Backed by a Broad Base

A southern family raises seedstock for commercial producers and balances a highly diversified operation.

by Lilly Platts

Simmental and Red Angus seedstock, burley tobacco, purebred hogs, and a variety of crops make up Bart and Sarah Jones’ Red Hill Farms. Their 500-head seedstock operation supplies bulls to commercial producers through two annual sales. The majority of the genetics come from within, enforcing their philosophy that it takes both data and knowledge of how each female performed over her lifetime to  better predict progeny success.

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Barty, Ty, and Sarah Jones.

Bart’s great-great-great grandmother purchased the original farm in the late 1860’s, and the family also owns Sarah’s home place in Monroe County, Kentucky, making it a seventh generation family operation. Despite this long history, the cattle enterprise is relatively young. Bart’s father, Gordon, held a 40-year professorship at Western Kentucky University, and the family lived in town. Bart was still highly involved in agriculture, participating in 4-H and agricultural activities. After graduating from Oklahoma State University with a B.S. in Animal Science and minor in Agricultural  Economics, Bart chose to move to the family farm, based in the rolling green hills outside Lafayette, Tennessee, where his grandfather was raising purebred Duroc hogs.

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Barty, Ty, and Gordon Jones, representing three generations.

Beginning around 2000, Bart started buying purebred Red Angus seedstock, with genetics originating  from herds developed outside Sheridan, Wyoming. He notes that they have purchased fewer than 100 head of cattle since their start, focusing early on their goal of developing and knowing genetics from within the herd. The purebred hog business taught Bart the power and importance of heterosis, which encouraged him to find a second breed to add to the operation. His commercial customers needed a source for a complementary breed, and sending them to a different breeder for bulls didn’t satisfy Bart’s dedication to helping his customers. “Coming from a hog background, we realize the importance of offering our customers more than just one breed. We believe in crossbreeding, and when you look at the pork and poultry industries, they are maximizing heterosis in the offspring going to market. We want to encourage that same thing for our bull customers,” explains Bart.

Extremely data driven, Bart and Sarah chose to add Simmental to their program, originally buying genetics from Gateway Simmental in Montana.  They valued the American Simmental Association’s whole herd reporting system (Total Herd Enrollment), as well as the traits that help Simmental cattle thrive in the south. Endophyte infected fescue is the main forage in north-central Tennessee and south-central Kentucky, meaning cattle have to adapt well to the hard-to-digest plant.

Growth from Within

 Keeping the farm in the family for seven generations means the Jones family knows the history and characteristics of the land—similarly, the genetics of their cattle are familiar. “We try to make 85% of our matings  to bulls bred and raised on the farm,” says Bart. “When we use bulls bred and raised here we have first-hand knowledge of their individual performance, but more importantly we know the traits of the dam, including those not included in the genetic evaluation – environmental adaptability, disposition, fleshing ability, udder quality, and teat size.”

AI and ET are still utilized heavily with every female being AI’d—the real difference is that these matings are not to popular bulls at AI studs, but to their own bulls. The commercial producer’s profitability is the main focus at Red Hill Farms, which Bart acknowledges first and foremost. “The most expensive thing our commercial customers can do is keep their replacement females. So, as we make our matings, longevity and stayability are among the top priorities. Part of that is having good feet and leg structure and good udder quality. We want those cows to last and stay a long time.”

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Red Hill Farms is also operated from within. Despite the diversity, spread and size of the business,  Bart and Sarah run the cattle and manage the operation with help from Bart’s father, Gordon. “We’re fortunate to have my dad around all the time, he’s a great advisor,” says Bart.

Sarah is a Certified Public Accountant by trade, working for a firm in Nashville prior to becoming full time on the farm. Her job title now ranges from AI tech to financial manager to head hay baler, and as Bart says, “Sarah is the backbone of everything we do.”

Their son, Ty, 10, is also very involved with the livestock and is taking a serious interest in the business.  “If you get ear tags out he can tell you which cow it is without looking,” says Bart.

Catered to the Customer

March of 2018 marks the 13th year the Jones family has held bull sales, with the largest being held each March, and a smaller sale each fall. Unlike a typical sale, they don’t use an auctioneer or ring men. Instead, a predetermined price is placed on each bull, and Bart stands in front of his customers and takes bids. The last person bidding still gets the animal, but the pressure and chaos of a regular auction is replaced by a low-key, low-pressure environment. “It gives my customers an equal and fair chance to buy the bull they want,” explains Bart. “We have chosen to go this direction because we think it’s a fair way to do business.”

