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Articles from 2013 In June

Grilling Season Plays An Important Role In Cattle Markets

grilling season for beef consumers

Though they've been focused on separate driving factors, beef demand and fed cattle markets will come together this summer on consumers' preferences for meat.

"Fed cattle markets are groping for a summer bottom amidst seasonally large slaughter and beef production," says Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension livestock marketing specialist. "Meanwhile, feeder markets appear to have found a bottom after being on the defensive since February."

Feeder cattle have been looking at new crop corn prospects for several weeks now, following the drought-driven price spikes from 2012. Feedlots have also taken advantage of lower feeder prices, ensuring suitable placements in the spring.

But feeder markets have been strengthening recently based on better demand, and Peel says the higher prices are expected into the fall, offsetting better feed prices.

"Strong feedlot placements the past three months have utilized the slightly larger feeder supplies indicated on Jan. 1, plus some of the heifers intended as replacements this year," he says. But "feeder supplies are expected to tighten considerably in the second half of the year, with reduced feeder cattle imports and a smaller 2013 calf crop."

To read the entire article, click here.


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June 28, 2013 USDA National Feeder Cattle Summary

Corbitt Wall, USDA Livestock & Grain Market News in St. Joseph, MO, shares a timely snapshot of the latest feeder cattle summary and cattle price recap. This week feeders and calves traded  $1.00-$4.00 higher in preparation for the 4th of July marketing break.


As The U.S. Beef Industry Shrinks, The Consuming Public Grows

beef industry structure

Stagnant corn demand and cheap corn prices begat modern beef production. The need for quality protein to feed a growing domestic population blown increasingly westward by the Depression and Dust Bowl years also played a hand in the evolution.

Today, increasing feed costs due to increasing corn demand — both natural and artificial — are destroying a least some of beef’s supply chain, even as the population continues to grow.

That’s the simplest way to sum up the forces that built the national beef cowherd to a peak of 46.9 million head in 1975, and then systematically chipped it down to today’s 29.3 million head (as of Jan. 1, 2013). That’s 37% fewer head in almost four decades.

Such an explanation is oversimplified, of course. But economics ultimately go a long way in describing the size and shape of the current beef industry.

It is economics that make chiseling a profit from cows so difficult.

“No one can start a ranch business with ranch earnings and expect to earn $60,000 before self-employed and income taxes,” said James McGrann, a noted agricultural economist, a couple of years ago. “With a 2% return on investment in ranching, it would require $3 million in equity. Assets earning 2% can service only limited debt. The cow-calf sector is an investment business and return on investment is what attracts capital for growth. In reality, less than 4% of the beef cow-calf operations make their sole living from the cow-calf enterprise.”

Economics — high input costs — and historic cattle feeding losses on a cash basis continue to hamstring cattle feeders. Most recently, these economics appear to have spawned some reverse migration of the sector (or at least the cattle) back to the Corn Belt.

High input costs relative to short cattle numbers and lackluster demand continue to pressure beef packers. This January, Cargill idled its facility at Plainview, TX. It boasted a 2,400-head daily capacity.

“The U.S. cattle herd is at its lowest level since 1952,” John Keating, Cargill Beef president, explained at the time. “Increased feed costs resulting from the prolonged drought, combined with herd liquidations by cattle ranchers, are severely and adversely contributing to the challenging business conditions we face as an industry.”


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Presumably, economics also partly explain the decline in quantity of beef demanded by consumers over time.

The U.S. population has increased about 48% since 1975; the population totaled 314 million in 2012. But beef production remained fairly flat during that span. It was technology and management that enabled the industry to provide a similar level of production with significantly fewer cows.

Demand itself has proven extraordinarily resilient, but the sheer price of beef appears to be altering consumer habits, pushing some to lower-value beef, and others out of the market altogether.

As it is, ground beef accounts for about half of all beef sold at retail. And about half of domestic consumption occurs through retail, with the other half moving through food service.

Growing in a smaller industry

In order to remain economically viable, a minority in each industry segment has grown larger over time and accounted for more production.

Only 9% of beef cattle operations have cowherds of 100 head or more and control 51% of the nation’s herd. Conversely, 80% of beef cow operations have herds of 50 or fewer cows, accounting for 27.7% of the national herd.

