Michele Brown grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and joined 4-H when she was eight. She enjoyed showing horses at the county level, but when the steel mills closed, her father lost his job. Although her family sold their horses, Michele remained in 4-H and participated in other projects.
“By the time I graduated high school, most of the families in my county who had livestock had aged out – there were very few livestock projects,” said Michele, adding that she always had an interest in animal agriculture. “They all lived on the outskirts of the county, and most of them were involved with other counties that had larger livestock programs.”
After high school, Michele served as an intern for the Allegheny County 4-H program. “We held a day camp for the inner-city YMCA kids,” she said. “We brought in horses and small livestock. It was fun to learn about the different animals, and to see how excited the kids were to get their hands on animals and learn about them.”
Michele said the internship prompted her to pursue a career as a 4-H Extension educator. “When I arrived at Penn State, I didn’t know the difference between a dairy cow and a beef cow,” she recalled. “I was so far out of my element.” Fortunately, Michele’s long-time involvement in state 4-H events and familiarity with Penn State faculty and staff in the College of Agriculture helped ease the transition.
As Michele began to further define her career goals, she switched from ag education to ag science. “It gave me more flexibility,” she said. “In my last semester, I took the livestock judging course and stayed an extra semester on the livestock judging team. It was something I had always wanted to learn, and something I would teach others if I would become a 4-H educator.”
After graduation, Michele started her career in ag education and worked in a research lab. She married Josh, a Penn State “hog barn boy,” and they settled in Berks County on Josh’s family’s farm, where they continued operating the beef and crop operation. The couple employed what they had learned at Penn State about genetics and selection, and how to use EPDs to select bulls for improved carcass quality and reproductive traits.
The couple’s oldest daughter, Sierra, took an interest in the beef herd, which now includes 75 head of commercial cattle along with several purebreds that were former 4-H projects. “Sierra has a strong interest in reproduction and managed the beef herd for several years,” said Michele. “Her interest took her to Kansas State to pursue an undergrad degree in pre-vet, and now she’s a second-year student in vet school at Midwestern University in Arizona.”
The Browns’ herd is heavily Angus influenced, including some black baldies Sierra uses as recipients for her ET program. “We have two bulls to breed the main herd,” said Michele. “Some of the former show cows are bred AI by Josh and Sierra.” Calving time for the herd is early March through mid-May.
Josh and Michele strive for a variety of traits when selecting bulls and replacements. “Calving ease for replacement heifers is of utmost importance,” said Michele. “We’re looking for performance, improved carcass traits, weaning weights, growth performance and ribeye area.” They retain about 10% of females as herd replacements and sell the majority of remaining calves privately for custom feeding.
The herd is pastured from mid-April until the end of the growing season. “Last year we used sorghum as a cover crop,” said Michele, adding that the cattle grazed the sorghum. “We also plant some winter wheat for grazing. We’re always looking for ways to extend the grazing season so there’s less labor for us, especially as our kids get older and pursue other interests.”
Off-season feed includes silage and hay, primarily alfalfa or an alfalfa-orchardgrass mix. The Browns also grow corn, soybeans, milo and wheat. About 130 acres is devoted to pasture, which enables the Browns to keep two separate breeding groups. In 2018, they worked with NRCS to construct a new facility that houses cattle more efficiently. A loafing area allows cattle to shelter in winter with access to year-round pasture.
Michele serves on the board of the Stockmen’s Club, Penn State’s Animal Science alumni group, which provides graduates with an opportunity to maintain industry connections. She has also been tapped for positions in both local and state cattlemen’s associations. “It’s been eye-opening to sit in on the meetings and learn about legislation and what goes into creating legislation to benefit producers and take a stand against legislation that isn’t beneficial,” she said. “Quality assurance helps producers learn how to safely vaccinate and understand the different steps to ensure a quality product for consumers.”
Michele encouraged producers of all commodities to become involved in associations that promote what they’re producing.
“One of the exciting aspects of agriculture is that it’s fluid and ever-changing,” said Michele. “There are still preconceived, stereotypical notions of farming like riding around on a rusty old tractor, doing the same things that have been done for generations. Those who aren’t familiar with agricultural practices are not aware of all the technological advancements in ag and all the different ways to do things. We’re constantly striving to improve from one calf crop to the next to produce results more efficiently and minimize inputs.” She said attending educational events such as producer meetings and field days throughout the year help them continually improve and to regain, retain and achieve consumer trust.
Michele explained an effort that has proven to be worthwhile for young stockmen. “Two years ago, we started an agvocate contest for junior livestock exhibitors held in conjunction with local fairs,” she said. “The exhibitors are with their animals at their pens. For the first part of the contest, the judge interacts with the exhibitor as if the judge is a regular fair goer – the exhibitor explains their animal, how it’s raised, plans for the animal after showing – and the judge asks questions based on that discussion. Then the judge switches roles, becomes an industry expert and asks relevant questions.” Michele said this exercise helps gauge exhibitors’ knowledge about the species they’re presenting and how to handle questions. Judges provide pointers on answering questions from the public and relate the importance of appropriately discussing how animals are raised.
“With 98% of the population having little or no direct connection to production agriculture, it’s a big job to try to give perspective,” said Michele. “My situation is unique – I have perspective from both sides of the fence, so when we’re at the fair, some kids who grew up with it aren’t familiar with the questions and reactions of people who simply don’t have the facts.”
by Sally Colby