It's market time for cattle at the Gervais family farm

Spring is here and that means it’s the time of year when the Gervais family begins sending the first of their cattle to market.
“One pen is going out Thursday and the rest are going to be going out within the next three or four weeks,” said Jim Gervais.
Jim and his brother, Tom, and Jim’s sons, Mike and Bill, raise around 1,400 cattle in two monoslope barns on a family farm about three miles southeast of Lake Shetek State Park in Murray County. They raise primarily Angus and Angus cross cattle because that’s what’s in demand by the packers, according to Jim.
“It’s more of a marketing deal than it is performance,” he said.
The cattle that are being sold now were purchased last fall as calves when they weighed 600-to-700 pounds. The family feeds them until they weigh around 1,400 pounds, which typically takes 200-to-220 days, and then sells them to market.
After those are sold, the family will buy yearlings that weigh around 800 to 1,100 pounds and raise them to a weight of around 1,500 pounds, which typically takes 130-to-160 days. They’ll sell them to market in July or August. Jim said the market is better in the spring, so they won’t fill both of their barns with yearlings.
“One barn will remain completely empty until we get calves again in the fall,” he said.
They’ll do that around October and the cycle will continue.
“We feed roughly a couple thousand or a little better a year,” Jim said.
Jim and Tom grew up farming with their father, Vince, at the same farm they keep their cattle at and where Jim’s son, Bill, now lives. Their father raised cattle and pigs and grew corn, soybean and hay.
Jim and Tom each farmed on their own for a while before they began farming together in the 1970s with another brother, Paul, who decided to farm on his own near Tracy in the 1980s. Jim and Tom both said they always wanted to farm.
“I’ve always enjoyed working outside, being my own boss,” Jim said. “And we had a good opportunity. My dad didn’t have a lot of land, but we had a land base around here and this is where he had most of his livestock. We basically took over this building site from him and expanded it quite a bit.”
In addition to the cattle, Jim and Tom grow about 1,200 acres of corn, 1,200 acres of soybean and 50 acres of alfalfa, and raise around 12,000 pigs at multiple sites. They get their pigs through the Pipestone System and hire others to custom feed them.
About 15 years ago, Jim’s sons decided to return to farming after doing electrical and construction work for a while.
“We all farm together, but they’ve got their own land that they are running,” Jim said. “And then they’ve got their own pig operation that they’re the sole owners of, and then they are in partnership with us on the cattle.”
Mike and Bill are fourth generation farmers. Times have changed since he started farming, but Jim said he still believes his sons can succeed in the business. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have encouraged them to return to it.
In addition to farming livestock and crops, Jim and Tom belong to various agricultural organizations and associations, something Tom said he believes is important.
“We have to promote our business,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in the Cattlemen’s Association and the Pork Producers and the Corn and Soybean Growers because if we don’t promote our own product there are a lot of people who are more than happy to bash it for us.”
Jim said he wishes more people would take the time to visit a farm and see first-hand how they operate.
“Our operation is not perfect by any means,” he said. “You’ll see stuff that doesn’t look as good as we’d like it to, but this is reality. When you’ve got the amount of livestock we have, everything is not perfect, but as far as being ashamed of the way things are run around here, I’m not at all.”
Jim and Tom, 67 and 68 respectively, said their years farming have been well spent.
“It’s been a good life for us,” Jim said.
 