Meanwhile, a handful of cattle feeding organizations churn out the lion’s share of the nation’s fed cattle. Four beef packing companies account for 80% of annual fed-cattle slaughter. And, in 2009, the 20 largest food retailers accounted for 64.2% of all U.S. grocery store sales, up from 39.2% in 1992.

Saddled to a different pony, by and large, the beef industry remains a commodity business driven by pounds, narrow margins and the necessity to lower costs.

Arguably, more vertical cooperation exists between various industry sectors than at any time in history, but the linkages remain few and tenuous.

New market targets and valuations have turned up. Alternative marketing arrangements have emerged that enable folks in each sector to reduce cost and manage risk. Some feedlots and packers have worked together to market branded-beef products. Others have tried to identify and share value with cow-calf producers, regardless if they retained ownership in the cattle.

Staggering sums of money have been lost by a few entities trying to create closed-loop, fully integrated systems. A few hardy souls, such as U.S. Premium Beef, developed successful models to value beef closer to the consumer and price the cattle to producers accordingly.

Mostly, though, the trade remains based on immediate need and long-term relationships. Sheer scope and equity requirements are part of it.

The national beef cowherd of 29.3 million head is dispersed among 729,000 or so different operations. There are currently about 2,140 feedlots with 1,000 head or more capacity. In 2009, there were 210,000 traditional food stores in the U.S., according to USDA’s Economic Research Service. There are 980,000 restaurant and food service outlets, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Industry fragmentation is part of it. There are cow-calf producers, stocker operators, feedlots, seedstock producers, packers, wholesalers, retailers and food service. Few participants retain ownership in the cattle or beef product beyond a single sector.

All of this occurs ahead of more than 300 million potential domestic consumers getting a crack at buying the finished product.

International demand is the key

Going forward, a couple of things seem certain.

  • First, given the declining quantity of beef demanded by domestic consumers, logic suggests any opportunity to grow the U.S. beef business significantly rests on the shoulders of international consumers. By March of this year, U.S. beef exports were accounting for 9% of U.S. muscle-cut production and $222.20/head of fed-cattle slaughter.
  • Second, maintaining domestic demand means coming to grips with an evolving population and a new generation of market-makers. The millennial generation (born 1980-2000) numbers 80 million; they’re a larger group than the baby boomers. According to various research, millennials like beef, but few of them know much about cooking it.

Overall, the average U.S. household is getting smaller. Traditional families (a married couple with children) accounted for 30% of all U.S. households in 1980. This figure was 24% in 2000, and it’s expected to be just 17% by 2020.

The U.S. population is growing older and more ethnically diverse, too. By 2056, for the first time in history, the U.S. Census Bureau expects the population ages 65 or older to outnumber those ages 18 or younger.

In addition, the U.S. is projected to become a majority-minority nation for the first time in 2043. Minorities represent 37% of the U.S. population currently; they’re projected to make up 57% of the population in 2060.

Those are all trends that a changing U.S. beef industry must adapt and react to.

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Reproductive Tract Scoring Can Improve Yearling Heifer Performance

heifer repro tract score exam

It’s a time-honored tradition — visually assessing potential replacement heifers to identify the oldest and largest candidates. But time has also proven that age and size can’t guarantee fertility.

Some producers may have recognized that continual selection of the heaviest heifers at weaning inadvertently increased cow size over time. On the other hand, consistently choosing lightweight heifers reaching puberty at an early age could decrease average age of puberty and increase the risk of mating with a co-pastured bull.

Until science perfects a definitive DNA fertility test, beef producers can pursue optimum reproduction results by obtaining a reproductive tract score (RTS) on potential replacement heifers 4-6 weeks before breeding season. RTS values can help predict reproductive performance of yearling heifers, especially for pregnancy rates in synchronized breeding and pregnancy rates at the end of the breeding season. Scores are ranked from 1 (immature) through 5 (cycling).

RTS values are gauged through rectal palpation of the uterine horns and ovaries. Sexual maturity of a 10- to 12-month-old heifer is gauged based on ovarian follicular development and palpable size of the reproductive tract. An RTS chart of standard values is used to assign a maturity rating (see table below).

