Interview with Nolan Ryan

Nolan Ryan: On Beef and Baseball

Nolan Ryan (American Cowboy Picture)

The all-time strikeout king of Major League Baseball and an inductee into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Nolan Ryan had a sterling 27-year career. What’s not so well known are Ryan’s ranching and agribusiness credentials. A breeder and promoter of Beefmaster cattle since 1972, he turned his energies—after baseball retirement—to the ranching and beef business, building Nolan Ryan Beef into one of the most popular and respected retail beef labels on the market. Ryan was named president of the Texas Rangers just a year ago. On April 18, at the Western Heritage Awards ceremony at the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City, Ryan will receive the Chester A. Reynolds Award, given to a living individual who has perpetuated the ideals, history, and heritage of the American West. American Cowboy visits with Ryan about this newest recognition and his busy life in general.

How do you feel about getting the award from the National Cowboy Museum?
I’m honored that they would be willing to honor me in this way. It’s something that has been a part of my entire life. I’ve always enjoyed being on the ranch and have truly enjoyed the cattle business. As frustrating and challenging as it can be at times, it is just the way I wanted to live my life and I’ve enjoyed my time in the ranching and beef industry immensely.

What was your upbringing like? Was it rural?
What’s interesting is that as long as I can remember, going back to when I was a little boy, I wanted to be in the cattle business. I didn’t grow up on a ranch, but I lived on the edge of town. When I was about 10 or 11, I learned that I could lease pasture from the American Legion, which owned the rodeo grounds. So I rented a pasture from them, and convinced my parents to let me buy some day-old dairy calves, and I raised them there. That was my introduction to the cattle business. (laughs)

What size of herd are you running right now?
We have about 1,800 mama cows and we market about 600 replacement heifers each year, but with the drought, and the inconsistencies of weather over recent years, we’re about 20 percent down on the cowherd.

It must be necessary for you to buy other cattle, to market as much beef as you are with Nolan Ryan Beef…
Yes. What we have with our beef business is this: we have feed yards that feed under our specifications. [One of the specifications is that cattle receive no growth hormone implants or antibiotics anytime during the last 100 days they are in the feedlot.] My steers go into the program and we have “outside” cattle that go into the program. Only 23 percent of the outside cattle meet our specifications and make our grade. We also have a “never-never” program, an all-natural program that requires that the cattle have never received antibiotics or growth hormones.

As the still-new president of the Texas Rangers, how do you feel about your team’s prospects for the 2009 season?
We are cautiously optimistic. We think we have a legitimate shot at winning our division. With the offensive ball club that we had last year and the people we have returning, as well as the young pitching staff and some of our veteran pitchers, we are in a better position to contend than last year.

What’s it been like to be president of the Rangers?
I am really enjoying it because I am in a position to shape the direction of a Major League franchise, and I think I could utilize the experience I got in the major leagues playing 27 years. I think I can help set the direction of our organization. We are doing it through development within our system and with the acquisition of young players that we are developing. It is challenging but we are excited about it.

What is the outlook for beef production?
Well, the issue we deal with on a day-to-day basis is the weather and the impact it has. Through the ’90s and this decade we have experienced fluctuation in our weather with droughts that affect production. Price fluctuation is also a big challenge, and the onset of ethanol and its impact on corn prices. Now we have the [current] economy with its challenges. We are losing some of our foreign markets over these problems, and now we have a worldwide economic situation that is affecting people’s ability to buy certain resources. Mad cow disease has shut down our foreign markets with Japan. That was 15 percent of our production.

In what kind of charity efforts are you involved?
We have the Nolan Ryan Foundation, and it was founded on helping youth and assisting on educational challenges. For instance, we may support teachers going to seminars for continuing education. Or maybe we help a junior college with funding for a lab or something of that nature. Or community colleges. We built the continuing education facility at Alvin [Texas] Community College. And we built the community room there [in Alvin], to be used for multiple purposes.

Can you tell us a bit about your family?
We [Nolan and his wife of 42 years, Ruth] have three children, Reid, Reese, and Wendy. Reid has three children, Reese has two, and Wendy lives in Amarillo and has a newborn five-month-old. She met her husband when he was at TCU’s ranch management school, and he is in the ranching business in the panhandle. One thing about my children is that they grew up spending a lot of time on the ranch. Our grandchildren are growing up the same way. We spend a lot of family vacation on the ranch.

What kind of ranches do you have?
We have two that we own and we have a ranch in Brazoria County that we have leased for 20 years.

What does the foreseeable future look like for you?
Well, we obviously want to expand our beef business, and we have an opportunity to have more retailers. Obviously there are a lot of challenges with the economy that we have to work through. We are faced not just with our normal challenges of introducing a product into a new market, but also with keeping the price affordable to the public. We have a good product—it’s just a matter of getting it in front of the consumer and making it affordable.

How has your life changed in recent times?
It’s been about a year that I’ve been president of the Rangers, so I have a lot more responsibility now, but I still have all the responsibilities that I had prior to this, so it has been a challenge to balance my time—between the ranches, the feedlot business, the minor league clubs, plus this major league role. But I really enjoy those challenges. Most people think that at 62 years your life seems to be slowing down, but mine seems to be picking up.

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