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101-year cattle run ending

By Staff | Feb 21, 2014

THIS IS THE one I’ll miss the most,” said Ray Willhoite, of one of the polled shorthorn herd he’ll be selling this spring. This is a 6-year-old cow he cared for as a calf when its mother developed hip problems that forced her to be put down.

WALL LAKE – Ray Willhoite settled back in a dining room chair in his rural Wall Lake home and calmly announced that he and wife, Kathie, are leaving the cattle business.

After 101 years of raising first registered, and later purebred, polled shorthorns, the end of the Willhoite era with this breed is coming to a close.

And it was a good run, Ray Willhoite said, but it will be over this spring.

“It’ll be soon,” he said.

Willhoite said he came to his decision to sell several years ago, “but we were so close to that 100-year mark, we waited.”

RAY AND KATHIE WILLHOITE smile over the memories of a former herd bull, one of many in the family’s 101-year history of raising polled shorthorns. They announced Saturday they will be selling the last of their herd this spring and leaving the cattle business.

At 73, Willhoite said, it’s getting harder physically to do the work.

“It’s a bittersweet thought,” he said. “It’s given me a reason to get up in the morning, but age is catching up with me.”

Kathie Willhoite said, “It won’t seem right without cattle in the lot and in the fields.”

Three generations

The cattle operation provided the living and careers of three Willhoite generations.

RAY WILLHOITE spreads hay in a feed bunk for his polled shorthorns. He said the animals remaining in the background are nervous. “They’re used to me,” he said, “but they don’t usually see more than one.”

Paul and Clara Willhoite bought the first polled shorthorn cow in 1913. From that one animal, the cow-calf operation was nursed to the size of 115 head, Willhoite said.

Roadside placards placed in strategic road intersections around the Wall Lake area directed travelers to Willhoite Polled Shorthorns.

When Paul Willhoite died in 1925, the herd was known for a while as Clara Willhoite & Sons Polled Shorthorns.

Willhoite said his father, Lee, handled the business and promotion side of the operation; his uncle, Lyle, was the herdsman; and his grandmother, Clara, kept the books.

It was after Lyle Willhoite returned home from World War II, Ray Willhoite said, that the herd saw its greatest growth.

SEVEN OF THE final 12 head of Ray and Kathie Willhoite’s polled shorthorns enjoy fresh hay from the feed bunk. After 101 years of continuous cattle operation, the Willhoites announced they will be selling the herd later this spring and leaving the cattle business.

In the 1950s, Willhoite said his father and uncle were unhappy with the performance of their bulls and set out to improve the genetics.

To determine how well their cattle stacked up against others, they shipped cattle to various testing stations in the west and around Iowa.

Testing was a management tool to help select the best gaining cattle with the lowest cost per pound of gain and still have a high-grading carcass.

Showing documentation from the testing sites, Willhoite said, “Their cattle consistently performed at or near the top of all cattle breeds tested.”

Eventually, the herd became registered, with all the additional record-keeping that required.

WHAT ONCE NUMBERED as many as 115 head, Ray and Kathie Willhoite have gradually reduced their polled shorthorn herd to these 12. After 101 years of continuous operation, the Willhoites announced on Saturday they are leaving the cattle business this spring

As the herd grew, Lee and Lyle Willhoite divided the herd into several groups, to keep sires from intermingling genetics with offspring.

Using the testing data, Willhoite said, “Lee and Lyle were able to select the best breeding stock from each group and over 25 years they had a closed herd of 115 cows and bulls.”

A closed herd is prevented from mating, or in some instances, contact with other cattle. This is often deployed as a strategy to preserve genetics and prevent the spread of disease to the herd.

From a circa-1970s prospectus that Willhoite supplied, it showed that in one year 110 cows dropped 109 living calves in two months, including 20 first-calf heifers, with no twins.

In the 25-year time span, Willhoite said, only one bull and three cows were purchased to refresh the herd genetics.

One of their bulls was sold and shipped to Australia, Willhoite said.

Clara Willhoite died in 1969 and Lyle Willhoite in 1970.

That’s when Lee Willhoite started keeping a log of people who arrived on the farm to look over the herd – more than 550 from 1969 to 1981, an average of more than three visitors per week.

“Many of them were window-shopping,” Ray Willhoite said, “but many were buyers, too.”

He pulled out a thick three-ring binder that stored the entire herd registry, numerous newspaper and trade publication articles on the operation, scores of photos of the herd bulls and the visitors log.

“Everyone who came here had to sign the log,” Willhoite said, “and Dad went through all of this with them.”

Willhoite said he and Kathie took over the herd in the early 1980s. His father held a disbursement sale, putting 80 head on the sales block.

“There were a lot of people here,” Willhoite said. “My father’s reputation helped sell the bulls.”

Not all of the animals sold, and Ray and Kathie took over the operation, adding the shorthorn herd to their own farming enterprise.

Ray Willhoite said his father sold off the registered animals to add income to his estate, since he knew Ray would not keep the records to maintain registry.

“But they have been kept as a purebreds,” he said.

At one point in his youth, raising cattle for the rest of his life was not his intent, Willhoite said.

As a teen, he recalls hand-milking 11 shorthorns to keep the family in milk. The butterfat was separated and sold to a dairy processor.

“I didn’t have too much love for cattle back then,” he said.

Name change

But since 1981, the herd has been his and the operation’s name was abbreviated to Willhoite Farms.

Until a few years ago, he said, their calves were fed-out for market, but recently they’ve sold some as replacement heifers and bullocks for other herds.

When these predominately red cattle are sold as feeders, Willhoite said, they sell at a slight discount because they aren’t black cattle.

But as finished animals, they sell as well as as black breeds because the carcass quality will match an Angus, he said.

Neither of the Willhoites’ children, a son, who is a civil engineer in Ohio, and a daughter who lives in Urbandale, will take over the herd management.

Willhoite produced a photo of family members piling 30-ton stacks of hay – roughly 20-by-30-feet. He said these stacks were left for the cows to eat in the field. They also provided a windbreak for the herd.

Occasionally, the cattle would eat tunnels through the stack.

“There were a few times when the stack caved in,” Willhoite said, “and smothered a cow.”

His cattle are still an outdoors animal.

“To this day, they have never seen the inside of a barn or shed,” Willhoite said. “They’re a hardy animal.”

Under Ray’s and Kathie’s management, the herd numbered as high as 80 head.

Through natural attrition, they’ve allowed the herd size to dwindle to 30 head 10 years ago and down to 11 females and one bull today.

They bought their last replacement heifer three years ago, Willhoite said.

“I don’t know how they’ll be disbursed,” he said.

One potential buyern is interested in buying all of the animals and another wants a few of them.

“When that’s all figured out,” Willhoite said, “the rest will go to the sale barn, and that’ll be the last of the herd.”

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