By Kayla Hawthorne, OCJ field reporter
In 2012 Brad and Mindy Thornburg bought 11 Angus-Simmental cross cows “sight unseen” through a deal with a friend. Thornburg Cattle was an adventure from the start of the first-generation farm near Barnesville in Belmont County, but they expected nothing less. They have battled through numerous challenges since then and their resulting success was highlighted in January when Brad was named the Young Cattleman of the Year by the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association.
The Young Cattleman of the Year Award is presented to individuals or couples, typically under 40 years of age, who have demonstrated the initial stages of a successful beef operation and exhibited leadership potential. The recipient is also the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association’s automatic nominee to participate in the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Young Cattlemen’s Conference held in early February.
The Thornburgs have worked hard to make their own way in the cattle business, but have relied heavily on the insight and expertise from others in the industry. Neither Brad nor Mindy were raised on farms, but they both had a passion for cattle and they met while working with cattle. Brad got his experience with cattle by working at sale barns and with veterinarians.
“I actually had five or six Red Angus heifers I picked up when I still worked at a sale barn — just deals that had come by,” Brad said.
Brad was talking to an old friend about the need to artificially inseminate his cattle, not knowing he had a sister in the business.
“Probably 10 minutes later she pulled in my driveway and we struck a deal to breed my cows. Within two weeks we were breeding them and had them ready to go,” Brad said. “After that I asked, ‘Hey, what are you doing later? Want to go out to eat?’ ‘Hey, want to get married?’ It kind of went pretty quick. It wasn’t any more than a year I think.”
Brad and Mindy started the farm right after they got married and they are each 50% owners. For purposes of efficiency and economics, they bought embryos to place in their 40 cows, instead of breeding unwanted genetics. The Thornburgs still use embryo transfer to improve their genetics. Mindy currently works in animal health for Zoetis and puts her expertise to work in the farm operation.
“That’s the fastest way that we know to get your genetic quality up,” Brad said. “We don’t run a bull. We take care of everything through AI and ET.”
The Thornburgs have a three-strike rule. If a cow comes back in heat for a third time, she leaves the farm.
“We try to get [our calving cycle] at two cycles. So, under 60 days is what we try to keep it at,” Mindy said. “That’s how we decide our culls, if they don’t breed in two heat cycles, they go. Our goal is to calve in January and sell by July 4.”
Along with starting from scratch with their cattle, the young couple started from scratch with their land as well. Competition from oil and gas interests in eastern Ohio has made it more difficult to find and purchase land in recent years. The Thornburgs say they were lucky to find the initial land they were able to purchase, but it needed extensive work to be suitable for efficient cattle production.
“That limited us on being able to buy any more out here that was actually already half set up for either production or cattle,” Brad said.
They initially bought an 80-acre piece of property but 65 acres were wooded. They have since spent many hours clearing the property to maximize the opportunities to pasture the cattle.
“Brad and I have started working with the EQIP program to get this farm back in shape. Basically when we got it, it needed a lot of work,” Mindy said. “So we started looking with our local conservation group and trying to build proper rotational grazing and trying to make it sustainable and environmentally friendly to raise these cattle on this land so that it is here for generations to come.”
They have been able to add some more ground since then to expand pastures further.
“We bought a little farm a couple years ago — about 35 acres or so. And it’s in a rehabilitation process, too,” Brad said. “We ended up realizing that it is going to be a real challenge to get any more ground.”
The Thornburgs pasture their 40 cows on all 115 acres they own. Additionally, they rent around 400 acres from neighbors for hay, which they use for their cows in the winter and to sell. Their goal was to build their herd to 100 cows.
“We’re at the point that 115 acres is not going to support the operation that we’d like to get to someday with the goal we had in mind,” Brad said.
With off-farm jobs, three children and the cattle operation, time is also often a limiting factor for the farm.
“We work off farm but we somehow manage to make it happen between the two of us,” Mindy said.
The Thornburgs work hard to provide the right nutrition for the cattle produce a high quality end product from their operation with a heavy emphasis on grass and less additional supplementation. Brad wants to continue emphasizing grasses as the operation moves forward.
“I would like to graze 365 days of the year — short of some major ice event or 5 feet of snow. The more grass I can raise, the less grain I have to buy,” Brad said. “We’re trying to implement rotational grazing and intensive grazing and even some mob grazing. We tried that this year and it was fairly successful.”
Brad is always researching new ideas to improve production through the resources available on their land by extending the grazing opportunities.
“We rely on a lot of professionals and all these people who have put out papers and studies about trials,” Brad said. “I’m a reader. I read a lot.”
The calves are sold to a middleman who puts together a semi load of black, Angus-based calves, which are sold to a feedlot in the West or on the Internet. The Thornburgs get reports on the calves to monitor the farm’s performance and provide insights in how details can be tweaked for future improvement.
“We’re willing to adapt and change for whatever we need to raise and market our cattle the best way we can,” Brad said.
Along with the countless hours he spends working directly with the cattle, Brad also takes time to serve as a director for District 7 of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association and will finish his two-term limit in 2020. They are also members of the Ohio Valley Cattlemen’s Association for Belmont, Nobel, Monroe, Harrison and Jefferson counties.
The Thornburgs were very honored to receive the recent award from the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association, but they have no idea who nominated them for the recognition.
“We were happy — tickled to death,” Brad said. “But we would like to try to find out who [nominated us] just for the ‘thanks.’”
The first generation farm has been built with the Thornburg’s sweat-equity driven by a love of raising cattle and willingness to learn from others.
“We’re self-sufficient to try to keep the cost low,” Brad said. “We didn’t have parents who did this. We didn’t have uncles who gave us anything. This came out of my pocket from laying brick and her pocket from breeding cows. We are grateful for all these professionals going before us. We wouldn’t be where we’re at if we didn’t have somebody to learn from.”