The sun dances back and forth behind the clouds of an Oklahoma sky as it shades and illuminates a pasture of tall fescue and four horseback riders driving a herd of Angus cattle up a hill. The scene is authentic, all the way down to mud-crusted spurs and cinches soaked with sweat from the humidity and workout that comes with cutting off stray calves trying to leave the herd. Although it sounds like the description of a late 1800s cattle drive, in reality this picturesque panorama is happening present day at A Bar Ranch.
The ranch, owned by Mike and Martha Armitage of Claremore, Oklahoma, consists of a 4,000-head cow herd, a Quarter Horse operation and a livestock marketing company called Armitage Livestock.
Their story began when Mike was hired to manage the McGuirk Hereford Ranch, which would later become the A Bar, in the mid 1970s. After managing it for several years, the pair were given the opportunity to lease the ranch and in 1989 purchased it. Although the headquarters for A Bar Ranch is in Claremore, it is made up of five individual ranches spread across three counties. In total, it consists of 8,500 owned acres and some additional leased acres.
The open “A” brand dates back to the 1880s when the ranch was owned by the Rucker family. The symbol fit perfectly with the Armitage name, so they continued using the brand and built a livestock empire with its rich Oklahoma history intact. In fact Will Rogers, the famous vaudeville actor, trick rider and comedian once rode the same prairie the Armitage family rides today.
Mike and Martha have two grown sons, Merrit and Turner, who they have raised with a deep passion for ranching and a solid understanding of marketing cattle and horses. A recent illness has kept Mike from working the ranch like he used to, so Merrit and Turner have stepped up and are adjusting to taking on more responsibilities and leadership roles while continuing to run the ranch with the same foundation and principles their father has instilled over the last 30 years.
Seven employees work on the ranch, including Mark Hockersmith, the ranch manager who has been with the A Bar for 23 years.
“My dad was on the road a lot for business, so Mark has taught us a lot of what we know,” Merrit said. “He’s multifaceted and has a lot of experience in the cattle and horse industries. Mark’s been a crucial part of our operation.”
A bar above the rest
The most important mission for a cow is to raise and wean a calf each year, making fertility the top priority at A Bar Ranch.
“The No. 1 thing that Dad did, and we still do to this day, is breed all of our heifers and only retain the ones that are bred in the first 30 days,” Merrit said. “You need a cow that is going to get bred every year and by doing that for 30 years, our fertility has been very high on our heifers.”
Merrit says A Bar Ranch breeds about 500 replacement heifers a year, keeping about half of them for their herd and marketing the rest of the heifers at auctions and private treaty sales.
Although Mike started out with Hereford cattle 30 years ago, in the 1990s he began to notice some changes in the cattle industry and transitioned to tigerstripes, the F1 cross between Brahman and Hereford cattle. The Brahman influence in the new genetics he incorporated made the cattle at A Bar Ranch much more heat tolerant. Eventually Mike started breeding his tigerstripes to Angus bulls, which is the base for the herd today.
“For as many years as we’ve diluted down that ear, there’s still a small touch of it in every female, no matter how Angus she looks,” Turner explained. “We’ve developed quite a reputation for having a moderate-framed female that fits our environment here in northeastern Oklahoma.”
Merrit says around 600 spring heifers were bred this year at the A Bar with a 90% breed up.
“Some of the old tiger cows we sold a couple years ago were 15 to 19 years old and they’d raised a calf every year,” he said. “That’s the kind of females we look for, cows with longevity and consistency.”
To add to the protocol, they only turn out bulls with negative expected progeny differences birth weights on heifers. Additionally, the cattle produced at A Bar Ranch grade a very high percentage Certified Angus Beef, Choice or better.
Although the A Bar Ranch is steeped in tradition, the Armitages are progressive when it comes to opportunities to add value to their livestock.
“This year Turner and I have done some of our studying on the added value groups that we need to adapt our cattle to,” Merrit said. “One thing we’ve done over the last few years is implement Non-Hormone Treated Cattle and aging and sourcing those cattle through IMI. Our industry is ever changing, and we must adapt and be pliable to the conditions.”
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Marketing at its finest
However, producing top-notch replacement heifers with superior genetics is only half of the equation. The other side is knowing how to market those cattle. In 1989, Mike started Armitage Livestock, which is a livestock marketing company and a separate entity from A Bar Ranch. With Armitage Livestock, Mike and Martha developed their own advertising agency where they do much of their own image building, marketing and promotions.
