Abilene If copying is a form of flattery, it may be the most insincere.
John McDonald knows that first hand. The Abilene entrepreneur and his wife, Mary, have been the masterminds of Rawhide Portable Corral, 307 Augustine, for the past nine years.
The innovator, with his portable chute design that can allow one rancher to work with up to 400 head of cattle at a time, has experienced the rural agriculture economy, with its traditional ups and downs.?He also has watched competitors copy his work. He prefers not to mention competitor names. McDonald has applied for numerous patents, but as many inventors find, the process is expensive and time consuming, so he has chosen to keep pressing ahead.
"Once I got rolling others started to watch," he said.
The field was wide open when he started with his first portable corral that found itself in the hands of farmers and ranchers. Today there are nearly 10 competitors and he can only shake his head with a gentle smile because replication without reimbursement takes money out of his pocket and more importantly creates a misperception that he no longer is producing his product.
"They figured out mine is the best so they copied it," McDonald bluntly says. "You cannot go to a farm show and not see my design."
Today, he is battle-wise to the competitors and Rawhide Portable Corral, and his firm is a success story in the agri-business field. Rawhide Portable Corral started with about $500 in investment, which now employs nine people, generates about $1.5 million to $2 million a year in annual sales.
His new design allows one person to have a portable corral set up in about 10 minutes and can work with 150 to 400 head of cattle without lifting a panel, according to information on Rawhide's company website, www.rawhideportablecorral.com. The portable corral system has hydraulic transport wheels that are raised and lowered with the flip of a switch. He demonstrated another feature that allows the rancher to narrow the alley for calves as well as squeeze cattle in the alley. Also a loading chute may be built in. A 15-amp solar panel is standard equipment to recharge the battery. More than 20 different corral configurations are possible.
McDonald said the design works on extreme uneven terrain. There is no manual lifting of pens and panels, which makes it safer for the operator.
The new design has even caused enough interest from his first customers for them to trade in their original corral. Prices range on his latest portable corral system from $12,000 to $20,000.
"We've been super busy," he said.
The agriculture sector has been a buoy for an economy that overall is trying to recover from a global recession.
The McDonalds are Dickinson County natives. John graduated from Abilene and Mary from Solomon. Hard work defines the couple. John as a boy mowed lawns, raked lawns and delivered Reflector-Chronicle newspapers. Mary grew up on a farm.
The portable corral fit into his dream of being a cowboy. Growing up he wore his cowboy hat while riding his bicycle. In high school he competed in rodeos. He never lost his love for the livestock industry. He has been involved in promotion of special rodeo programming and understands the need for efficiency.
"When I designed the (first) Rawhide I developed the idea when I was loading bulls," he said.
"I have a knack with livestock equipment. I was not an engineer, but am a cowboy with an idea an d a lot of personal experience who has an understanding for what works for his customers."
His idea originated for the portable corral came as a result of years of practice of working with livestock. Many farmers and ranchers put together corrals panel by panel. As farms and ranches grew in size, producers needed flexibility and time savings. Plus there is a skill and expertise to working with livestock, he said.
"Finding the right type of labor is hard," he said. "Some producers have small pastures that might not be laid out for traditional corrals. The expense of building and maintaining permanent corrals is another challenge."
Rawhide Portable Corral has sold more than 1,000 systems in the past nine years. The latest design takes into account the size of producers but also provides more options from the first design. The newest portable corrals have added portability. The goose-neck design allows the corral owner to pull an entire system down the highway at 70 miles per hour. He has customers who have expansive operations that can be several hundreds of miles apart.
To this end he remains loyal, purchasing supplies from local businesses. He points to that as a point of pride.
"I could have ordered in from out of town but I wanted to set an example," he said.
One reason he agreed to do an interview was that he wanted to make sure that customers knew that he and Mary's portable corrals are being made and sold throughout the United States.
Having an Interstate 70 location in central part of the United States is an asset. He encourages new owners to drive their trucks to Abilene to stay overnight. McDonald likes to make himself available to answer questions before the customer leaves the lot. Customer service is a source of pride for McDonald, which he learned at an early age from mowing grass to distributing a newspaper.