Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
GRAND PRAIRIE – Paul LaFleur’s cattle operation is based on the land in St. Landry Parish where his grandfather farmed.
Paul has named his place, Hosea’s Cattle Farm, after his grandfather, Hosea LaFleur.
Paul started raising cattle in 1995.
After years of growing sweet potatoes, cutting grass on the interstate and working for a nursery company, he decided to get in the cattle business. “When I started out, I didn’t even have a tractor.”
Paul credits the late Ray Fontenot and his son, Tony, for teaching him things along the way.
“They helped me a lot.”
He said he learned much of what he knows about farming from his grandfather. “He never had a tractor. He farmed with horses and mules. He milked a cow until he was 76.”
Paul was 8 years old when his father died, and he lived with his grandparents starting at 13.
When he started his cattle enterprise, he gradually increased his herd. “I kept adding to it, what I could afford.” He started small with 5 cows. Then he borrowed money to buy 50 cows. When he paid off that loan, he bought 100 cows and the herd grew from there.
Paul said the biggest mistake cattle owners make is violating that old rule of buying low and selling high.
He said he’s watched novices pay as much as $3,500 for a cow-and its calf. “A real cattle producer knows you can’t make money at that.”
And then they compound their problems by buying new equipment, he said.
For Paul, persistence is essential. “You have to stay with it in the good times and the bad times.”
The past 3 months have not been a good time for the cattle business. The pandemic has caused meat processing plants to close because of virus outbreaks. That has led to a shortage on grocery store shelves in some areas. But cattle prices are down while retail prices are up considerably. Added to all of that is the decreased beef demand with restaurant closings.
“This caused cattle slaughter to fall significantly, seeing slaughter numbers in late April that were 35 percent below the previous year,” said Dr. Kurt Guidry, LSU AgCenter ag economist.
“This, in turn, caused large reductions in beef production which also fell by 34 percent from the previous year in late April.”
He said fed cattle prices, which began 2020 in the $120 to $125 per hundredweight range, fell below $100 in April. Calf prices across the United States that started the year at $160 to $170 per hundredweight fell to $140 by April.
But he said cattle slaughter and beef production have begun to rebound and become more normalized and the market has responded.
Guidry said prices will improve, but it will take a while for the backlog of slaughter-ready calves to move through the market.
He said calf prices in Louisiana have improved marginally with the latest prices reported for 500- to 600-pound steers ranging from $85 to $154 per hundredweight. “While we could see a small improvement from these levels, it is unlikely that we see significant improvement until sometime later this fall or into next year.”
Paul has a group of calves that he would have sold already if the pandemic hadn’t occurred. “I’ll hold on to them until the market gets better.” Of course, that means he’ll have to castrate them and invest in vaccinations.
“It’s a gamble. I knew if I sold them, I would have lost a lot of money.”
He vaccinates for pink eye, and he uses ear tags for flies, as recommended by his veterinarian,
Dr. Craig Fontenot from Evangeline Parish. “We use a different chemical every year. Whatever he tells me.”
He said he has a few individuals who buy single calves from him for butchering. That usually works well, but this year is different. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, lots of people have bought calves for their own beef supply and that means the custom slaughterhouses are considerably behind. Paul said the area slaughterhouse he uses is booked until October.
But Paul sells most of his cattle in a group. He said he has used video sales, but he finds he comes out ahead selling to one buyer who gives him a better overall deal.
Paul likes a Brahma bull on a Hereford cow to produce the highly desired F1 Tiger Stripe calves.
But a Brangus bull on an Angus cow makes a highly desirable calf, he said.
He segregates his cows by color and keeps them in separate pastures.
He doesn’t cut corners on bulls either. Paul relies on the famed J.D. Hudgins Brahma bulls from Hungerford, Texas. The Hudgins ranch has been in operation for more than 100 years.
For Brangus bulls, he relies on GENETRUST based in Lamar, Missouri. And for Angus bulls, he goes to Earl Lemoine in Moreauville.
One thing he is particular about is bulls with the genetics of producing low-birth weight calves so he doesn’t have to get up in the middle of the night to pull calves.
His calving season from January through March.
Bulls are put on cows for 3 months, starting in March. He tries to keep 25 cows per bull.
Paul also works at the Dominique’s Livestock Market every Tuesday, using a horse to move cattle from pens to the auction block. Occasionally he’ll see a good cow to add to his herd.
Paul said he’s gotten to the point that he’s ready to sell replacement heifers. “I never could sell them before because I needed them.”
Paul also sells hay. He figured out early that if he was going to be in the cattle business, he would have to be in the hay business to provide his cattle and to sell. “If I had to buy my own hay, there’s no way I’d make it.”
He rents adjacent land for hay production and grazing, and he has cows on pastureland near Prairie Ronde.
His hay operation produces about 5,000 round bales a year. To handle that kind of volume, he just bought a new cutter, a 17-foot GMD5251, that conveniently folds up for traveling down the road.
He has two hay trailers to carry 11 round bales without stacking them.
His favorite hay is bermudagrass, and he uses Alicia, Jiggs and Russell. Pasture planted in those hybrids have to be maintained with fertilizer and herbicides.
Paul said his most problematic weeds are johnsongrass, carpetgrass and especially vaseygrass.
Feral pigs damage his pastures in some areas. He has a friend who hunts the hogs and that helps control but not eliminate them.
He also has meadows of bahiagrass that doesn’t need fertilizer or herbicide, so maybe in the long run it’s more cost effective.
(Paul recalled during his days of cutting grass on the interstate, they actually harvested hay from the right-of-way along I-49. In addition to the problem of trash and debris in the grass, loading the hay next to a highway was a challenge, he said, so it wasn’t as practical as it might seem.)
His cattle have continuous access to hay. They also are given feed every morning. He buys the feed, containing corn, soybeans and cottonseed meal, from a feed mill in Mansura.
Calves have constant feed available to them in the pastures. The feed trailers are enclosed with fencing that allows entry for calves only.
Paul and his wife, Amy, have been married for 25 years. She works for the St. Landry Parish School Board They have a daughter, Taylor, who is attending LSU to become a project manager, and two sons, Joshua who works offshore and Jordan who’s in the tree-cutting business.
Paul and Amy have three grandchildren. “I’ve got one grandson (Jackson) who might take over the cattle.”
Paul figures even when he’s retired, he’ll still have a small herd of cattle.
He is a graduate of the Louisiana Master Cattleman Program. He praised the program for providing a wide range of information for anyone who raises cattle, regardless of their experience level.
“You don’t ever know everything,” he said, stopping to pick up a buttercup weed and explaining how he learned to control that plant from the Master Cattleman Program.
Paul didn’t volunteer the information, but his wife reminded him that he was named Louisiana Cattleman of the Year in 2006, and St. Landry Parish Cattleman of the Year in 2015.
Vince Deshotel, LSU AgCenter regional beef cattle specialist, said Paul has prospered because he keeps his overhead expenses low, and he takes a conservative approach. “He grew his operation from the ground up.”
He said Paul’s emphasis on good genetics has been an investment that’s paid off in the long run.
“He’s got a pretty good hay business,” Deshotel said. “He trades out equipment frequently so he doesn’t have a lot of down time.”
And he said Amy’s help at accounting lets Paul concentrate his efforts in the field.
Deshotel said cattle producers in general have a better outlook. Recent warm weather has boosted forage growth. “People are getting some hay cut.”
And he said the cattle industry is showing signs of improvement. “The market seems to be somewhat better, far better than in April when it bottomed out.”