by Cheryl Kepes
Photos courtesy A Bar Ranch
A Bar Ranch builds success through diversification, generates strength through family.
The volume of cattle A Bar Ranch manages and markets in a year’s time ranges from 5,000 to 10,000 head. And that’s just the beginning of the workload. A Bar Ranch is owned and operated by several members of the Armitage family. They run their operation on approximately 9,000 acres of owned and leased land stretching from ranch headquarters in Claremore, Okla., to properties south of Dallas, Texas.
A Bar Ranch’s versatile operation includes a traditional Angus-based cow/calf herd, purchased cattle to develop and market, and a vibrant Quarter Horse program. Additionally, the family runs its own auction, Armitage Livestock, hosting three sales a year: two cow auctions and one horse auction.
When the hours are long and the tasks overwhelming, the motivation to keep going comes from a deep-rooted desire to leave a legacy planted in agriculture. “Being a part of the story of agriculture and helping feed a hungry nation it is not always the most glamorous and it’s not always pretty, but the drive comes from doing it with your family and being able to have something to go to the next generation,” Turner Armitage shared.
Mike and Martha Armitage founded A Bar Ranch 35 years ago. Their sons, Merrit and Turner, grew alongside the ever-expanding operation. “My parents had a burning passion for agriculture,” Turner said.
Mike and Martha both grew up in ranching families and shared a love for the agriculture industry. “It was all grassroots,” Merrit Armitage said. “Dad was a registered breeder, worked for multiple operations, served as a manager and consultant, and then took on his own endeavors.”
In the beginning, A Bar Ranch raised Hereford cattle. But it wasn’t long before the Armitages sensed a need for change. They transitioned the herd to tiger striped cattle, then began adding in Angus genetics. As their operation grew, so did their need to diversify. In the decades to come, the Armitages would build a large-scale multifaceted cattle operation, a marketing business, and a Quarter Horse program.
Merrit and Turner spent their childhoods soaking up all the knowledge their parents imparted to them about running a successful ranch. “We are really fortunate our father had the foresight to do some of the things he did to better include us in the day-to-day and also to have it ready for when the day came that he wasn’t here,” Merrit shared. On March 19, 2020, Mike Armitage passed away at the age of 67 from cancer.
A Bar Ranch continues to thrive under the leadership of Martha. “There is no doubt that we would not be where we are today as an operation without my mother. If my dad was still alive today, he would attest to the fact that it’s not one individual’s success that makes a ranch succeed. It’s a family,” Turner shared.
The family works together as one unit while simultaneously directing separate aspects of the ranch. Martha manages the books. Merrit, his wife, Michelle, and their children, Myles and Maysa, oversee the spring herds. Turner and his wife, Sarah, run the Quarter Horse program and fall herds.
The entire family works together to market cattle and horses. “Just like any good cow herd or broodmare band, the maternal side is where all the power is,” Turner chuckled. “And the same goes for Merrit and I, and our wives, and our mother, they are the foundation of everything that takes place on the ranch. We truly are a family operation.”
Due to the spread-out nature of the operation, some of their leased properties come with caretakers. Additionally, four fulltime employees work alongside the family at the ranch headquarters.
A Bar Ranch operates a traditional cow/calf operation comprised of primarily Angus cattle with a bit of ear influence. The Armitages run fall and spring herds. On any given day, A Bar Ranch will have as many as 2,500 momma cows to manage.
They maintain a closed herd, bringing in fresh genetics each year through hundreds of Angus bulls from top breeders in the country. After a breeding season, many of the bulls are reconditioned and remarketed through private treaty or through an Armitage Livestock sale.
Though the genetics on the sire side are a priority, the Armitages focus even more intently on the females in their operation. A majority of A Bar Ranch’s heifers are retained for breeding and stay in the herd as replacements.
