Johnson Herefords marks centennial year
By KAREN SCHWALLER
MILFORD – There are wedding gifts, and then there are wedding gifts.
Johnson Herefords, located 1 mile south of Milford, celebrated its 100th anniversary this year, and it all started, in part, from a wedding gift given to Ernest “E.O.” and Esther Johnson.
Their grandson, and current co-owner of Johnson Herefords, Jack Johnson, said they got married in December 1917 in a house belonging to Esther’s parents, located on the farm.
“For a wedding present, her folks gave her a sewing machine and his folks gave them (money to start a cow herd),” said Johnson, who owns Johnson Herefords with his wife, Lynne.
The following year, E.O. Johnson purchased 10 Hereford cows and a bull from a Sioux Rapids breeder, and he walked them the 30 miles back to Milford.
He went on to purchase bulls from leading sires in the area, and during the 1930s, produced the quality of cows and bulls that would allow his son, Dale, to win the Clay County Fair Hereford show four years in a row, from 1931 to 1934.
“That helped sell bulls and females and promoted the herd,” said Jack Johnson, who added that, “in 1935, they won the show at the fair in Sioux City. After that, people started coming by and buying heifers and bulls from us.”
The Johnsons began going to – and topping – the Sioux City cattle shows in the 1940s and 1950s, and they kept their herd to around 75 to 80 cows.
Dale Johnson bought into the business in 1941 after he and his wife, Gladys, married the year before. E.O. and Esther Johnson downsized somewhat so the younger Johnsons could afford to buy in, and they continued to top the Sioux City cattle shows with their bulls.
The Johnson’s bull, Golden Aster, was the one that really got the ball rolling.
“In the 1940s and ’50s, the dwarf (trait) hit the cattle industry really bad,” said Jack Johnson, adding that breeders were breeding for baby beef. “They kept getting smaller and smaller until they finally created a dwarf that only grew to 800 or 900 pounds.”
Johnson said instead of going to the most popular blood lines, his grandfather went to a large Hereford breeder near Sioux Falls and purchased their top bull and renamed him Golden Aster.
“We never had a dwarf on this place,” said Johnson. “There were only six or seven farms in the whole country that never had dwarfs, so we had leading cattlemen in the industry coming here to buy bulls because they wanted those clean blood lines.”
When Golden Aster was first turned out to pasture as a young bull, Johnson said he stifled – or, in other words, he got a football knee. E.O. and Dale Johnson decided to bring the calves home and had the cows come up to nurse the calves twice a day, and the bull would breed the cows at that time. They would breed once per cow.
Two things happened then, according to Jack Johnson.
“At age 5, it became my job to go get the cows,” he said. “I got so I could tell which calf belonged to which cow very fast, so when people came looking for bulls, I knew them better than Dad and Grandpa did. I would go with them when the buyers came and tell them which bull went with which cow. It’s why I have cows today. I got to love it.”
Golden Aster lived to be 13 years old, and his sons and grandsons were used heavily over the next 15 years.
The Johnsons swept the Sioux City Stockyards cattle show in 1952, taking the honors of champion and reserve champion, and, with those bulls, had the four top-selling bulls that day, along with the top-selling heifer.
The champion bull at the Sioux City sale brought $2,500 in 1952. Johnson said a person could purchase a good bull at that time for around $300.
“One of the top bulls brought $3,500 in 1957 at one of their home sales, and that same year we had a $4,600 bull go to Montana,” said Johnson. “My top bull this year brought $5,000.”
The Johnsons began having sales of their own bulls and heifers in 1955. The first two were in Spencer – one at the fairgrounds and the other in the sale barn in north Spencer, which was located in the area now occupied by Pixler Electric and Fox International. Following that time, sales went from Sioux City and back home to the farm.
Johnson won grand champion steer twice in the early 1960s at the Dickinson County Fair. The steers were out of Hereford bulls and weighed in at 1,000 pounds or just over. Johnson, a young exhibitor at the time, towered over the full-grown steers.
Jack and Lynne Johnson moved onto the farm in 1977 following his return home from veterinary school at Iowa State University. They placed more of their focus on bigger sizes and better growth. They bought into the business in 1977, but didn’t introduce the polled Hereford genetics into the herd until 2008.
“In the early 1990s I once sent Dad to a sale in South Dakota to get a bull and he came back with two bulls, saying he couldn’t make up his mind,” Jack Johnson said. “They ended up being two of our best bulls.”
He added one of them was grand champion at the Clay County Fair two years in a row. That bull ended up weighing 2,850 pounds at maturity and gave more size to their cows.
“The cattle breeding business is unique,” said Johnson, “because not everything crosses on everything and gets a good calf. So you have to try to find the right click.”
They found a blood line that crossed well with their cattle to get the size they liked, and also bred for about one third of their calves to be horned, with the rest polled.
In time the Johnsons went to selling their stock via private treaty, saying it was more enjoyable to visit with people one-on-one, and the buyers got to see the stock in their natural setting. Johnson said two-thirds of their stock was sold within a 50-60 mile radius of Milford.
The family has always liked Hereford genetics because both cows and bulls overall are tame, gentle and approachable.
Johnson said the cattle industry has evolved in a circle from the 1920s when bulls weighed 2,300 to 2,400 pounds; to the 1940s and 1950s when bulls were smaller; to the 1960s when they got bigger again.
Today, bulls are larger, and cows might weigh 1,500 to 1,600 pounds.
“But when somebody wants a good herd bull that will produce 1,500 pound fat steers … it takes a 1,500 pound cow and a 2,500-pound bull to produce a 1,500 pound steer,” said Johnson. “That’s how the industry has changed.”
He has learned in his 70-plus years how to read people, and that most people he has dealt with have been “straight-shooters” and good, honest, hard-working people that could be trusted.
The family celebrated the centennial of Johnson Herefords late last September with a gala and walk-about on their farm. The feeling was tough for Johnson to put into words.
“It makes me humbly proud that we still have it going, and that we could be part of it,” said Johnson. “I was lucky to be brought up as part of it and be able to buy into it, and make it still be economically viable.
“I love cattle,” he added. “There’s nothing like working with those baby calves in the spring. It relaxes me after a long veterinary day, to check cows and calves in the pasture.”
“It gives me peace of mind.”
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