“Our cow calf operation was developed through Dad’s ability to market livestock and add value to cattle, and that’s what has enabled us to build up the ranch through the years,” Turner explained. “Without that ability of marketing, we wouldn’t have any of what we have now.”
Turner says his father developed an understanding for the auction business early on, which turned out to be a crucial key to networking, buying livestock and putting on auctions that attract returning patrons.
“He developed a skill for putting on an auction that helps us market our cattle, but doesn’t put excessive pressure on the customers,” Turner said.
A Bar Ranch holds three annual livestock sales. In June the Armitages have a Quarter Horse sale of mainly mares and colts. In September, they hold one of the cattle sales with anywhere from 800 to 1,000 bred cows, pairs and bred heifers up for sale. In November, they have a Quarter Horse sale with 20 gelding and 40 weaned colts up for grabs in conjunction with another cow sale of 1,500 to 2,000 cattle.
A Bar Ranch has also become known for buying cattle from reputable ranches in dispersals and using their good reputations to market those cattle. Additionally, Merrit says when his father would buy cow herds from ranches, he would always tell them if they ever wanted to sell their mare bands, to call the A Bar first. Through this tactic, Mike was able to purchase the Gilbert Ranch’s horse herd in Clayton, New Mexico. He also bought cows off the Mullendore Ranch in Cleveland, Oklahoma, and later bought all the mares off the ranch, which consisted of performance and foundation ranch horses with well-known pedigrees.
“We marketed a lot of those mares and kept the heart of them for our program,” Merrit explained. “In the past 20 years, Dad has said we’ve gone through over 400 to 500 mares just through gleaning the best and marketing and retaining our own genetics. With that we’ve tried to keep 5 to 10 of the best mares each year for our own herd and market the rest.”
One hand washes the other
In a world becoming increasingly more reliant on four wheelers and side-by-sides, A Bar Ranch sticks to a more traditional approach. They still use horses to gather and brand cattle, although they do utilize feed trucks daily. Merrit referred to it as a semi-progressive style of cow management.
“Spring and fall branding can be our favorite time of year because we saddle our horses every morning and drag all the calves to the fire and do it all in the traditional sense,” he said.
The Armitage family believes in keeping the ranch lifestyle and cowboy traditions alive, but their methods also aid in low stress cattle management and add value to their horse program, making them exponentially more marketable to buyers.
“If done correctly, it’s low stress on the cattle and the employee. We end up having less problems than we would have with other equipment and those horses become better for these tasks after using them on the ranch. We like to use the term versatile, because we’re breeding them for our primary goals of them becoming ranch horses, but we know that they have potential in other areas too,” Merrit said.
About 100 horses are bred each year at A Bar Ranch. They train on all the 2-year-olds, however, many of the colts with added value because of their color—such as roans, Palominos, Buckskins and greys—are marked at weaning.
Over the last few years, A Bar Ranch has created a successful futurity for the horses it raises. The owners can enter their four- and five-year-old horses raised by A Bar Ranch and show in the futurity to compete for a $20,000 prize. Four events are included in the competition: a cut and capture class, cow horse class, ranch trail class, ranch conformation class.
“It has really spiked a lot of interest in our horses and helped us get horses in the right hands for their correct uses,” Turner said.
In addition, the operation has an internship program in conjunction with the American Quarter Horse Association and the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association offering hands-on experiences in about every facet of the cattle and horse industry.
Diversity and family are the keys to success
A Bar Ranch has discovered the recipe for a diverse agricultural operation that can still narrow its focus to produce a specific type of livestock buyers seek out. Although having multiple irons in the fire can sometimes be a distraction, in the Armitages’ situation being diverse is an advantage.
They have even branched off into agritourism. A barn wedding venue is available at A Bar Ranch and Merrit and Turner are part of a country western music band that travels and sings at different events.
“I think it probably is more enjoyable because it’s more diverse,” Merrit said. “We’re not doing the same old grind every day. Seasons come and go and there is always something to do in our industry.”
The Armitage family says they have been blessed to carry on the traditions of the ranch and since it is a family endeavor, it will continue for more generations. Without the individual talents of each member of the Armitage family, they probably would not have the reputation or success they have attained so far.
Merrit’s wife, Michelle is a proficient horseman and raises their two children, Myles and Maysa and Turner’s wife, Sarah, helps with everything from the office work to gathering cattle.
Sarah says each member of the family has a distinct role that helps to balance each other out.
“There’s a lot of synergy in how everything works together and the timing of it,” Turner said. “We all complement each other whether it’s the horses, the cows or the marketing.”
Lacey Newlin can be reached at 580-748-1892 or [email protected].