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Ex-tobacco grower earns a living on Kentucky beef
Kentucky Correspondent

SPRINGFIELD, Ky. — When tobacco was Kentucky’s king commodity, many farmers used cattle as supplemental income; but now that many have exited the burley market, those herds have become more valuable. Just ask Jeff Settles.

Settles is a cattle producer in Washington County, a facilitator for the Kentucky Beef Network (KBN) and a former tobacco grower. His family farm has grown to accommodate nearly 150 cows in two herds on 380 acres.

His approach to the business is all about knowing the market and working to fulfill that market’s need. He and four farm families have joined to form Kentucky’s Choice Homegrown Beef, which offers locally bred, born and raised, high quality beef that is sold by the piece, half or whole.

“I’m interested in putting the best beef I can produce into someone’s freezer,” he said. “That’s my market, and my intention is to not just sell to a customer one time - but for life.”

The most important part of his ranch is education and continuing study, he said.

“There are resources out there if a producer will just use them. I don’t know where we would have been had it not been for our local extension agent, our research universities and our state government working to make things happen for us,” Settles said.

It is through his work with the KBN that he is able to provide some of the education and information to other farmers in his area.

KBN is part of the Kentucky Cattlemen’s Assoc. and was created with Ag Development Board funding (Phase I) to help producers make the most of their operations.

Kentucky has 10 facilitators to individually assist cattle producers throughout the state with the goal of helping farmers find ways to improve their bottom line.

Kentucky is the largest cattle-producing state east of the Mississippi River, and ranks fifth nationally in total number of farms with more than 40,000 producers and more than 1 million beef cows.

Settles attributes the growth to marketing efforts by the industry and cost share programs through individual counties.

“The state decided to put back half of the money received in the Master Settlement Agreement to aid in farm diversification,” he said. “It’s through those funds and programs along with marketing efforts that the beef industry has made a comeback. I support the beef checkoff program. I think it’s only fair we to give back a little in order to get the promotion and information the checkoff program provides.”

Perhaps the most identifiable phrase to come from checkoff dollars was the “Beef, It’s What’s for Dinner” campaign. The program was created by the Beef Promotion and Research Act of 1985 and passed as part of the 1985 Farm Bill to “strengthen the position of beef in the marketplace and to maintain and expand domestic and foreign markets and uses for beef and beef products.”

Funding for the program comes from a mandatory assessment of $1-per-head collected each time cattle are sold. Approximately $45 million is raised annually for promotional efforts and research studies. Settles uses his knowledge and the information he gathers from the industry to continually improve his operation.

“If I get to the point of thinking I have perfected this, I will have some serious problems,” he said.

Settles is as familiar with his herd as he is the back of his hand. He uses a recordkeeping program known as CHAPS (Cow Herd Appraisal Performance System) to evaluate each cow and also uses the electronic ear tags used for animal identification purposes, an initiative supported by the KBN and one that will eventually become mandated by the USDA.

“We keep good records on the performance of our cattle,” he said. Twice a year, in the fall and spring, Settles breeds his heifers through artificial insemination. What heifers don’t become pregnant through this manner are then bred naturally by way of, what Settles refers to as, his “cleanup bulls.” The heifers are given ultrasounds to make sure the breeding techniques have proven successful.

Settles also uses methods for production improvement, management tools as he refers to them, like pelvic measurements and forage rotation.

He will admit he is successful as a cattle farmer - but with modest reservations.

“I don’t want to be self-seeking or conceited,” said Settles. “We market a little differently than other farmers. The end result of marketing needs to come back and establish the basis for the breeding program. I breed strictly based on EPDs (expected progeny differences). I keep replacement heifers and market the balance of my calves as finished fattened cattle to go into people’s freezers.”

Settles’ two sons are the fourth generation on the farm. He has been in cattle production for 26 years, but there was a time when he considered leaving the business.

“I went away to college and majored in law enforcement and business administration. When I graduated from high school and college, I wanted to get as far away from the farm as I could,” he said.

Fortunately for him and the many producers he helps through the KBN, Settles returned to the farm putting his business education to extensive use.

“I hope I never get to the point where I’m totally happy with what I’m doing. When I get to that point then failure or going backwards is close behind me. I’ve got to focus on continually keeping up with knowledge and production. You’ve got to look to the long term.”

Settles has never regretted getting out of the tobacco business and said the cattle market has the potential to replace much of the income farmers received from their burley production.

“I can say this about our cattle operation and the way I market cattle, I have been able to totally replace the income that I lost from tobacco, but only have I been able to do that because of the foresight of the leadership in the state of Kentucky; the agricultural leadership and the legislature,” he said, “I have been able to do that because of their foresight in being able to get Master Settlement Agreement money back into the hands of the producers that wanted to move forward in their beef operations.”

Settles uses a simple saying that sums up his philosophy of life on the farm.

He said, “If we do the best we can, where we’re at with what we’ve got, with God’s blessing, we’ll be successful.”

This farm news was published in the Nov. 29, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.