RTS values are based on the size, length, height and width of the uterine horn, as well as the size of antral follicles.

• Heifers with small, toneless uterine horns and small ovaries rate an RTS of 1.

• Heifers with an RTS 2 are considered to be closer to cycling than those with a 1 rank.

• RTS 3 heifers are gauged to be on the verge of cycling based on slight uterine tone, in addition to the presence of follicles.

• An RTS 4 value presumes cycling, which is indicated by good uterine tone and size, as well as follicular growth.

• An RTS 5 heifer has all the characteristics of a 4, plus a palpable corpus luteum, the hormone-secreting structure that develops in an ovary after an ovum has been discharged.

repro tract score chart


RTS system improves conception rate

“Very few producers know the pubertal status of heifers prior to breeding season,” says Robert A. Cushman, a research physiologist in the reproduction research unit at USDA’s U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, NE. “Observing behavioral estrus has been a common means of assessing pubertal readiness. However, that is very labor-intensive. Genetic technologies aren’t yet advanced enough to provide an accurate, cost-effective genetic test for fertility.

“By using the RTS system, beef producers can potentially improve conception rates in heifers by 15%-20%. A veterinarian can assess several hundred heifers in a day at a cost likely to be between $3-$5/head.”

In a 2009 study, Cushman found that antral follicle count (the number of fluid-filled follicles in the ovaries) was a valid indicator of fertility and reproductive age in cattle. Crossbred beef heifers with fewer than 15 (low) follicles detected by ultrasonography had lower pregnancy rates at the end of a 60-day breeding season than heifers with more than 25 (high) follicles detected by ultrasonography.

“Like puberty and RTS scores, antral follicle count seems to be an indicator of fertility. Based on repeat breeder-cow results, it may even be an early indicator of how these cows will perform in later life,” Cushman says.

In order to calve at 24 months of age, heifers must reach puberty by 15 months. However, up to 35% of all beef heifers don’t reach puberty at this age. Since first-service conception rates for heifers bred on their first heat are lower than those of heifers bred on their second or subsequent heat, heifers should reach puberty 1-3 months prior to the average age at which they’re bred. RTS works well in assessing pubertal maturity prior to breeding.

“Typically, heifers need to be 10-12 months of age before the RTS evaluation is done. The assessment can be completed a month or two before breeding starts,” Cushman says.

A 2009 study (D.E. Holm, P.N. Thompson, and P.C. Irons, “The Value of Reproductive Tract Scoring As a Predictor of Fertility and Production Outcomes in Beef Heifers”) found that heifers with an RTS of 5 had a greater pregnancy rate and earlier median calving day than heifers with an RTS of 1. In that same study, heifers with a score of 1 that produced a calf in their first season still had a greater risk of failing to become pregnant in their second breeding season, even with another year of growth.

“Since heifers that calve in their first estrous cycle have proven to be more productive throughout their lifetime than those that don’t conceive until their second or third cycle, taking a few minutes to assess each heifer’s pubertal maturity to select the heifers most likely to become pregnant in that first estrus can provide lifetime benefits,” Cushman says.


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A trained veterinarian can assess a heifer’s reproductive tract score in 15-20 seconds through palpation. If beef producers prefer to conduct their own assessment, training to learn the procedure is an option. “If you’re learning artificial insemination, you can probably learn how to assess the reproductive tract,” Cushman adds.

RTS values can be obtained through palpation or ultrasonography. But the latter is more time-consuming and costly, and it probably provides more data than breeders need to make heifer replacement decisions, Cushman says.

He adds that beef producers should bear in mind that numerous studies have reported both between-breed and within-breed differences in age and weight at puberty.

“To achieve optimum production levels, it’s important to know the relationships between puberty traits and measures of productivity for effective use of selection, heterosis [hybrid vigor] and complementarity. Breed differences, sire and dam effects within a breed and heterosis all contribute to genetic control of age at puberty,” Cushman says.

Additional information about RTS and beef heifer development is available here.

Loretta Sorensen is a freelance writer based in Yankton, SD.


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Industry At A Glance: Feedyard Data Show Trend Toward More Documentation

feedyard closeout returns cattle profits

Feedyard returns have been exceedingly challenging the past several years, but analysis by Professional Cattle Consultants (PCC) provides some insight into the increasing importance of initial genetic strategies and management to net return.