Continuing a Legacy

Though Nelson and Megan Hall both grew up in town — Nelson in Lakefield, Megan in Apple Valley — they today are the proud owners of a legacy family beef herd.
The Halls live on a farm between Jackson and Windom. Though Nelson Hall grew up in town, he has worked with cattle his entire life.
“Livestock has been in my family for years,” Hall said. “My great-grandparents, Tilbert and Ella Nelson, had a few milk cows and calves and also had pigs with piglets. My grandparents, Myron and Janice Nelson, have also been involved in quite a few species. They’ve had milk cows, beef cow/calves, beef finishers, sheep and pigs. My aunt has been greatly involved in the current operation, and now it’s my turn.”
Though Hall grew up in town, he spent a lot of time at his grandparents’ and aunt’s place helping on the farm or working on 4-H projects. He was in 4-H all his life, as were his mom and his aunt, and he loved working with and showing cattle.
When he met his wife, Megan, he moved to the Twin Cities and lived there for around four years, but the couple ended up moving back to the area in 2013 so they would be able to help his grandma and aunt run their beef cow/calf operation. He has helped keep the operation running and in the family.
“The farm place that Megan and I built our house on was my great-grandparents’,” Hall said. “The barn we use at our place is over 100 years old, with minor updating and maintaining, obviously. My aunt had lived there prior to us.”
The operation his family runs now is all beef cow/calves. They have around 20 to 25 head and the calves are either sold at the sale barn, fed out for butcher or shown in 4-H by Hall’s daughter or nearby families. As 4-H holds a special place in Hall’s heart, he has been able to instill that love in his daughter, Zoey, as well. This is her fifth year in 4-H. Hall and his wife have two other daughters as well and, though they are too young to show in 4-H, he hopes he will be able to work with them on their projects in the future.
In the time Hall was out of 4-H and before Zoey started showing, Hall’s aunt was able to work with some families in the area who also showed beef projects from their herd. He describes the cattle in the herd as mixed — most are certified purebred, but there are some crossbreeds as well. The purebreds they have are Simmental, Black Angus, Red Angus, Shorthorn and Maine Anjou.
Out of the entire operation, Hall said his favorite part, without question, is calving, and working with the calves. He uses artificial insemination — when it works — and he said he really enjoys picking out the bulls and seeing what the calves end up like. Though that whole season is incredibly stressful and a lot of work, Hall said he wouldn’t change it.
“It is all so worth it,” Hall said, “when you get to see the mamas and babies bonding and the calves running around the yard with their tails in the air.”
Hall’s immediate family members — wife Megan, along with Zoey, 9; Hazel, 4; and Nellie, who will be 1 very soon — have fallen in love with the operation and they enjoy it as much as he does. Zoey and Hazel love to help with chores at the farm, Hall said, and always want to go to the barn with him or go over to “G.G.’s” — Nelson’s grandma’s and aunt’s place — any time a calf is born. Hazel goes there after preschool and loves to help out with feeding the bottle calves, riding in the tractor and lending a hand — albeit a tiny one — to help. Zoey, being a bit older, has already gotten involved in 4-H and loves it. She’s involved in the county fair, and the Halls go to a few open shows throughout the year. Hall said Zoey told her parents she wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up and she loves to watch Dr. Pol, the show about a traveling vet on TV. She always wants to help when calves are born, Hall said, and would be right in the pen with the cow if she were able to. But for now, he said, she tells her dad to wake her up — even if it’s the middle of the night — so she can go along and help with the newborns.
Though Hall’s wife, Megan, is the owner of a cheesecakery in Lakefield, he said she is extremely helpful when it comes to the herd.
“Megan is always my right hand,” Hall said. “She has my back on anything and everything, especially with the farm.”
Megan Hall said when people think of living on a farm, it always seems like so much fun, but many have no idea how much work really goes into it. She loves her life, though, she said, and is proud of her husband’s hard work.
Nelson Hall said he is proud of his family’s legacy, and he is excited to see his own immediate family stepping up to keep it going and growing.
 

