Texan Wesley Spurlock finds himself walking the fine line that divides corn and cattle. Yet, with feet firmly planted in both, he sees more reason to come together than to argue across the fence that often divides the two.
Spurlock’s diversified crop and cattle operation will see him open a 3,000-head backgrounding yard in 2017. He’ll also lead the huge National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) as its incoming president.
Talk about being in agriculture.
Spurlock is determined to make his beef program work at the same time he carries his leadership skills and commodity association experience to head the nation’s largest grain organization. He’ll work to balance his cattle and crop production and maximize his margins, as well as balance and promote farm policy that will benefit corn and cattle in the long run.
His family runs Spurlock Farms Too in the northern Texas Panhandle outside Stratford. The multigenerational operation includes roughly 16,000 acres of corn, cotton, sorghum, milo and alfalfa. He ran stocker cattle on wheat pasture and cornstalks until three years of drought virtually eliminated his grazing. Drought also slapped his row-crop production, as irrigation water was stretched so much that some corn saw huge yield reductions.
“Because of the drought, in 2012 we started to grow more cotton, which requires less water than corn, and we reduced our production of wheat and sorghum. That affected our ability to raise cattle in the winter,” Spurlock tells BEEF. “Last year, we bought a starter feeder beef operation with capacity to raise 3,000 head, and we are preparing to start producing cattle in 2017.”
In his “spare” time, he’ll perform a chore he loves nearly as much as farming and cattle — working to make life better for farmers as NCGA president. That includes working to obtain good farm policy and develop better markets for corn and corn byproducts. He’ll also lead NCGA’s efforts to prevent federal regulatory agencies from writing rules that infringe on producer property rights, and dictate how farmers, ranchers and feeders must run their operations.
“I first got involved at the state level with the Corn Producers Association of Texas in 2002,” he says. “I was interested in corn production and sustainability issues, and served on NCGA action teams that addressed them. I enjoyed the work and continued to develop my knowledge of the industry and my organizational skills.”
NCGA leaders convinced him he had both the time and skills to make an effective contribution to the organization. Among his duties as president is to promote ethanol as a fuel additive to gasoline, which is required in many metro areas under the federal Clean Air Act.
And, as a beef producer and member of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, he realizes there has been friction at times in the beef industry over how some ethanol processors received a subsidy for their production, something that was not provided to livestock feeders.
Walking the line
“Corn growers, like cattlemen, are always seeking additional markets,” Spurlock says, adding that more corn production was needed to meet demands for more protein worldwide, as well as renewable fuels.
“The ethanol industry required a stable supply of feedstock. Entering our domestic fuel market with an energy source provided corn farmers like myself with a tremendous growth opportunity. Improved technology and best management practices made it possible to expand our production," he says.
Spurlock points out that for more than a decade, the ethanol industry has provided a valuable co-product, dried distillers grains (DDGs), which has become a valuable feed additive for the livestock industry. That was interrupted by drought across the Corn Belt that wrecked corn production for several years. It caused short supplies of corn and other feed grains for livestock and ethanol markets.
“The livestock industry saw similar drought-related impacts, as ranchers were forced to cull herds,” he says. “The corn industry was sympathetic to the plight of cattlemen, since many of us also have livestock operations.”
Alliance is needed
He realizes there may always be some disagreement among farmers and livestock producers. “But we are together on more issues than we are apart,” Spurlock explains. “NCGA stands with cattlemen on protecting production agriculture, opening and expanding markets for corn-fed U.S. beef, and promoting our shared way of life.
“Our futures are intertwined, and it’s imperative that we don’t let one issue or outside groups divide and conquer us. American agriculture and food production are the envy of the world, yet attacks on our food system and modern production practices are occurring at an increasing rate.
“These attacks are even more threatening when you consider that farm and ranch families comprise just 2% of the U.S. population. To address these assaults, corn growers partner with a number of agricultural advocacy groups — including livestock — to defend against irrational detractors and educate confused consumers.”
He stresses that his livelihood is dependent on the health of both sectors. “There are very few issues facing U.S. agriculture that don’t impact both the grain and livestock industries in equal fashion,” Spurlock says. “We’re in this together.
“We face bigger and more complex problems than we’ve dealt with in the past. We’ve also benefited from each other’s growth and accomplishments. New and larger markets for beef mean a rise in the need for corn feed.”
Spurlock says the mutual reliance between corn farmers and livestock producers “has put us in the same camp when working to ensure U.S. agriculture is treated fairly on a number of regulatory issues.”
For instance, in Washington, D.C., both industries have sought solutions that simultaneously protect the environment without penalizing production agriculture. “For example, we have joined animal agriculture to file suit against overreaching regulations like the Chesapeake Bay TMDL [total maximum daily loads] and Waters of the United States [WOTUS].
“Working together helps magnify our voice to achieve our collective goals. I can’t emphasize it enough. We are much stronger if we find forums where we can work together for common causes.”
He notes that corn growers and cattle producers both have good organizations that work together with other agricultural advocacy groups at both state and national levels.
“We have seen how working with the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance [USFRA] is helpful in defending against our detractors and educating consumers,” he says. “That’s the power of working together with a group of nearly 100 farmer- and rancher-led like-minded organizations.”
Spurlock also suggests a grassroots group of farm women, CommonGround, as a way crop and livestock producers can educate consumers. “This program was developed by NCGA and the United Soybean Board and connects farm women with their urban counterparts to engage in conversations about plant and animal production,” he says. “These conversations benefit us all.”
Meanwhile, back at the farm
Spurlock is eager to see how his new backgrounding and feeding venture pans out this year. He’ll keep working to balance his crop and cattle production.
He hopes that cattle and corn prices improve, and that winter brings good moisture for his crop ground and pastures. And when his backgrounding yard is stocked, he’ll look at feeding some of his crops in the ration.
“We expect to use some of our hay, silage and corn in the feeding operation,” he says. “Just how much is hard to tell. Depending on commodity markets and the weather, come back and ask us next year when we’re up and running. We’ll let you know then.”