Josh Eilers, 28, walked an improbable path to selling prime, quality-grade Wagyu beef to restaurants and farmers markets in Austin, Texas.
Born and raised in Texas, a 17-year-old Eilers set out to earn the tan beret worn by the U.S. Army's elite 75th Ranger Regiment. Completing a two-month training course world-renowned for its toughness and 60% washout rate, Eilers earned his beret. He rose to become a sergeant and team leader in the First Ranger Battalion, serving four combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and earning a purple heart. He left the service in 2010 and enrolled at the University of Texas, Austin, majoring in biology.
Eilers wasn't born into the cattle business. He had no ranch or farming experience and had never taken an agricultural class. Other than a vague notion about being a cowboy one day, agriculture really didn't come to mind as a career choice.
PRETTY GIRL AND A STEAK
But there was a college bar. "I overheard a guy bragging to a pretty girl that he'd just spent $100 on a Wagyu steak," Eilers said in an interview published by his lender, Capital Farm Credit. "I decided that if you could raise cattle that are worth that much money, that's what I wanted to do."
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It happened quickly. Eilers invested Army savings into a business soon known as Ranger Cattle (www.rangercattle.com). Ranger Cattle harvests roughly 100 animals a year. About 400 people a day purchase Ranger Cattle products, Eilers figured. "The Army used to have a slogan, 'Be all that you can be.' I kind of took that to heart."
Early in his Wagyu research, Eilers came across local breeder Larry Beard. "I had never touched a cow and in four days bought 16 bred heifers" from Beard, Eilers said. Perhaps more importantly, Beard introduced Eilers to Bubba Kay, one of the first and best-known Wagyu breeders in the U.S. "He has literally taught me everything from synchronization protocols to how to dehorn a calf, to how to analyze pedigrees and what to look for in bloodlines," Eilers told Capital Farm Credit.
"We try to be as progressive as possible," he said, noting the UT biology courses found use on the ranch. Sexed semen for breeding, ultrasounds to analyze marbling, a GrowSafe feeding system to measure feed and water intake to analyze animal efficiency and minimize stress are all important to Eilers' program.
Ranger Cattle today is four employees working full-blooded Wagyu cattle on 3,000 acres. It sells steaks, briskets and other cuts to 20 area chefs and several farmers markets. Eilers' slick website touts his story and markets meat to an Austin community known for its Farm-To-Table and Eat Local preferences.
"I'm the only guy I know who has overcome the barriers of entry into the livestock industry without any prior experience," Eilers said. "But if Ranger Cattle is successful in the long term, it will be in large part due to Bubba Kay and other members of the community who have helped me out so much."
Virginia Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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