RITTMAN, Ohio – For Rod Ferguson, there’s nothing more peaceful than watching cows.
An easy calmness settles in as he sees his herd of Angus brood cows pace themselves across grassy pastures, swat flies, protect their calves.
And there’s an extra shot of peace and pride when those cows stand side by side, showing off their freeze brands.
There are three separate brands on Chippewa Valley Angus Farm: one for the Ferguson’s Chippewa Valley herd; one for Lyons Ranch, the Kansas ranch operated by his sister, Jan; and one for Blythe Angus, another ranch operated by Rod’s niece.
The three brands represent a commitment to family and the Angus breed that traces back 50 years.
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Rod Ferguson remembers the banker looking very much like he pictured Abe Lincoln, towering and chiseled and commanding.
He was only 12 or 13 the day he went with his dad, Harold, to the Firestone Bank for a loan. The elder Ferguson was convinced he needed to switch to purebred cattle on his Columbiana County farm, and a loan would back his purchasing trip. A gentlemen’s handshake sealed the deal.
Rod also went along to Dover the day his dad bought six heifers and a bull at the eastern Ohio show and sale.
For the Fergusons, the Angus breed was the perfect mix of carcass traits, genetics and calving ease.
That purchase yielded seven county fair champions in seven years and started what would grow into a lingering family tradition.
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Rod Ferguson stepped away from the cows for a time.
After his high school graduation, he earned a veterinary degree at Ohio State and then went on to Texas A&M for an internship.
He came back to Ohio and worked in a private veterinary practice, specializing in dogs and cats. He went back to school for most of the 1970s, earning a master’s and Ph.D. and doing his veterinary surgical residency at Colorado State, then heading up the surgical division at Kansas State.
The red tape got to him though, and just over 20 years ago, he came home to the Buckeye State and set up his own specialty surgery practice in Akron.
He bought a farm just outside of Rittman in Wayne County, then went to his father and his sister, Jan, to start his herd. Harold Ferguson parted with six head, Jan Lyons sold nine, and the Chippewa Valley herd was off and running.
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Rod Ferguson calls his 130-cow Angus herd a secondary business to his veterinary practice. After all, he spends four long and grueling days in the Akron veterinary hospital he built, and only three days on the farm.
A full-time herdsman, Scott Lehman, and a full-time assistant herdsman, Matt Brown, get all the credit for keeping the farm going.
Both young men have beef and sheep production degrees from Ohio State’s Agricultural Technical Institute in nearby Wooster and, according to Ferguson, they really know their stuff.
“Without the responsibility, dedication and hard work of these guys, nothing would get done,” Ferguson admits.
This summer, the Fergusons also have an ATI intern, Brian Norris, helping out.
Rod lauds his wife, Laurie, a retired banker, for her help in maintaining all the farm’s finances and records, including the registration papers for the herd.
The Chippewa Valley herd ranks in the top 10 in Ohio as far as registrations go with the American Angus Association, which is nothing to ignore in a state where most herds have gone the commercial route and bypassed the importance of keeping purebred herds going.
“There are very few purebred beef breeders left in Ohio. That’s just the reality of it.”
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Chippewa Valley Angus Farm encompasses three different farms within a handful of miles from the main farm near Rittman.
One piece has hay ground that winds up as pastures; another has paddocks where the cows can go for veterinary work and observation, and to calve. The third, the home farm, is where several young bulls are kept while they’re developed.
The entire herd is dispersed in the summer to various pastures for intensive grazing, and with good management, the grass lasts until early December. Keeping pastures in tip-top shape, and managing the herd across the land, is key to the Fergusons.
Fifteen years ago, there were half the number of houses in their neighborhood. Farms keep disappearing; more houses keep appearing.
“You can feel the city pushing,” Laurie said.
And so the Fergusons plan their 250-acre operation around their limits. Rod said he doesn’t think he’s got land available to carry many more animals – “land around here is usually passed in families” – and he’s fine with it.
“You’ve got to be around population areas to keep the veterinary business going.”
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Quality, not quantity, keeps the Chippewa Valley herd moving ahead.
Over the years, only a “very precious few” cattle have been brought into the herd that didn’t come from a Ferguson farm, a source of pride for the entire family, Rod said.
The Fergusons pay special attention to breeding cattle that are attractive and grow well, with special emphasis on expected progeny differences (EPDs) to get the best package from every cow.
The farm uses artificial insemination from three or four major sires, so they can keep a certain level of consistency in the herd. After the females are artificially bred, four natural service sires are turned out to catch any open cows.
The Fergusons also host spring and fall sales on their farm every year to share their quality cattle with veteran breeders as well as those just getting into the business.
“We’re really proud to have created a quality herd from family genetics. That feels good.
“It’s a real part of our family identity,” Ferguson said.
An identity shown by those freeze brands on every animal in the herd.
(Reporter Andrea Zippay welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)