Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame: Nothing but a square deal

Throughout Paul J. Brown's life, the founder of Cattle Empire and a 2016 inductee into the Cattle Feeders Hall of Fame, distinct parallels can be drawn between the cattle feeding businessman and the ability to stick it out when times get tough.

His test of adaptability began in 1949. At 20 years old, Brown was just out of junior college and in his first year of marriage to his wife, Evelyn, when he started farming wheat in Gray County, Kan., in the southwest part of the state. Mother Nature was his first rival and delivered Brown and many other farmers with a drought that lasted several years.

"I cut my first wheat crop in 1952 and the second in 1958," Brown says.

During that time, he also started backgrounding cattle on wheat pasture in 1950 to counter the risks and time needed for farming, and picked up extra work where he could to support his family.

"We ran cattle there in the wintertime and farmed in the summer," he recalls. "In the winter I would work different jobs such as hauling sand or working at the local service station."

Eventually, Brown moved his family to Sublette, Kan., where they have lived ever since.

"In those first few years, we would sell the cattle we ran on wheat in the spring," says Brown, adding he started out with 2,000 head and built up to 4,000, then to 5,000 head.

But the marketing plan had flaws, Brown says. Backgrounders were forced to take whatever price they could get at a sale barn without any control of how their cattle did, leading him to feed out his own cattle in a commercial yard for the first time in the early 1970s.

"When we were running on wheat pasture, if we made a little bit of money we were lucky," he says. "By the time you got your gain—that's all you had to work on—and your price, if you went to the sale barn, you just kind of took what somebody would give you and you just didn't have any control over it."

In 1978, Brown had the opportunity to purchase a half interest in a 14,000-head capacity feedyard— the beginning of Cattle Empire.

"When we bought it, it was almost empty," Brown says. "We started feeding our own cattle in it and got acquainted with cattle feeders and buyers and built it up from there."

With the right people buying and a solid reputation for doing honest business, word of mouth brought in custom feeding customers from California to Florida. Cattle Empire also took on a new market, specializing in feeding light cattle, after recognizing customers had few options.

"We fed a lot of 4- and 5-weight cattle, where most would only feed 6- to 8-weights," he says. "We developed a program to where we could get weight on them by limit feeding. If they came in and were 4- to 5-weight cattle, we would limit what they ate until they were 650 lb. to 700 lb., and then we'd go back to a regular program."

By 1988, Cattle Empire was running at full capacity so Brown started leasing a grower yard, which he eventually purchased in 1990 and began expanding a year later.

As the business continued to grow, Brown's two sons entered the picture. Rex, his oldest, took over the farming side of the operation, and Roy, his youngest, entered the business in 1995 when Brown purchased the third Cattle Empire feedyard at a 10,000 head capacity. That yard was later expanded to a capacity of 32,000 head.

In 2008, the business diversified further by building a calf ranch to raise Holstein steer calves from birth to finish. Construction and expansion has been a continual part of Cattle Empire's history, leading the family owned operation to a present day feeding capacity of 245,500 head, sitting at the fifth largest cattle feeder in the country. According to Roy, an integral part of company's success and ability to expand has been his father's reputation for honest business, which operated off Brown's motto of "Nothing but a square deal."

"It goes back to the way he does business—honesty and the Golden Rule," Roy says. "Those are the two things he lived by and why Cattle Empire grew the way that it did."

Roy also says his father's ability to adapt with an entrepreneur mindset has been another component of why Cattle Empire is successful today. While Brown has proved a successful businessman over the course of his career, his proudest achievements center on people. Along with their two sons, he and Evelyn also have two daughters, Pam and Deeann.

"We have nine grandchildren, eight great grandchildren and another one on the way," Brown says. "And we will have been married for 67 years in August."

His never-ending passion for the cattle feeding industry continues through his bloodlines as well—Roy continues to head up the business and the third generation of Browns are starting to take on more responsibilities at Cattle Empire.

The legacy also trickles down through many long-time employees, Brown says, with several second and third generations following in their family's footsteps by choosing to work for Cattle Empire. Looking back on where he started, Brown never imagined Cattle Empire would grow to where it is today.

"It's a pretty up and down business. You have good days and you have bad days. They say every cattleman goes broke once or twice during their life and we followed that pattern," he concludes.

"We've had a lot of trials through the years and we've survived them all so far," he says. "I never dreamed we would get to the size we are—that never was my plan."