According to PCC data, average feedlot profit was approximately $33/head during the period of 2004-2012. However, there was nearly a $130 spread across three respective profit groups (low, middle, high). Perhaps even more important is the relative range across the groups. That is, the low-profit group had downside risk of a minus $400/head, vs. the high-profit group possessing downside risk of a minus $150/head. That difference is hugely important when it comes to making risk management and marketing decisions.

Meanwhile, the high-profit group possesses a long tail relative to upside potential with some closeouts managing to provide positive returns averaging $400/head.

feedyard closeout profits

Feedyard and carcass performance within that data further highlight the meaningful profit drivers and include the following key points:

  • High-profit cattle had the best feedlot gain, a 0.3 lb./day advantage over low-profit cattle, thus adding 27 lbs. to carcass weights (though all groups were fed the same length of time).
  • Quality grade and feedlot performance are inherently related.
  • High-profit cattle also possessed a quality grade advantage.
  • Simultaneously, higher-grading cattle also grew faster than lower-grading cattle while producing a higher percentage of Choice and Premium Choice carcasses.

This type of data underscores the desire by calf buyers to have more knowledge about their purchases, and their efforts to build networks of preferred suppliers to source the right kind of cattle that both perform and help minimize economic risk in the feedyard. This trend likely portends even more market differentiation at the feeder calf level in the years to come, as well as an amplification of the premiums and discounts based on documented inputs at the farm/ranch level.

How are you preparing for that transformation? Are you making decisions based on that potential? What factors might further influence your genetic and management decisions? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.   


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Pork Is The New Poultry As It Buys Market Share

pork prices buy up beef market share

Poultry has literally purchased market share by keeping prices low in relation to beef. Pork is now positioned to take advantage of the same strategy.

Pork prices in May were actually lower than a year ago. And USDA projects that pork prices will be lower in 2013 than last year, and up significantly for both beef and poultry. Whether market share is purchased through lower prices or earned through greater demand does not seem to matter. That's because, once gone, market share and per-capita consumption has proven almost impossible to regain.

Pork should be commended for seeing this great opportunity created by a growing price disparity. They also deserve congratulations for their full-out assault on the perceived value difference between beef and pork.

It was probably only a matter of time before pork adopted the successful strategies employed by the poultry industry. The lesson for the beef industry is that we had better figure out a way to combat these strategies by pork and poultry, because our competitors certainly aren't backing off on their efforts.


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Immigration Reform Looking Like a Possibility

immigration reform politics

The U.S. Senate voted by a large majority (67-27) this week to end debate on the immigration reform bill and allow it to move forward to a vote. The original bill was supposed to cost $6 billion, but the amendment that strengthens border security is now attached to the immigration reform bill and is supposed to cost well over $38 billion.

Some of the key components of the bill are understood; for instance, the size of the U.S. Border Patrol will almost double, 350 miles of fence is supposed to be built along the border, and an estimated 11 million new citizens will be created.

Critics are skeptical whether the border security commitments will be honored, and argue that amnesty is a bad approach to solving the illegal immigration problem. Meanwhile, proponents contend that something has to be done, and strengthening the border and providing a pathway to citizenship are the right steps to take.

The economic impacts will extend well beyond the $38 billion price tag, and will have significant impacts on wages, societal benefits/costs, etc. The bill is more than 1,200 pages, and in an eerily similar vein to Obamacare, most Senators acknowledge not having read the bill before voting on it. Without question, the system is terribly broken, and must be reformed.

The political stakes couldn’t be any higher with this issue, and it's important to realize that this bill is really a political battle. All you need to know to understand in this debate is that Hispanics are far and away the fastest-growing demographic group in America, and more than 70% of them vote Democrat. The Republican party can't remain a viable national party if they continue to lose within that demographic that significantly. And the Democrats know that a decline to even a 55-45 split in their favor will probably assure their party dominance in key battleground states.

So, the immigration reform bill was expected to pass in a full Senate vote this week, after which the focus will shift to the U.S. House of Representatives where passage is far less certain, and the political stakes are far higher. The Speaker has indicated he won't bring the legislation to the floor unless it's supported by a majority of Republicans in the chamber, which will likely be a far bigger hurdle than simple majority support.


