MT. JUDEA — The family farm isn't what it used to be. For Dustin and Kayla Cowell, and their three-year-old daughter, Landry Jo, their farm near here has become more of an entrepreneurial enterprise, marketing limited amounts of beef to specific markets. It takes just in time planning to raise, process and deliver their product to their customers when they want it.
The family owns 150 acres on which it is raising 65 head of crossbred cattle. They initially started as a traditional cow/calf operation, then, just over a year ago, they started a farm-to-table beef operation - Cowbell Ranch, LLC.
This proactive and adaptive approach to farming may be the reason a panel of Newton County farm service representatives selected the Cowell family as Newton County Farm Family for 2021.
For 73 years, the Arkansas Farm Family of the Year Program has honored farm families across the state. Program sponsors include: Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, Arkansas Farm Bureau, Farm Credit Services of Western Arkansas, Ag Heritage Farm Credit Services, Farm Credit Mid-South Associations and Armor Seed. Program partners are: Arkansas Agriculture Department, Arkansas Press Association, Arkansas FFA Association, University of Arkansas, Division of Agriculture and Cooperative Extension Service, USDA Farm Service Agency, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and USDA Rural Development.
"Our farm-to-table beef operation provides high-quality, affordable beef to our community and surrounding areas. We offer retail cuts to customers, as well as, half/whole beef. Almost all our business is conducted via social media (Facebook) through our business page. Customers message us for questions, orders and delivery information," said Dustin.
He explained how a typical transaction for retail cuts of beef is conducted: Kayla, who is in charge of marketing, first schedules an appointment with the processor, the beef is delivered to the processor (processing takes about two weeks including vacuum sealing the selected cuts), the processed beef is picked up, stored in freezers and then its availability is announced via social media. Customers place their order and deliveries are scheduled.
The only difference in a half/whole order is the customer chooses their specific cuts and pays a reservation fee.
Along with providing retail cuts and half/whole beef to customers, the ranch also supplies ground beef to local school districts. The schools, in conjunction with the Farm Act, can dedicate a certain amount of their budget to farm-fresh meat.
"We provide meat to all three campuses in the Jasper School District (Jasper, Kingston and Oark)," Dustin said.
This business model has been accelerated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dustin said.
The ranch started out by selling two steers in 24 hours. It then became a race keeping up with orders as the demand quickly out-gained the supply. It was a busy year, but it looks like the ranch is finally getting caught up, according to Dustin.
The major problem facing the Cowell family and other meat producers is the lack of USDA inspected facilities in Arkansas. To sell retail cut beef the processor must be USDA inspected. There are only three in the state.
Kayla said they utilize a USDA inspected processor in Cabool, Missouri. "That's a six hour round trip," Dustin added.
State meat inspection is not currently available, but Dustin was able to address this problem personally by testifying at the Arkansas State Senate in favor of establishing a State Meat Inspection program. State funds are being allocated to get a program started in the next 12-18 months.
Meanwhile, Cowbell Ranch will continue to make trips to Missouri. It has already scheduled appointments into 2022.
Sometimes the processor will call and say an appointment suddenly opened. Dustin said he likes to be prepared when such opportunities arise by always having some animals at processing weight.
Also, like everything else, processing costs are going up.
"Since rising processing costs impacts our profit margin, we try to offset those costs as best we can," Dustin said. One way is by eliminating the cost of hay. This is made possible by maintaining the herd at a size that makes exclusive use of rotational grazing year round. "We don't own a tractor," Dustin said. If the need for one ever arises, he said, he will try to borrow one.
Rotational grazing calls for keeping a close watch on the soil. "When you take care of the soil, it takes care of you," Dustin relates. This strategy keeps the nutrients on the pastures and decreases the need to add commercial fertilizers.
Controlling water is also important to prevent damage caused by runoff and also to ensure cattle have water at each paddock. Ponds are fenced to control access and mitigate soil loss.
The ranch's primary mission is to "Supply our community with high quality beef."
To do this on a constant basis requires giving individual attention to each animal in the herd. Calves are separated according to age and size in order to target each animal's current nutritional needs. Besides hay, the cattle receive high-energy grains.
Since the beginning, the ranch has produced Angus-cross beef. Recently, Wagyu genetics were introduced to the herd. This Japanese breed is known for tasty, tender and well-marbled meat. The ranch currently has six caves that are a Gyulais cross in hopes to capture quick-growth characteristics of the Charolais with meat quality of the Wagyu, Dustin explained. This product, it is hoped, will attract more customers and lead to partnerships with local restaurants wanting to add it to their menus.
Dustin and Kayla agree they eventually want to be able to enlarge the size of their regular herd and market farm-to-table beef. That will mean adding acreage to the ranch.
They are on the look-out for opportunities to reach that end.
"We were both born into farming families, so we grew up around agriculture. Dustin is the eighth generation, and Landry Jo the ninth, in his family, to live and farm in the Big Creek Valley. Through school, we were also actively involved in FFA – showing animals, judging competitions, public speaking, etc. After graduating high school, we both attended colleges away from our family operations – it did not take long to come back after graduating! Dustin continued his interest in agriculture at the University of Arkansas where he graduated with an Agriculture-Business degree. After we came back to Newton County, Dustin began a real-estate appraisal career doing mostly poultry farms and farmland in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. We settled in Mt. Judea, bought our own herd of cattle, from Dustin’s grandfather, and began our own operation," Kayla said.
The ranch's name comes from Dustins grandparents on the Cowell family and Campbell family.
Landry Jo is the face of Cowbell Ranch as her photos appear on social media posts from the ranch. She likes to play recreational sports that the county offers – teeny ball and soccer, for example.
Kayla just finished serving a term as the Newton County Cattlemen’s Association’s Secretary. She is also involved in the Newton County Farm Bureau Women’s Committee. Kayla also just co-founded a Newton County Small Business group to advocate for and promote small businesses in the county.
Dustin is the Newton County Farm Bureau Young Farmer and Rancher Chairman. He is also the State Farm Bureau Young Farmer and Rancher Chairman. He has also been active in the policy development process.
They both take active roles in church and community affairs whenever they can and play leadership leadership rolls on a variety of committees.