Black Cows, Big Dreams
April 20, 2018
Written By Jason Jenkins
From pasture to plate, Gourley Land & Cattle Co. offers premium beef
When Billy Gourley Jr. says he manages from the ground up, he couldn’t be more literal. At Gourley Land & Cattle Co. based in Ozark, Mo., success starts in the soil.
“If you have good soil, you’ll have good grass,” he explains. “Good grass translates to more protein and energy for the cow with fewer inputs, which should make you more money, more profit, in the end. So that’s why we start with a focus on the soil and go up through the cow.”
It’s this philosophy—and Billy’s unbridled tenacity—that has helped these southwest Missouri livestock producers earn a reputation for raising quality beef. What began with 16 heifers and a single bull in 2010 has today become a burgeoning beef business.
Making it in Missouri
Originally from southeast Colorado, Billy was working for his uncle on a 30,000-acre row-crop farm when his father, Bill Sr., called him with a proposition. The elder Gourley had moved to Missouri and remarried. Bill and his bride, Janet, wanted Billy and his wife, Amy, to bring their family to the Show-Me State and manage their 3,000-acre farm.
“Our oldest, Housten, was a junior in high school, and I didn’t want to uproot him just then,” Billy recalls, noting that it took his father about two years to finally convince him. “Amy and I moved out here with our girls, Harley and Hadley, in August 2012.”
Billy had some previous experience working cattle for his uncle, so the offer wasn’t without precedent. But the Gourley herd quickly grew from its initial 16 heifers to about 500 cows a little more than a year later. With such rapid expansion, Billy found himself drinking from the proverbial firehose.
“I try to surround myself with people smarter than me,” he says with a laugh. “I learn every day as I go.”
By the end of 2017, the herd had grown to more than 1,100, though the farm scaled back in early 2018. Billy says most of the cows are of predominant Angus background, but there are a number of animals with influences from Charolais, Gelbvieh, Hereford and even Longhorn.
“We don’t have any special genetics. I didn’t buy an $8,000 bull or a $5,000 cow,” he says. “It’s hard to get those things to pay off. What I did was buy commercial cows and then select the ones who seem adapted to our environment.
“I had a vision of what I like in a cow, and that’s kind of stuck with me. She’s got that Brangus-Angus look, not real big, not real small. She’s gentle and produces a good calf. And she handles the heat. I have a whole group of cows who will graze under the July sun instead of shading up under the trees. Obviously, if they’re not eating, they’re not gaining.”
To manage the farm’s forages, Gourley Land & Cattle practices intensive grazing, rotating the herd from paddock to paddock so that the cattle maximize their feed efficiency while allowing time for the pasture to rest and recover between grazings.
The result is that Gourley cattle are always eating the best grass. And while the herd is not 100 percent grass fed, Billy says more than 70 percent of their diet is grass. He’ll often finish them with a five-grain diet formulated by his local MFA Agri Services center.
As the Gourley family’s cattle operation has grown, so, too, have opportunities to market their beef in southwest Missouri and beyond.
In the beginning, like many farm families, they butchered an animal occasionally for their own freezer. That naturally led to selling whole and half beef, first to friends and extended family, then to friends of friends and beyond.
“We started with a buddy of mine in Kansas City, and it really just grew from there,” Billy explains. “Now, we sell 10 to 15 beef up in the Kansas City area every year. I also take some out to Wichita, Kan., and we’re even sending beef back out to folks in Colorado.”
As the farm’s products gained in popularity with an ever-growing customer base, it became readily apparent an opportunity was being missed. While everyone seemed to love the quality of their beef, the quantities in which it was being offered excluded many interested customers.
“We’d have folks tell us, ‘We don’t have a deep freeze that big,’ or ‘We can’t afford that much all at once,’” Billy recalls. “They wanted to buy smaller amounts, individual cuts. So that’s how we came up with the concept of a retail shop.”
Though not entirely sure his parents would support the venture, Billy took a gamble in late fall 2016. He rented a location on the south side of Ozark, not far from U.S. highways 65 and 14, and enlisted the help of his sister, Hope Frame.
“Sometimes, it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission,” Billy says with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. “Yeah, I got into a little bit of trouble, and they were dragging their feet on the idea at first. But when I said that Hope was on board as the shop’s manager, they agreed, and we jumped right in.”
In March 2017, they began renovating the building to be the new home of Black Cow Meats. The goal was to open in time for the summer grilling season, but a few unforeseen setbacks pushed the grand opening until September.
In addition to selling individually frozen Gourley Land & Cattle steaks, roasts and other beef products, the shop is a retail destination for other locally raised meats. Inside the upright and chest freezers that line one side of the shop, customers will find pork produced in Fair Grove and Seymour, lamb from Halfway, bison from Mountain Grove and chicken from West Plains.
“We also have local dairy products, breads, jams, jellies and spices now, and we plan to offer seasonal produce throughout the growing season,” Frame says. “Our vision is to provide a year-round indoor farmers market that supports more local farmers. We want to try and bring back that old hometown store feeling.”
So far, the concept is working. The Gourleys had about 50 animals butchered in 2017, both in direct sales off the farm and through the meat shop. Billy says they’re hoping to push sales from Black Cow Meats to about 100 animals, maybe more, in the coming year.
Doing so will require taking the next step in the business plan, which is to move from exclusively selling frozen meat to providing a fresh meat and deli counter.
“A lot of our customers are asking for steaks cut to order, which is something I’m hopeful we’ll accomplish this year,” Billy says. “Within three years, we’d like to be processing our own beef so that we control every step of the process—from pasture to plate.”
With hundreds of cattle to manage and a fledging retail store to promote, the Gourleys have plenty on their collective plate. But Billy isn’t one to let opportunities pass him by, especially ones that help diversify their overall portfolio.
“I’m never really content,” he says. “I always like to either get better at something or make something expand to have the possibility of more income.”
This year, Billy and Amy’s son, Housten, joined the family business. The 24-year-old’s involvement has allowed Gourley Land & Cattle Co. to focus on two new ventures: a firewood business and a pasture reclamation service.
Billy says they sold roughly 100 cords of wood last season, and he projects growth to 500 to 600 cords per year in the future. He’s also bullish about the prospects for opening more lands for grazing. The farm had invested in both a skid-steer-mounted mower and mulcher for their own pasture reclamation projects. With equipment available and five years of experience to offer, it made sense.
“We’re doing it on a small scale right now, but the mulching deal is taking off,” Billy says. “You can get rid of the cedars and small brush, open fields back up and let sunlight in for the grass to grow. Plus, you leave the roots to protect against erosion, and the larger trees still offer that needed shade for the cattle.”
It’s those cows that seem to fill Billy’s thoughts from the moment he leaves his driveway in the morning until he returns after dark. He talks of possible expansion into pursuits such as custom hay with the explicit acumen of a shrewd businessman. He talks about his cattle with the implicit passion of a farmer.
“There’s just something about going out and moving those cows every day,” Billy says. “They’re so happy to see you every morning or every evening. They’ll be at the gate ready for you. It’s pretty relaxing.”
Black Cow Meats, located at 1906 Selmore Road in Ozark, is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday. For more information, call (417) 4875-6328. You can find both Black Cow Meats and Gourley Land & Cattle Co. on Facebook.