by Karl H. Kazaks
ATKINS, VA — Virginia does not have a Gelbvieh association breed sale. Larger breeders can have their own on-farm sales, like Knoll Crest or Little Windy Hills. Smaller breeders can submit cattle to test stations, sell off the farm, or consign to other sales.
Charlie Atkins of Flowing Spring Farm has raised Gelbvieh for over 25 years and has tried all of those methods. Lately, though, he’s decided to market his cattle through two main channels: selling off the farm and at Echo Ridge Angus’s annual fall sale (their Black Friday sale).
By consistently having quality Gelbvieh cattle at Echo Ridge’s sale, Atkins has been building a reputation as a quality source for Gelbvieh genetics in southwest Virginia.
Having been a Gelbvieh breeder for such a long time, Atkins — a charter member of The Gelbvieh Breeders of Virginia (and a past secretary of that organization) — has seen many changes in the breed over the years.
When he first switched from commercial to registered cattle (choosing Gelbvieh because of their size and docile nature), all of his Gelbviehs were red. Today they are all black.
More significantly, Atkins has seen Gelbviehs shed their reputation as the ‘caesarean breed,’ due to their high incidence of calving problems.
“Where we’ve bred for calving ease we’ve bred calving problems out of them,” Atkins said. “I haven’t had to pull a calf in three years, and the two I pulled before that were because the calves were backward.”
Atkins has a young herd. He continuously seeks to add new genetics to his herd by keeping a number of heifers each year and by using AI on some of his females. He also has two Gelbvieh herd bulls. His top herd bull he acquired three years ago from Knoll Crest. It was the top performer at the Bennett’s test station that year.
“I’m really pleased with him,” Atkins said. “I’ve been really pleased with all the bulls I’ve got from Knoll Crest.”
Each fall Atkins sells about five bulls at Echo Ridge’s sale. “Selling Gelbviehs at an Angus sale is somewhat like selling Ford cars at a Chevrolet dealership,” he said.
Attendees at an Angus sale, he added, don’t come ready to pay for Gelbviehs. Nonetheless, he has seen the spread between the two breeds get closer every year.
“I knew when I started selling at the Echo Ridge sale that there would be a few years of people getting to know that I will be there. It is working, because this year I had buyers there just for the Gelbviehs that were being offered.
“The Pratt family,” of Echo Ridge, he continued, “has been nothing but outstanding in helping me with my participation in their sale.”
Atkins also sells a number of bulls off the farm. The farthest he has sold a bull is to Florida. Most of the Atkins’s bulls remain in southwest Virginia.
When he does sell bulls off the farm, he likes to know the kind of cattle the inquiring farmer and prospective customer has in his herd, to help him pick out the most appropriate bull.
“It helps to know what he’s got,” Atkins said. “That way I can tell him, ‘This one will work for you.’”
Though he has sold females at sales before, nowadays Atkins sells them all off the farm, either as bred heifers or as a cow-calf pair.
“They sell themselves,” he said, underscoring the reputation he has already developed as a quality producer.
This year, Atkins also sold a few Balancer bulls at the Echo Ridge sale. Those he purchased. His own herd is entirely registered purebred Gelbvieh.
When it comes to feeding, Atkins provides grain to all of his bulls, and to heifers from weaning to breeding. At breeding time, he will sort through the heifers and usually breed only the top half, sending the rest to market. He calves both in the spring and fall, with the bulk of calving in the spring.
Atkins sees a trend towards moderation in size, but not as drastically as some predict. Buyers, he said, “are still buying large farm bulls.” His top herd bull, from Knoll Crest, has a 6.5 frame score. Most of the bulls Atkins sells score between 6 and 6.5.
Despite all the rainy weather this year, Atkins was able to get up a mostly dry hay crop, 750 rolls. On only one “small patch” did his hay get wet.
“We lucked out is all I can say,” Atkins said, about avoiding the rain. “We cut hay like crazy.”
Atkins makes mostly orchard grass hay but also some alfalfa and timothy, to stagger the harvest windows. He is concerned that one of his rented farms may soon become the site of a Super Walmart.
A native of southwest Virginia, Atkins served in the Vietnam War. He was an interpreter, having spent a year learning the Vietnamese language. He still speaks the language with a fluency surprising in this part of the world.
Atkins is an active member of his community, serving on the Board of the Southwest Virginia Agricultural Association and as Chairman of the Board of the Southwest Virginia 4-H Educational Center outside Abingdon.
He also serves as an ambassador for the Gelbvieh cattle, showcasing the breed at a number of county fairs with his grandsons.
Beyond serving the general public, Atkins also serves the cattlemen’s community. He sold a purebred Gelbvieh bull at this fall’s Echo Ridge Angus sale for $2,100.