Raising Polypays

It’s lambing season and as of April 9, Gerold and Robyn Van Heuvelen have around 230 new lambs at their farm in western Murray County. Gerold said they expect around 300 more before the season is over.
“We’re going to be in the middle of it for a while yet,” he said.
They started lambing around March 1. Robyn said they usually lamb for a few weeks, then have a week off before another round begins with a different group. They have three groups to cycle through, the last of those first-time mothers.
The couple raises the lambs for around five months or until they reach 130 pounds and then send most of them to market. They keep some for breeding purposes.
The Van Heuvelens have been raising sheep since 2005 when they bought their farm and moved there from Chandler. Robyn said both she and Gerold grew up on farms and they’d always intended to buy a farm of their own.
Even when they lived in Chandler, Gerold farmed with his father. Robyn grew up raising sheep and when the couple bought their own farm she said they decided to raise sheep because they thought it would provide a better return on investment than other livestock. She said that seems to have proven true.
They started with around 200 western ewes, but have since switched to raising Polypays. They now raise around 300.
Polypay sheep were developed in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the goal of creating a breed that excelled in “maternal characteristics including early fertility, prolificacy, aseasonal breeding and milk production,” in order to increase production, according to the American Polypay Association.
The breed is a mixture of Finnsheep, known for their prolificacy, early puberty and short gestation period; Rambouillets, known for their hardiness; Targhees, known for their fleece quality, large body size and long breeding season; and Dorsets, known for their mothering ability, carcass quality, early puberty and long breeding season. The breed name emerged in 1975, with ‘poly’ meaning ‘many’ and ‘pay’ referring to the return on investment from the animals, according to the American Polypay Association.
Polypays are bred for their meat and have little value in their wool. The Van Heuvelens have their sheep sheared for maintenance purposes once a year, but Robyn said the value isn’t enough to cover the cost.
“They get all matted if you don’t shear them,” Gerold said.
The Van Heuvelens said they’ve belonged to the Pipestone Lamb and Wool Program since they started raising sheep.
“We’ve learned a lot and gotten really good ideas,” Robyn said.
Some of the lessons they’ve learned from the program include ways to keep their lambs healthy, helpful feeding tips such as using self-feeders, efficient ways to set up their barn and ways to improve profitability.
“Even growing up with sheep, I learned a lot,” Robyn said.
They also have a contract to sell their sheep through Superior Farms through the Lamb and Wool Program.
Robyn said there is “a big push” for antibiotic-free lambs lately, so they try not to use antibiotics unless an animal needs it to treat an illness. Most of their sheep end up being antibiotic-free, which brings a higher market value.
The Van Heuvelens use an electronic identification system to scan a tag on the ear of their sheep when they’re sent to market to track which ones have been treated. The scanners also track weight, dams, sires, offspring and other information specific to each animal.
Robyn said farming is a lot of work and hasn’t always been easy. Lambing was particularly challenging when both of them worked off the farm in addition to farming, but about a year-and-a-half ago Gerold quit his other job driving truck for a local elevator to focus on farming. Despite the ups and downs of farming, the Van Heuvelens said they enjoy being around and raising sheep, and spending their time outdoors.
“It’s something we do together and every year you get new babies,” Robyn said. “We figure it’s probably better than sitting around at night watching TV.”
In addition to the sheep, the couple has about 60 cows and grows corn, soybeans and alfalfa. Robyn also works full-time as the chief financial officer for Murray County Medical Center.
 

The ups and downs of sheep

Sheep were once big business in Jackson County.
“Back in the 1950s, Lloyd Thornburg, who originally lived in western Jackson County outside of Lakefield, started the Thornburg Sheep Co.,” said Mike Kirchmeier, director of the Jackson County Historical Society. “He started out providing feeder lambs to area farmers, dealt in feeder cattle along the way, but also sold fat lambs, breeding ewes and bought and sold wool.”
Thornburg was an opportunist and promoter. Kirchmeier said Thornburg gave out his lambs in lots of 30 to farmers to be fattened up. He would then buy the fattened lambs back from those same farmers and turn around and sell them at market.
The scheme worked — for a while. The Thornburg family ended up owning the controlling interest in the First National Bank in Lakefield, as well as the Green Lake Bank in Spicer.
To help promote a thriving business that saw tens of thousands of lambs bought and sold back in that era, Thornburg helped establish Lamb Days in Lakefield, which was just as it sounds, a celebration of lamb production that at that time was big business in Jackson County.
“The Lamb Day celebration started in 1953 and was Lakefield’s biggest city celebration through 1956,” Kirchmeier said. “There was a big Lamb Day Parade with marching bands and floats. A queen was chosen each year and, unlike today at many city celebrations, the queen of Lamb Day back then rode on the Lamb Day floats during the following year’s parade.”
Thornburg married his wife, Cecile, in 1925. They had several children, but it was their son, Harold Thornburg, who ended up with controlling interest in the First National Bank.
Harold Thornburg moved to town in the mid-1950s and purchased a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home built in Lakefield in 1953.
Lloyd Thornburg’s Thornburg Sheep Co. was relatively short lived and Kirchmeier said no one seems to know for sure why it went out of business. Lloyd Thornburg died in 1975.
Like the story of Thornburg Sheep Co., the business of raising sheep over the years has had its up and downs as well. Sheep production peaked in this country in the 1940s and 1950s at more than 50 million head. By the year 2013, those numbers had slipped to just 10 percent of what they were in the 1940s.