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Building a beefy business

Pulaski’s David Merritt embraces his role as a young beef producer
Story and photos by Sarah Geyer 6/26/2020

 

David Merritt, fourth generation Giles County farmer, began building his own cattle business 15 years ago. He started in his early 20s with stockers and then transitioned to a cow/calf operation with the purchase of his first small herd. Today, the family man raises 100 mamas, their calves, and six bulls on 1,400 acres of rented and owned farmland.
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David Merritt is finally content with the size and scope of his cow/calf operation. In less than 10 years, the 32 year old expanded one small herd raised on a rented farm by tenfold. Today, his operation includes 100 mamas, their calves, and six bulls and nearly 1,500 acres of farmland, 200 planted for hay and the rest dedicated to grazing. 


The fourth-generation Giles County farmer didn’t break into the cattle business with the purchase of that first herd. Instead, his foray into the industry started with raising stockers. At age 21, he began purchasing cattle from Florida by the truckload, growing them to between 700 and 800 pounds, and selling them at auction. Many times over a two-year span, he pulled a double-decker aluminum trailer through three states, bought and loaded 100 newly weaned Holsteins, and transported them 800 miles back to his farm.


“The haul back was always long and

grueling because I had to put her in the wind and not stop for anything,” says David. “When I got them home I doctored on them for a month straight. I mean, you’re going and checking on them morning and night. It was rough.”


In 2011, the young cattleman happily left the stocker business behind when he was presented with an opportunity to buy his own herd.


“One of my neighbors wanted to get out of the cattle business and asked if I wanted to purchase his herd,” he says. “I bought the herd, and he let me rent his farm, so I didn’t even have to move them. I still have a herd on that farm today.”


While much of the land David farms is

rented, he also works and lives on land purchased by his great-grandfather, Adrian Merritt. David’s grandfather, John “Buddy,” and father, Mike, followed the elder

Merritt’s lead — each settling nearby, purchasing a farm, and raising a family. 


While Adrian supported his family through farming alone, his son and grandson supplemented their income with full-time, off-the-farm jobs. Buddy worked at Nabisco for 30 years, retiring in 1986 to run his own company. Mike, who serves as the minister for West Madison Street Church of Christ in Pulaski, managed a local feed store during the 1980s and 90s.


Even as a young boy, David exhibited the Merritt’s trait for hard work, helping his grandfather cut hayfields by the time he was 10 and working his uncle’s cattle herd at 14. 


“I learned a lot about farming from Granddad, but it was Uncle Tom who really got me into cattle,” says David, who as a teenager worked four years for his uncle and also showed cattle as a member of 4-H. “I realized during those years I really like fooling with cows, and I still do.”


After high school, David took a full-time construction job, building log cabins in the region. Then he returned to school, earned a mechanics certification, and worked at McKay’s Small Engine Repair for several years. In 2017, he was offered a better job opportunity and decided to switch careers.


“Now I’m working at a local private deer hunting reserve,” he says. “I plant the food plots, bush hog, cut grass, and maintain all of the equipment.” 


Fortunately, the job provides David the flexibility to accommodate the demands of his farming operation.


“I worked it out up front with [my employer] to be able to take care of hay or cattle getting out,” says David. “I’m very thankful that I’m able to handle things like that come up at the farm.”


In addition to working full time and raising cattle, David, along with his brother, Michael, who lives in Birmingham, oversee the operation of Merritt Popcorn Co., a company their grandfather started in 1984. The company provides popcorn to foodservice distributors for use in concession stands, restaurants, parks, and fairs across the Tennessee Valley.


David credits the support of one person with his ability to successfully “keep so many irons in the fire” year after year – his wife, Stephanie. The licensed cosmetologist and hair salon owner met her future husband more than a decade ago when both were just teenagers. The couple married on the Merritt family farm in 2011. 


Although the Lynnville native wasn’t raised on a farm, she jumped in to help out from the beginning of the relationship. Today, David says his wife is a seasoned pro, cutting hay alongside her husband and raking while he bales. She also feeds and checks on the cattle in the morning and occasionally again in the evening if David can’t do it, and always with the couple’s 2 ½-year-old son, Andrew, by her side.  


“I never considered whether or not I should help on the farm,” she says. “He was out there working, and I wanted to be there with him because I love him.”


David has also found ways to be more efficient with his farming practices. One of his time savers is providing one feed, Custom Beef 14-RUM (#94470) to all of his cattle, from newly weaned and growing to lactating mamas, dry heifers, and bulls.


“It’s easier to just deal with one feed,” he says. “Also, I creep feed all of my calves because I feel like it gives me that bang for my buck.”


David markets his cattle through Blue Grass Stockyard’s Internet Auction Sales, and Billy Wallace, owner of Pulaski Stockyards, serves as the broker for regional farmers.


“He works with several local farmers who have similar cattle, vaccination programs, and that sort of thing,” says David. “We can coordinate our marketing and all benefit by putting the cattle together to make load lots and get better pricing.” 


The young cattleman says he first

heard about the video marketing opportunity from Jason Williams, a friend of

David’s who works with Billy at the stockyard and also raises his own cattle. Jason’s wife, Celena, is the manager of Giles County Cooperative, where the Merritts are members. These two couples, along with many other farming friends, such

as Giles Co-op’s Brandon Jones, have

created their own community support system.


“We try to help one another all we can, whether it’s sharing information or offering a helping hand,” says David. “I don’t know how some of us, me included, would survive as farmers if we didn’t have each other.” 


 
 
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