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Potential buyers gathered at Red Hill Farms.

Each bull purchased carries a guarantee on soundness, fertility and docility. While this practice is commonplace in the industry, the Jones’ go above and beyond by allowing their customers access to many of the benefits of running a large cattle operation. Bart will order animal health products in bulk, selling them to his customers at cost, and offers them the option of buying their custom-mixed mineral, which typically has to be purchased in large quantities not feasible for smaller operations. They also serve as a link between producers, referring their customers to others utilizing Red Hill genetics which they know will work for a commercial producer. To further encourage the employment of heterosis, the Jones’ help customers plan their breeding programs, and later on, will group Red Hill Farms’ retained calves with those of customers so they can be sent to the feedlot with the ability to obtain data. Each of these services is done at no extra cost—Bart emphasizes that this is simply part of offering good customer service. “Any time you do any of those things for a customer you solidify their business for the long-term.

Creating Competent Cows

Self-sufficiency is key for the Jones’. The operation is spread across four counties within two different states and calving difficulty is not an option. Some groups of cows will calve 35 miles from Bart and Sarah’s home and be checked once daily to tag and weigh new calves. Calving ease is not a secondary focus for Red Hill Farms because it is essential to their own success. Calving is split evenly between spring and fall, both because of labor during breeding seasons and the ability to have bulls ready throughout the year—at each sale, yearling and 18-month-old bulls are offered.

Self-sufficiency is also an economically important element for Red Hill Farms. Each weaning, cows are weighed along with the calves and these numbers are compared to gauge the productivity of each female, which has been done for 17 years. “That’s one of the most important measurements that we take. Our goal is to make that cow wean 60% of her body weight with no creep feed,” explains Bart.

Fescue toxins add an additional challenge, as the presence of the endophyte fungus in forage increases a cow’s internal temperature by one to two degrees. This small increase has large effects on reproduction, gain, and overall health. Because of these effects, Bart emphasizes the importance of efficient and adaptable cattle. “We select for cattle that are moderate-framed, big-ribbed, can consume a lot of  high moisture forage, and are very slick haired.”

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Disposition is also crucial and was an additional factor that pointed them to Simmental. The cattle are run in  groups no larger than 70 head, and if necessary, are moved between pastures by trailer.

Bart emphasizes their commitment to numbers as “data driven people”.  All required and optional measurements  are recorded for each cow and calf. In addition, ultrasound and genomics are utilized. As repeat Performance Advocates (PA), every cow and calf are reported, leading to reliable data.

“As a family, we enjoy showing livestock.  Ty competitively exhibits sheep and pigs in shows across Kentucky and at several national shows each year.  This is our family hobby and often our family vacations,” says Bart.  “We choose not to exhibit our cattle but to focus our cattle breeding program on economically relevant traits, selling commercial bulls and making cows that are functional in our environment.”

More than Beef

Duroc hogs were the focus of Red Hill Farms prior to Bart moving to the farm. Burley tobacco is a cash crop that has helped the family build their place in the cattle industry. Like the hog business, however, growing tobacco has changed significantly over the last 20 years. Pressure from the government and health officials to stop the use of tobacco products means the Jones’ are not certain how long the enterprise will be sustainable. Bart still notes that growing tobacco has been very good to the family financially, and they will continue to do so for as long as it is viable. Bart’s grandfather built a strong group of purebred Duroc sows, and that program is now what the Jones’ build on. When asked why they choose to diversify, Bart explains, “We like all of it. They’re not all going to be profitable every year. It helps smooth out the ups and downs when you have income from three different enterprises.”

 

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Red Hill Farms’ bull sale sign hung in the tobacco barn.

 

In addition to tobacco, a variety of other crops are grown, all complementing one another and the livestock. After tobacco is harvested, cover crops are planted to prevent erosion and replenish nutrients in the soil. These cover crops, such as ryegrass and  wheat, are baled and used for winter cattle feed. Shelled corn is produced to feed to the hogs, and corn and sorghum silage are fed to the cattle.

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231A, one of Red Hill Farms’ top herd bulls.

Having built a successful business, Bart explains that maintaining and creating better cattle are  goals for the future. “We like the lifestyle and the friendships we have built through this business,” says Bart. “Our main goal is to increase the profitability of our commercial customers.”

 

*This story originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of the Register magazine.