Focus on Fertility
For decades, A Bar Ranch has followed a culling protocol based heavily on fertility. The Armitages retain heifers that breed within the first 30 days of a 75-day turnout and then market the rest. “Thirty-plus years now we have selected for those females that breed within the first 30 days, so our females consequently are more fertile,” Merrit said.
Though the Armitages emphasize heifer fertility, they also focus on fertility regarding a female’s second breeding. “The hardest thing out there to breed is a second calf cow, we find that is also where we try to increase our fertility is through breeding of the second calvers,” Merrit said.
If a cow fails to conceive, she goes into the fall herd. If she misses while a part of the fall herd, she is culled. The long-term strategy of selecting for females based on fertility has produced offspring that typically breed within 30 days. The consistency of fertility in the herd gives the Armitages the ability to select for other traits as well. After fertility, A Bar Ranch retains females with as much ear as possible for heat resistance, longevity, and hybrid vigor.
A Bar Ranch’s herd stays 2,500 strong on a regular basis, yet the Armitages market double that number of cattle annually. Part of the ranch’s business model includes buying whole herds at dispersals and liquidations. The animals are raised, bred, conditioned, and then marketed via private treaty or auction.
Merrit and Turner search the country for cattle that will work for their diverse customer base. The Armitages breed their purchased cattle to fit the environments, conditions, and operations of their customers. “Our customers vary in their demands, and we try to always have something that meets the needs of everybody,” Merrit said.
Quarter Horse Program
Early on, the Armitages discovered they needed quality ranch horses to assist with the daily tasks on their cattle operation. However, they were having a difficult time finding the type of horses they needed. As the Armitages started to breed and raise their own horses, they discovered other ranchers also needed similar horses for their operations.
Now 30 years later, the Armitages raise Quarter Horses for customers all over the country. A Bar Ranch is a premier Quarter Horse breeding operation recognized by AQHA as a Ranching Heritage Breeder and was awarded the prestigious AQHA Best of The Remuda Award in 2020. Turner serves on an AQHA Ranching subcommittee and Martha was recently appointed to the AQHA Ranching Heritage Council.
Over the decades, A Bar Ranch has developed its equine operation through pedigrees and saddle time. “Most of our females were ridden as young mares to earn and validate their keep,” Turner explained. “So, we know how their minds work, what they are like, what their dispositions are like, and how trainable they are.”
Everyone working at the ranch keeps a string of geldings to ride when checking, sorting, and working cattle. Multiple generations of mares are in production at A Bar Ranch. “We can look at a pedigree and essentially tell you what the offspring are going to ride like,” Turner said.
Every year, the cowboys at A Bar Ranch ride 20 to 30 colts. “We have a lot of genetic predictability in the performance and the minds of these colts and how they are going to cross,” Turned explained.
The ranch currently manages 90 mares and seven stallions. A few mares are bred via AI to a handful of outside select stallions, the rest are pasture bred by A Bar Ranch’s stallions. “Everybody always asks, ‘What is the ideal horse we are trying to breed?’ That’s hard to answer because our main goal is to take each female and each sire and improve them to get the best possible cross,” Turner commented.
Though in the past, A Bar Ranch has hosted two sales a year, this year the operation combined the sales into a single two-day event that includes a futurity competition. The futurity is open to contestants competing on horses with the A Bar Ranch brand. The family pledges each year $20,000 in prize money for the event. “It’s been a rewarding process for our customers but also for us to see the finished product of what these cowboys and cowgirls who have got a hold of them have been able to accomplish,” Turner said.
Working for Future Generations
The legacy left by their father propels Merrit and Turner to push A Bar Ranch to even higher standards and greater success. “My dad was determined to build a legacy for us and for the future and I think he did a good job of passing that along to Merrit and I, because we don’t want to be the stumbling block that keeps that from passing on to the next generation,” Turner shared. Merrit and Turner know firsthand the importance of paving the way for the next generation of ranchers. They learned from the best.
learn more at www.abarranch.com