of the photography and helps out when he’s not in school.
A Bar Ranch is actually two ranches – one in Pryor and the other in Claremore, which is also the company headquarters. Combined, the two ranches have a capacity of approximately 1,000 cows. A Bar also utilizes 18,000 acres of leased property.
The cow herd business involves marketing steer calves direct to backgrounders – who purchase young cattle for feeding – or to send to feedlots when they wean from their mothers. The heifer calves are retained for breeding.
“Armitage livestock incorporates several added-value options to the bred stock that we market,” Mike says. “Those include everything from genetics to technological advances, one of which is ultrasound. This aging of embryos enables us to market and offer the public tighter calving periods and as an added-value item.”
The family hosts a popular sales event, the Fall Gathering, scheduled the first Saturday each November.
“We held the first one in 1990, and it has grown over the years. Today, we sell approximately 3,000 head of bred heifers and young cows each year,” Mike says.
The success of the Fall Gathering inspired the Armitages to develop other sales including seven auctions each year of bred replacement females, and they market privately and through direct sales to other ranches.
All told, the ranch sells up to 18,000 bred heifers and cows annually in a state that has an estimated 5.1 million cows and calves. The beef industry is the largest agriculture segment in Oklahoma and valued at approximately $4.8 billion.
Horses are an integral part of the ranch. “We’re still a traditional operation,” Mike says. “Everything we do with the cattle, we do on horseback. Because of the difficult topography of the real estate we have our cattle on, plus the location and timing of being able to gather and work our livestock, horses are required. There really is no other quality way to handle livestock. We use horses for the safety and ease of handling the cattle with less stress.”
The Armitages’ respect for horses led them to develop their own lineage of quarter horses, and that commitment has grown into a significant business.
Still, cattle is A Bar’s primary business, and Mike says the future is exciting, even as the industry as a whole is changing. He says he recently visited markets in Los Angeles and watched the activities at the meat counters.
“Their counters were broken into five or six different types of beef from Kobe all the way to beef specifically out of California,” he says. “Every product on the shelf was a branded product. That trend is going to create new opportunities for people in this business. The specialty markets are going to continue to expand, no doubt. Getting products in one of those niches is extremely important as commercial producers of beef.”