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The eventual result will likely come down to the political calculations, and whether it's believed that the border security measures will actually be implemented. But passing some sort of immigration reform seems inevitable. The political stakes reach beyond the Congress and will likely have a role in determining who emerges as viable candidates for the presidency.

For the Republicans, there seems to be a growing acceptance that this has become issue focused on improving border security and minimizing the political losses. For the Democrats, it's not only about creating a super majority in the long term, but hopefully winning the majority in the House in the short run.

The importance of immigration reform is universally accepted. Unquestionably, both sides agree that immigration is long overdue, the last serious attempt having occurred over 25 years ago. I agree that a broken immigration system and porous border must be addressed. However, I think the debate within the Republican party between the two factions that I cynically label as the “naïve pragmatic establishment” and the “dogmatic ideological base,” should be enlightening for those trying to analyze the shifting political environment within our country.


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With The Summer Heat Comes Global Warming Assaults

global warming debate ramps up again by Obama admin

Remember when the big international global warming conference got postponed because of winter storms and freezing temperatures? That was really poor planning. But the fact that the global warming debate heats up about this time every year is very good planning.

I have very little insight to the inner workings of the Washington Beltway, but history tells us that the climate change push will come in the summer, as the heat increased. Sure enough, on Tuesday, President Obama announced his aggressive new environmental push aimed at carbon-based fuels. With poverty and unemployment at record levels, Washington beset by scandal, our foreign policy in disarray, and climate change languishing near the bottom of the average American's priorities, the president nonetheless decides to declare war on coal. I don't know about saving the planet, but one assured outcome is likely higher costs for energy.

But there won't be a lot of room for discussion, as Obama compared the critics of proposed global warming solutions to "the flat earth society." He also made the case that since passage of legislation on this issue would be difficult politically, he would begin to attack the problem through directives and regulatory devices available to him.

It's no secret that the environmental movement has been frustrated by the Obama administration's perceived lack of commitment to climate change and its failure to act as aggressively as they believe he had promised. The long-accepted explanation/strategy has been that once the U.S economy recovered and took off, it would be easier to absorb the economic challenges created by these policies and would promote the political will to act.

I’m not sure what it says about us, or the administration, when there is an acceptance that the economy isn't going to recover in any vigorous way. But with the legislative branch of the federal government unwilling to address these contentious issues, the president and his people have decided to bypass the legislative process and simply do it by agency fiat. Thus, energy, industry and business are preparing themselves for what promises to be an intense battle as the climate debate moves into its annual summer global warming push.

Obama’s Tuesday speech made it loud and clear that anyone who questions the basic premises of this debate are to be shoved to the margins. This strategy isn't new, of course, but its success appears to have emboldened the environmental movement. All the while, the developing world, particularly China, continues on a breakneck pace of expanding their carbon footprint.

Ultimately, the debate comes down to this:

  • Do we pursue what some believe to be the ethical and moral position, despite the costs associated with it and accepting of the realization that the actions taken will have no discernible effect on the global climate?
  • Or do we put economic prosperity over the perceived threats of climate change?

It ought to be an interesting summer.


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New Beef, Pork Names Don’t Do Us Any Special Favors

new pork names similar to beef cuts

Around Memorial Day weekend, new meat labels were released for pork and beef cuts. The names are in place with the hopes of boosting sales by making meat shopping easier for consumers. More than 350 names have been created. The updated labels will be found at grocery stores and will feature three lines including the new name, the description of that cut and the best cooking methods. Sounds good, right? I have some doubts.

Like kabobs being prepped for an Independence Day grill-out, I’ve been marinating on these new names every since they first came out. Part of me thought that perhaps I feared the change. People sometimes struggle with change, so I figured that was my problem.

But the more I study the list, the more I’m convinced that the new names might offer more information for consumers, but they aren’t that advantageous to the beef industry.

Allow me to explain. The beef names that have become part of our “brand,” such as ribeye and porterhouse, now can be applied to pork cuts as well. So, if a consumer walks up to the butcher at the meat case and says, “I would like a ribeye.” The meat man might reply, “Beef or pork?”

