When Dennis Pearson was 9, he purchased a steer to raise as a 4-H project. That’s when his dream began.
“I was engrossed in it,” said Pearson, sharing how he became interested in raising beef cattle. “I showed heifers and was on the livestock judging team. I studied animal science at Virginia Tech and was on the livestock judging team there.”
After college, he returned to Warrenton, VA, and worked for USDA, continuing to raise the small herd of cattle he had started in 4-H. When Pearson got married and wanted to build a house, he sold his 10 cows.
Although Pearson was without cows for about five years, Soldiers’ Hill Angus is now home to 180 head of cattle, and that number will rise to about 200 in February when spring calving begins. He started the herd with all Angus cattle but saw room for improvement using another breed. “A few years ago, we branched into SimAngus™,” he said. “Now, about 20% of our herd is SimAngus.”
Pearson is a devoted fan of Angus, but he chose Simmental genetics to improve some of the essential traits he noticed were missing in Angus. “Any time two gene pools are combined, there’s the benefit of heterosis,” he said. “Angus meat quality is outstanding and calving ease was chased hard, but that led to feet problems. Now the Angus breed has come out with EPDs that track claw angle and foot quality.”
The Soldiers’ Hill cowherd has two calving seasons, with most bred for fall calving. The fall calving group is synchronized in late November in preparation for AI the first week in December. “If they don’t conceive on the first breeding, I breed them AI a second time,” said Pearson. “By the time we breed twice, we’ve bred 75% of the herd AI. Then we use a high-quality herd sire for clean-up.”
For AI breeding, Pearson uses four Angus sires and two SimAngus sires. “We pay particular attention to calving ease and growth,” he said. “I prefer cattle with muscle, great udders and good feet. We also look at marbling and ribeye area.” He’s found that SimAngus genetics contribute longevity, fertility and milk production.
Spring-calving cows are synchronized April 25; calving begins the third week in January and continues through late March. “In spring, because hay season is coming, we breed one time AI and then the bull is turned out,” said Pearson. “In fall we have more time to concentrate on the cow herd.”
Several superior cows are flushed for embryo transfer each year, with about 10 to 12 embryos placed in recipient cows. Pearson favors Gelbvieh x Angus cows as recips due to good milk production.
Each year, Pearson sells about 25 young bulls through various sales, primarily the Virginia BCIA bull sales in Culpeper and Wytheville, and at the Virginia Beef Expo in April. He also consigns registered females to various sales. Remaining bull calves are castrated and raised for freezer beef.
Pearson has seen improvements in cattle through genomics, but believes phenotype is still important. “I think too much emphasis is put on numbers,” he said. “What I’ve seen over time is less emphasis on phenotype and more emphasis on numbers (EPDs). EPDs should be used as a tool, but I like to look at the animal and make sure it fits the part. A lot of cattle are sold just on numbers.”
Pearson said some heavily advertised beef sires have great numbers for traits such as marbling and growth but lack depth and muscling.
He farms 510 acres – 110 owned and the rest leased. About 210 acres are devoted to hay, primarily orchardgrass, and the rest is pasture. Pearson makes hay in both round and square bales for his own use and to sell high-quality hay to horse owners.
Cattle are pastured on leased ground during summer and spend winter on the home farm. A combination of factors, including limited winter acreage for cattle and concern for water quality, led to an improved winter feeding system. Pearson’s goal in designing a hay feeding pad was to create a clean area for winter hay feeding with the ability to divert moisture to reduce mud.
“Winter pasture is limited to 70 acres,” said Pearson. “We’re on the banks of Great Run, which flows into the Rappahannock River within a mile, and we’re 100 miles upstream from the Chesapeake Bay. We wanted to do our part to improve water quality. The hay pad reduces the need to reseed pastures in spring, reduces wear and tear on equipment, it’s safer for the cattle and healthier for calves.”
Prior to constructing the hay pad, Pearson fed hay from two feeder wagons that each held four round bales. “The property takes a lot of abuse in winter,” he said. “We had to drive tractors through 18 inches of mud and manure and the cattle had to walk through it to get to the hay. We fed in one area and it became a mucky, manure mess.”
The concrete pad was constructed slightly higher up the hill but close to the same area Pearson had been using for winter feeding. The center aisle is raised seven inches and drains into a wooded area instead of back onto the pasture. Pearson can easily fill the center with 10 round bales without the tractor coming into contact with cattle. Cattle can access the area via gates, which can also be used to create a confinement area.
“We made the concrete thick so it will hold up under tractors and skid loader,” said Pearson. “It’s five inches thick in the alleyway where the hay is, and six inches thick where the cattle stand and there will be scraping.”
Pearson can easily scrape manure from the cattle area into a nearby manure storage area and can also push any moldy hay from the center feeding area into manure storage.
In spring, when pastures start to grow, cattle are moved back to leased fields and stored manure is spread when soil conditions are suitable.
“This is something I dreamed about as a nine-year-old kid,” said Pearson, “and now I’m doing it today.”
Visit Soldiers’ Hill Angus Farm online at soldiershillangusfarm.com.
by Sally Colby