Cattle came to our Commonwealth with settlers in the 1500s, and according to the Virginia Beef Council website vabeef.org:
Cattle now exist in every county of Virginia, and beef cattle numbers are estimated at 675,000. That makes it the 2nd largest commodity in Virginia, bringing in $8 billion for 2014. But don’t let that fool you … 97% of all beef operations nationwide are family owned. The average herd size in Virginia is just 30! That’s a lot of small business providing big economic impact and job opportunity to Virginia.
Raising cattle in the New River Valley can be appealing for the lush pastures, requiring fewer acres per cow compared with arid western grazing land. But in reality, cattle farming is a personal bent ingrained into one’s soul and spirit. Most cattle operations in Virginia are breeding operations or “cow-calf” units where new cattle are created and grown for a while.
In the Beginning
Michael Schmolitz lives on Gallion Ridge Farms outside Blacksburg which his grandparents started in the 1950s. What began as hobbies for him – raising cattle and pigs – have become small businesses, along with his sawmill and hay production.
It only took one semester of college engineering to convince Troy Whittier that he could never spend his life behind a desk. “The only career that seemed like it would allow me to play with animals and live outside was farming.” He grew up with a few cows for 4-H projects, and when he graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in Animal Science, his dad was retiring. “We joined forces and used his small herd to build what we have today” [in Pulaski County].”
Three generations ago, the Bunn family began farming, and Brandon Bunn, 41, has lived on the family farm in Dublin all his life. “I owned a sandblasting business for a while, but I found I enjoyed farming more.” He is on the farm daily with his father, son and future son-in-law. “Most days don’t go as planned, but our determination to survive is strong.” Brandon is unusual because his operation is large enough to make his entire living. He takes either his own produced animals or ones he buys from others and grows them big enough to be harvested for meat.
“My brother, Justin, and I started Dubb Contracting and do remodels, barns, fences, and I also do seasonal artificial insemination (AI) breeding across the state,” says Whittier.
Schmolitz, 32, started a sawmill operation in 2016 because he needed lumber for fencing and barn siding. He sells lumber as well, cutting costs for other farmers. “When not on the farm or milling logs, I work at PMSI for pest control. I know the importance of keeping mice and rats away from animal feed and stopping ants and termites from damaging farm structures.”
Bunn spends much of his time keeping the equipment in running order, plus planting and harvesting crops. “I am always on the lookout for ways to expand Bunn Farms.” His wife, Sarah, responded to this request for information. “He won’t stop longer than five minutes because the cows are out or something needs his attention, and he wouldn’t have it any other way,” she wrote.
Among the challenges, Bunn shares, are weather and equipment failures. Whittier dreams of the day he can reduce his 80-hour weeks and not do farm chores on weekends and after dark. Schmolitz no doubt speaks for all cattlemen in addressing inflation and “increased costs for operating the farm. Prices have jumped for fertilizer, equipment, seed and animal feed.”
These gents raise mostly Angus and SimAngus, a cross of Angus and Simmental. The cows are sold for final weight gains and beef processing elsewhere. Rotational grazing means moving cows frequently. Since Schmolitz operates a full hay production farm, he has multiple tractors and hay implements. “We use side-by-sides (all-terrain vehicles) for feeding, checking fences and doing everyday farm chores,” he explains.
Whittier, 32, buys hay, and has a moderate-size tractor to move it and run a sprayer or bush hog. “We recently bought a side-by-side which makes things easy and lets the kids do chores with me. My favorite way to drive cows is with my dogs. I can move cattle between pastures or catch them in a pen without another person. We have horses once used for cattle, but now it’s just a treat to ride them.” Down on the Bunn farm, Brandon uses a variety of vehicles. “We have dogs, but they are too spoiled to concern themselves with herding cattle!”
Bunn Farms has around 1,500 head of cattle. Whittier supports more than 100 mana cows with calves when the spring calves come along, and keeps another 35 mama cows which calve in the fall, in addition to leasing land with nearly 100 more. Schmolitz’s farm is closer to the state average with around 20, plus he raises pigs.
It’s a way of life that demands a weighty combination of skills in agriculture, business, problem-solving, mechanics, engineering, accounting, health and wellness – personal and animals, patience, endurance and perseverance. And these guys wouldn’t trade it for anything else.
Text by Joanne M. Anderson
Photo by David Lundgren