Call me crazy, but the beef industry has worked hard to create the love affair that Americans have with a big, juicy ribeye. Now, thanks to these new names, that love also will be applied to pork cuts. My apologies to my hog-producer friends. You’ve got delicious bacon and baby-back ribs, but your ribeye does not equal my ribeye.

Check out the list of pork names here.

Check out the list of beef names here.

Think this is a stretch? Consider this Facebook post on the “Pork, Be Inspired,” page.

“It’s already the best value for your dollar at the meat case, so make pork the star of your plate! Porterhouse Pork Chops are 60% less expensive than Porterhouse Beef Steaks.”

Sure, there’s truth to this statement. Pork does have the budget-friendly edge right now if you’re comparing similar cuts, but I find it ridiculous that the pork chop is now a porterhouse. What happens when a consumer grills a porterhouse pork chop, and overcooks it, so it becomes a dry, white slab of meat? Does that consumer then lump all porterhouses together and decide he or she doesn’t like the cut?

Not only do we now have to worry about folks having a positive beef-eating experience every time, but now we have to worry about residual effects from someone eating a pork ribeye or porterhouse and not liking what they’ve bought!

Perhaps I’m getting a little worked up over nothing. My sincere hope is that the consumer is now able to make more educated decisions at the meat case. Frankly, I think we did the pork industry a big favor by extending our trusted, recognizable beef brand to pork cuts. But I digress. I will still enjoy pork chops this summer, but don’t expect me to call it a ribeye.

What do you think about the new names? Is it good, bad or a wash for the beef industry? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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Justin Boot expands country music roster with Josh Abbott Band

Justin Boot Company has taken another major step in leading the Texas music scene by signing Josh Abbott Band to its list of Justin Bent Rail endorsees. Climbing to the top of the Texas music charts in record time, Josh Abbott Band joins the fan-favorite roster of who’s who in Texas country music including Justin Bent Rail artists Stoney LaRue, Brandon Rhyder, Randy Rogers Band, Wade Bowen, and Casey Donahew Band. The announcement is the made-in-the-U.S. boot collection’s latest effort to offer fans exclusive, behind-the-scenes video, photos, boot giveaways and more. 

Based in Austin, Texas, Josh Abbott Band is defined by soaring choruses and energetic guitar and fiddle crescendos. Launched into local stardom with their breakout hit “Oh, Tonight,” Josh Abbott Band is known for their passionate melodies including ballads “Touch” and "She's Like Texas.” Fans can get to know the band further by watching an introductory video of the group on the Justin Bent Rail YouTube channel. 

“With their impressive talents and growing fan base, Josh Abbott Band nicely rounds out the Justin Bent Rail line up of Texas artists,” said Louis Russo, brand manager, Justin Boot Company. “We’re eager to partner with the band to provide our joint fan base exclusive opportunities to enjoy and interact with their music.” 

The Justin Bent Rail Collection of men’s and women’s boots brings the western authenticity Justin Boots is known for, and adds a fashion forward, alternative-country flare cowboys and cowgirls can get in step with. With designs inspired by the Texas music scene, Justin Bent Rail combines styling features like brightly colored uppers and intricate stitch designs with performance enhancements like durable rubber outsoles and the J-FLEX Flexible Comfort System to meet the needs of those looking for great-looking performance footwear that’s American-made. 

To access the Justin Bent Rail backstage pass to concerts and music events, visit Justin Bent Rail online:,,, and

With product lines including Justin Bent Rail the Stampede Collection the George Strait Collection and the Justin AQHA Lifestyle Collection – along with a prominent focus on producing best-in-class products handcrafted in the U.S. – Justin Boot Company has been the leader in high-quality western footwear incorporating industry-leading boot technology for more than 130 years. 

Justin Boots footwear products are available for men, women and children at western specialty stores across the country. 

Justin Boot Company is a division of Justin Brands, Inc. Justin Brands is a Berkshire-Hathaway subsidiary (NYSE: BRKa) and the world’s largest manufacturer of western footwear. Its divisions also include leading footwear brands such as Tony Lama Boots, Nocona Boots, Chippewa Boots and Justin Original Workboots.